When parents decide to leave the workforce to care for their children, they know they will sacrifice both income and career advancement during the time they are away. What they may not understand is how much harder it will be for them to return to work after spending time off the job due to the parenthood penalty.

Do stay-at-home moms and dads face a parenthood penalty? Let’s take a look:

The scope of that challenge shows in the results of a recent study by Kate Weisshaar, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

In her study, “From Opt Out to Blocked Out: The Challenges for Labor Market Re-entry after Family-Related Employment Lapses,” Weisshaar notes that most people face a gap in employment at some point in their careers, whether due to a job loss or a choice to leave work to care for family members. She wanted to see how employers viewed people who were out of work due to a layoff compared to those who left temporarily to do full-time parenting.

To test those perceptions in the labor market, Weisshaar conducted a large-scale audit study in which she sent 3,374 fictitious resumes to apply for professional and managerial job openings across 50 U.S. metropolitan areas.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, she says that the resumes were designed to represent three kinds of job applicants: “currently employed applicants with no employment gaps, unemployed applicants, and stay-at-home parent applicants.

“Male or female names made the applicants appear to be either men or women. The application materials implied that all fictitious applicants were parents and all applicants had the same level of experience, number of jobs, and skills. Those who had employment gaps had been out of the workforce for 18 months.”

She tracked which of these applicants received “callbacks” requesting an interview or more information. The results showed a clear penalty for parents who were returning to the workforce after a career gap. For women, 15.3% of employed mothers, 9.7% of unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of stay-at-home mothers received such a callback.

“The results were similar for fathers,” Weisshaar says in the HBR article. “While 14.6% of the employed fathers and 8.8% of unemployed fathers received a callback, only 5.4% of stay-at-home fathers did.”

To gather more data, she also surveyed 1,000 people to test their perceptions of parents in those three categories, according to the report on the study. These survey respondents were told they were helping an accounting firm to evaluate applicants for a mid-level position, and they would see applications for two of the finalists. They then saw one application from a supposedly continuously employed applicant, and one from someone who was either unemployed or had opted out. Gender was held constant, meaning the fictitious applicants were either both male or both female.

Respondents were asked to rate each applicant on several factors, including commitment, reliability, capability, and deservingness. The results showed that both unemployed and “opt out” applicants were seen as less capable than those who were employed, possibly because it was assumed that their skills were out-of-date. But looking further at the data showed something else.

“Respondents rated résumés on dimensions that align with ideal worker norm violation as well as unemployment scarring theories,” Weisshaar says in the study report. “The findings … establish that opting out signals a violation of ideal worker norms: opt out applicants are perceived as less committed to work, less reliable, and less deserving of a job than are unemployed applicants. I further find that opt out fathers experience an even greater penalty on ideal worker norm violation measures compared to opt out mothers.”

In the study report, she argues that this “fatherhood penalty” comes because fathers have higher expectations to uphold ideal worker norms than mothers do. So, when fathers violate those norms, they face greater punishment in the labor market.

Regardless of the employee’s gender, this desire by companies to employ only “ideal workers” who are dedicated to their jobs over all other parts of their lives is often a sticking point for people who are seeking additional flexibility.

“Inflexible workplaces and demanding work cultures that promote long hours and being always on can contribute to parents leaving work in the first place,” Weisshaar writes in HBR. “My study shows that these same norms are invoked when employers evaluate stay-at-home parents’ job applications.

“In other words, these norms produce a reinforcing cycle: They push some parents out of work and then keep stay-at-home parents from regaining work. Until we reevaluate the norms and expectations applied to employees, it is likely that parents who choose to stay home will continue to face limits to their careers.”

Are you surprised at the results of this study? Have you experienced this kind of parenthood penalty during your own career? What could companies do to make sure stay-at-home parents receive a fair shake when they are re-entering the labor market? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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