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Good news for single moms: You're less likely to encounter the motherhood wage penalty

University of Arizona research found that single mothers are not perceived as less competent or less committed as married mothers often are by employers. Getty Images

by Sonja Haller

It's refreshing when headlines connected to single moms are positive for once.

New research from the University of Arizona found that single mothers and single, childless women were considered to be equally quality hires by evaluators. Both were considered better prospects than married mothers with children.

The small study, presented this month at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Philadelphia, suggested that single mothers may not suffer from the motherhood penalty in the same way married moms do.

"Statistically, there were no significant differences between single women presented as mothers and single women without children," researcher Jurgita Abromaviciute told All the Moms. "Single mothers were perceived as competent and as committed as single childless women. They also did not incur any penalties in terms of recommendations for hire, starting salary and promotion."

What happens when only one parent is in the picture?

The motherhood penalty is based on 2007 research that showed that hypothetical married mothers and job applicants receive fewer callbacks for jobs and are perceived as less committed and less competent in their jobs than women who were not mothers.

The flip side of the "motherhood penalty" was the "fatherhood bonus," in which fathers are more likely to be hired than childless men and tend to be paid more than childless men or women after they have children. 

The Arizona study was conducted in 2014 and 2015 with 160 study participants who had to evaluate fictitious applications for a job. 

Abromaviciute, now a professor in sociology at Georgia Southern University, said she wanted to explore single parents because they are a growing group. In 2014, 26 percent of children were living with one parent, up from 22 percent in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. 

The news headlines about single-mom research are often bleak.

"While there has been considerable research conducted on the poverty of households led by single mothers, to my knowledge, no studies have examined how single parents are perceived and evaluated when they are presented as having identical skills and qualifications as married parents and non-parents," Abromaviciute said. "So I wanted to address this gap in research."

Research key findings:

  • When compared to single women who are not moms, single women with kids weren't seen as less competent or less committed

  • Single moms were not less likely to be hired or promoted compared to childless women or men.

  • Single mothers are not likely to get what's known at the fatherhood bonus, that is a bumps in pay for being the breadwinner.

Sorry, single dads, no 'fatherhood bonus' for you

Abromaviciute's research replicated earlier motherhood penalty and fatherhood premium or bonus research when it came to married moms and dads.

Regarding single dads, she found they didn't suffer a penalty from potential evaluators when it came to being hired, but they also couldn't anticipate enjoying any kind of fatherhood perks afforded to married dads. Think: raises.

A bigger sample needed for working-class jobs

Abromaviciute said she needs to broaden and deepen a second study for three reasons:

  • A larger study may confirm or change the results.

  • The next study may explain why evaluators view single mothers as more competent, committed and better hires than married mothers.  

  • The fictitious position was for upper management. She'd like to know how results might vary in a broader swath of the labor market.

"In real-world situations, single mothers often face structural challenges — lack of social support, lack of education, lack of valuable and relevant workplace experience, as well as limited time for hobbies and interests presented on resumes used in the study," she said. "So, these findings likely apply for middle-class applicants and employees. We don't know what happens in working-class jobs."

More about the study

The participants who reviewed the applications for the upper-management positions were all college students. They were randomly assigned to evaluate one of four sets of job application materials: women with children, men with children, women without children or men without children.

The application reviewers were asked questions about the applicant's competence and commitment, whether they would recommend that person for a promotion if hired, and a suggestion for starting salary.

All the job applicants were presented as driven, ambitious and accomplished.


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