Discrimination Against Working Mothers Is At The Root Of Gender Inequalities

discrimination against working women

An impossible standard is at the root of gender inequalities in the workplace, according to two new studies on inflexibility and discrimination against mothers.

Put simply: Working mothers are often expected to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.

The research papers, published separately (first, second) in Demography, demonstrate how inflexible schedules and biased hiring practices, combined with gendered cultural norms around breadwinning and caregiving, lead to discrimination against mothers and perpetuate existing gender inequalities in the workplace.

The research also forewarns why mothers may face increased workplace discrimination post-pandemic, according to Patrick Ishizuka, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The pandemic has further opened our eyes to the struggles that working parents face—particularly mothers,” Ishizuka says.

“Mothers have disproportionately shouldered the burden of caregiving during the pandemic. As a result, they also have been more likely to drop out of the labor force, reduce their work hours, or utilize family leave provisions made possible through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. And for parents who have been able to work remotely, their parental status has been more salient than ever before with kids showing up on Zoom or being heard in the background.

“My concern is that instead of creating policies to support families, employers will be more likely to discriminate against mothers because they will view them as less committed to their jobs,” he says.

Discrimination against working mothers

Previous research into employer discrimination against mothers in the hiring process has focused exclusively on college-educated women in professional and managerial occupations. Little was known about whether less educated mothers navigating the low-wage labor market experience similar disadvantages.

To study discrimination across the labor market, Ishizuka conducted a field experiment in which he submitted 2,210 fictitious applications to low-wage and professional/managerial jobs in six US cities. For each position, he submitted two similarly qualified applications. The only difference was that one application included signals of motherhood, such as Parent Teacher Association volunteer work, while the other application—also for a female candidate—listed volunteer work in an organization that was unrelated to parenthood.

Across occupations, callback rates were significantly lower for mothers than for childless women. In low-wage service jobs, 26.7% of the childless women received a callback compared to mothers’ 21.5%. Similarly, 22.6% of the childless female applicants received callbacks for professional and managerial positions, compared to 18.4% for mothers.

“The findings demonstrate that discrimination is not limited to women with college degrees in time-intensive professional occupations,” Ishizuka says. “Across labor market segments, mothers appear to be similarly disadvantaged at the hiring stage.”

And the estimates of discrimination against mothers are likely conservative because childless female applicants do not signal that they are not parents, Ishizuka says. Some employers are likely to assume that these applicants also have children.

Working mothers ready to work…whenever

According to Ishizuka, discrimination against mothers likely results from conflict between the perceived time commitments necessary to be a “good mother” and an ideal worker. Whereas many professional and managerial workers are expected to work all the time, low-wage service workers are increasingly expected to work at any time, he says.

“Inflexibility in work hours generates work-family conflict that ultimately pushes mothers out of the labor force.”

“Cultural norms that mothers will assume primary responsibility for children are in direct conflict with the norms that workers should be free of family obligations,” Ishizuka says. “Employers often question mothers’ commitment and ability to work long or variable hours and travel. Not surprisingly, fathers do not face the same questions.”

Ishizuka also found evidence that employers discriminate more strongly against mothers when certain demands are listed in job ads. In the study, mothers’ probability of receiving a callback were 5.7, 6.6, and 13.6 percentage points lower when time pressure, collaboration, and travel requirements, respectively, were listed in professional/managerial job ads.

“Along with time pressure, collaboration requirements limit flexibility over when and where work is performed, requiring workers to be around more workers and clients at specific times,” Ishizuka says.

“If employers assume that mothers will be less able to meet inflexible time demands, they may discriminate more strongly against mothers when jobs require collaboration. These types of job demands are especially common in professional and managerial occupations.”

In low-wage service jobs, employers appear to discriminate similarly against mothers regardless of whether nonstandard hours—such as nights or weekends—are required. However, when job ads indicated scheduling instability, mothers were 10.1 percentage points less likely to receive a callback than childless women.

Inflexible jobs for working mothers

In a separate paper, Ishizuka and coauthor Kelly Musick of Cornell University, studied how the structure and compensation of work hours shapes gender inequality in the labor market. Using individual data from recent, nationally representative panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, along with occupational characteristics data from the American Community Survey, Ishizuka and Musick examined the effect of occupational inflexibility on employment for new mothers, fathers, and childless women.

They found that women who worked in occupations with higher shares working 40-or-more hours per week and occupations that paid higher wage premiums for longer hours prior to a first birth were significantly less likely to be employed post-birth. They found no similar relationship between inflexible work hours and employment for fathers or childless women.

