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momHer stomach churning from nerves, wishing she could take her words back, Elizabeth Kiester, Ph.D., thought she had blown it. Never mention you’re a mother during a job interview, she thought to herself. Yet, when asked about multi-tasking during her interview at Albright, the story of juggling motherhood while working on her dissertation is what came out.

“The minute it came out of my mouth I regretted it,” Kiester says. “Fortunately for me, though, it worked out.”

Now in her third year of teaching in the sociology department at Albright, the assistant professor knew she had stepped into tricky territory because of the research she conducted as a doctoral student at Utah State University. Her research was recently the topic of an Experience Event at Albright titled “Mothers on the Market: Employer Hiring Practices and Motherhood Penalties.”

In an interview situation and even in other professional situations, knowing when and what to say about parental status, if anything, is difficult, says Kiester. “I’m a mom, and I can’t stop being a mom,” she says. “It’s really disheartening and scary to talk about sometimes, though. You’re always thinking, ‘What if this is the person it will matter to?’”

Kiester’s research centers around the motherhood wage penalty (MWP), which posits that women who are mothers are paid 7 percent less than women who do not have children. As she explains, the MWP is more than the gender wage gap that social scientists have been investigating since the 1970s. Women with children face wage discrepancies that go above and beyond those associated with simply being female or being a parent in general, she says. In fact, the MWP may be the reason the gender wage gap between men and women persists.

Her project builds upon research by gender scholars and organizational theorists who have begun to look at how inequalities occur, rather than simply why they occur, by investigating two distinct gatekeeping stages—screening and interviewing. “My research questions advance the field by identifying the role of employer hiring practices in shaping mothers’ labor market access,” she says.

Screening – Kiester conducted her own job search to find out if parental status affected the likelihood of an applicant receiving a call back. She created two fictitious applicants, both female, and sent resumes to 480 companies in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Sacramento, California. These two vastly different locales were selected purposely, Kiester says, to allow for an analysis of variation in state context.

One applicant’s resume signaled motherhood, while the other’s did not. For example, Kiester listed “fundraising coordinator, Parent Teacher Association,” to convey parental status, while the non-mother’s resume listed “event coordinator, Homeowners Association.”

With an overall 19.5 percent response rate, Kiester says, a total of 187 applicants received callbacks from employers. Non-mothers received a higher number of call backs, suggesting that employers may screen out mothers at higher rates than non-mothers during the initial screening process.

Interviewing – In the second part of her study, Kiester looked at employer bias by conducting interviews with hiring managers. “I didn’t expect them to come out and say they discriminate, but some of them did,” she says.

Kiester conducted 27 interviews, which were designed to ask directly and indirectly about perceptions, attitudes and hiring practices regarding women and mothers. “Previous research suggests that interviews with employers may reveal the ways in which employers justify discriminatory practices in non-discriminatory terms or with reference to ‘rational’ firm behavior and incentives,” Kiester says.

In discussing expectations of the ideal employee, Kirk, a CEO with a small firm in California, said: “Historically we have found that good employees, they’re almost like gym rats. They’ll stay there all day. They come to work here to get away from everything else that’s going on out there. And this is the type of employee that you are looking for. Someone who stays with you and likes what you’re doing and doesn’t try to drag a bunch of baggage in here… You know, Johnny’s got the flu. My husband left me. And my car is not working. And it’s like, geez, just come to work.”

However, Billy, a human resources director with a media organization in Utah, had a much more relaxed view when it came to learning that a candidate was a mother: “When you are living in a culture like here in Utah where family life is highly valued, there’s a good chance that women, especially, have taken time off of work to stay home with their children, or maybe husbands have done the same thing. And so, to me, that doesn’t have a particularly high significance.”

Child and family studies major Jackeline Ferrufino-Sanchez ’18 attended Kiester’s presentation. What was particularly eyeopening for her, she says, was learning about the Daddy Bonus.

“She (Kiester) talked about the Motherhood Wage Penalty. For men though, it is the opposite. They receive the ‘Daddy Bonus.’ Men who are fathers are paid 6 percent more than men who are not fathers,” explains Ferrufino-Sanchez.

During interviews with hiring managers, Kiester says, this topic was addressed. Yoshi, the director of a business services organization, indicated that parental status in a male is desirable. “So, we try to find guys that are married, and we try to find guys that have kids, because for them, having those kids and having that wife is a motivator,” Yoshi told Kiester in their interview. “Now for somebody else, we’ve hired a couple of women in here where it wasn’t a motivator. It was more of a detractor.”

Family studies major Cristina Terraces ’18 says the research Kiester presented was concerning. “As someone who wants to be a mother, I should continue to look into this,” Terraces says. “This is a serious problem, especially for single mothers,” she points out. “I know a number of friends that were raised in a single-parent  home by their mother. Raising a child alone is hard enough. The fact that there is a wage gap penalty and women without children make more than women with children is unacceptable.”

Terraces’ concerns are viable, but Laura Kline ’99, assistant director of career development at Albright, says there are things women can do in the interview process to protect themselves from discrimination.

“Although employers cannot legally ask if a candidate is a parent or plans to have a family in the future, they sometimes skirt the issue by asking questions that would cause you to disclose,” Kline says. “I recommend remaining focused on your ability to do the job and why you are the best candidate.”

She adds, “Whether or not you choose to disclose that you have children, assure the interviewer that you are available and able to work the days and hours that have been outlined and that you are confident in your abilities to succeed. Always the goal is to get the conversation back to the job and why you are the perfect candidate for the position.”

For mothers who have been absent from the labor market for a period of time, employment is even more challenging, says Kiester. The employment gap inquiry is a ranking of acceptable reasons why a person may not have been in the labor market for any length of time. This system, says Kiester, “puts mothers and felons in the same category. Education and military service are acceptable reasons for being out of the labor market,” she says. “In fact, employers are more forgiving of those on unemployment than they are of mothers.”

Unfortunately, Kiester says, she learned that the interview process allows for a great deal of subjectivity: “These are all legitimate ways to screen mothers out of the employment process.”

Editor’s Note: The names of the respondents are pseudonyms used to maintain confidentiality.

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