Mothers’ probability of working post-birth depended strongly on their pre-birth occupation. Among women in flexible occupations—defined as those that were 1 standard deviation below average in occupational work hour inflexibility—an estimated 79.2% of women continued working post-birth. In contrast, only 67.6% of women in inflexible occupations—those that were 1 standard deviation below average in occupational work hour inflexibility—continued working post-birth.

“[The] results illustrate how individual employment decisions are jointly constrained by the structure of the labor market and persistent gendered cultural norms about breadwinning and caregiving,” the authors write.

“Inflexibility in work hours generates work-family conflict that ultimately pushes mothers out of the labor force.”

Why part-time doesn’t work for working mothers

The findings are important because even short work interruptions can result in substantial long-term wage and career costs and make it difficult for mothers to find future employment. Policies and workplace structures that enable more mothers to maintain employment post-birth could move the needle on closing the gender-wage gap.

According to Ishizuka, part-time work is not a viable option in most careers because company-provided health insurance is contingent upon working full time and hourly rates are often cut substantially for part-time employees.

In contrast, many European countries have reduced their standard full-time workweek to a more family-friendly range below 40 hours. Additionally, employees in these countries have the right to reduce work hours without fear of losing their job or facing discrimination. Not coincidentally, women’s employment is higher in countries with policies that support flexible work time.

“Our research shows that gendered patterns of work in the home and labor market continue to be shaped by cultural norms that tie fatherhood primarily to full-time employment and motherhood to time-intensive, child-centered caregiving.”

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

About The Author

Sara Savat-WUSTL


 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

You May Also Like


full moon over Stonehenge
Horoscope Current Week: September 20 - 26, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
a swimmer in large expanse of water
Joy and Resilience: A Conscious Antidote to Stress
by Nancy Windheart
We know that we're in a great time of transition, of birthing a new way of being, living, and…
five closed doors, one pained yellow, the others white
Where Do We Go From Here?
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf.com
Life can be confusing. There are so many things going on, so many choices presented to us. Even a…
Inspiration or Motivation: Which Works Best?
Inspiration or Motivation: Which Comes First?
by Alan Cohen
People who are enthusiastic about a goal find ways to achieve it and they do not need to be goaded…
photo silhouette of mountain climber using a pick to secure himself
Allow The Fear, Transform It, Move Through It, and Understand It
by Lawrence Doochin
Fear feels crappy. There is no way around that. But most of us don't respond to our fear in a…
woman sitting at her desk looking worried
My Prescription for Anxiety and Worry
by Jude Bijou
We’re a society that likes to worry. Worrying is so prevalent, it almost feels socially acceptable.…
curving road in New Zealand
Don't Be So Hard On Yourself
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
Life consists of choices... some are "good" choices, and others not so good. However every choice…
man standing on a dock shining a flashlight into the sky
Blessing for Spiritual Seekers and for People Suffering from Depression
by Pierre Pradervand
There is such a need in the world today of the most tender and immense compassion and deeper, more…
Horoscope Current Week: January 14 to 20, 2019
Horoscope Week: January 14th - 20th, 2019
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
Real Security Is An Inside Job
Real Security Is An Inside Job: When Fear Knocks at Your Door
by Alan Cohen
We generally think of security as protecting our body and possessions from people who might violate…
A Positive Vision for 2021: Yes, So Many Good Things Are Happening
A Positive Vision for 2021: Yes, So Many Good Things Are Happening
by Pierre Pradervand
In a world immersed in urgency, with alarm bells ringing left and right and dire predictions for…


How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
by Jackie Cassell, Professor of Primary Care Epidemiology, Honorary Consultant in Public Health, Brighton and Sussex Medical School
The precarious economies of many traditional seaside towns have declined still further since the…
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
by Sonja Grace
As you experience being an earth angel, you will discover that the path of service is riddled with…
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
by Barbara Berger
One of the biggest things I've discovered working with clients everyday is how extremely difficult…
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
by Susan Campbell, Ph.D.
According to most of the singles I have met in my travels, the typical dating situation is fraught…
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
by Lucy Delap, University of Cambridge
The 1970s anti-sexist men’s movement had an infrastructure of magazines, conferences, men’s centres…
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
by Glen Park
Flamenco dancing is a delight to watch. A good flamenco dancer exudes an exuberant self-confidence…
Taking A Step Toward Peace by Changing Our Relationship With Thought
Stepping Toward Peace by Changing Our Relationship With Thought
by John Ptacek
We spend our lives immersed in a flood of thoughts, unaware that another dimension of consciousness…
image of the planet Jupiter on the skyline of a rocky ocean shore
Is Jupiter a Planet of Hope or a Planet of Discontent?
by Steven Forrest and Jeffrey Wolf Green
In the American dream as it's currently dished up, we try to do two things: make money and lose…

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration



New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.