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Single parents are not subject to workplace biases, new study finds

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Workplace bias differs for single versus married parents, UA research finds.

Working mothers have often received the short end of the stick in the workplace, suffering from something often called the “motherhood pentalty.” Fathers, on the other hand, were seen to get a “fatherhood premium.”

These phenomena were the central focus of a new study conducted by Jurgita Abromaviciute, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona.

The penalty and premium have shown up in countless other studies. They describe the perceptions people make about a married woman with children versus a married father with children in the workplace.

The “motherhood penalty” is when a mother gets less pay and is placed into jobs with less opportunity for promotions. The “fatherhood premium,” on the other hand, is when fathers experience enhanced job opportunities and fellow workers see them in a better light. 

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However, Abromaviciute wanted to know what the perception would be for single mothers and fathers.

According to her research, she found evidence to support the “motherhood penalty” and the “fatherhood premium” theories, but she also found that both the penalty and the premium vanish when the mother or father is single. 

“These trends did not hold up among single job applicants,” Abromaviciute said in an email interview. “That is, I found that single mothers were not disadvantaged in comparison to single childless women and single fathers were not advantaged in comparison to single childless men.” 

According to UA News, people usually assume that the mother or father of an adolescent has a spouse.

Traditionally, mothers are seen as nurturers of children, while fathers are seen as the breadwinners of the family, according to the article.

In this study, the reputations of parents as both nurturers and breadwinners vanished in the workplace.

According to UA News, Abromavicute said that, when mothers are single, they have to take care of children as well as make money to support them. In such a situation, the “motherhood penalty” fades and the single mother is not seen as “less competent,” as the married mother supposedly is. 

For single fathers, the theory switches. Single fathers are assumed to be more focused on their family than their job, which means they are not seen as more competent in the workplace, according to the study.

To conduct the study, Abromaviciute recruited a total of 160 participants, who had to evaluate fictitious applications for a job.

The job application materials belonged to applicants whose experiences were similar and who were all applying for upper-management positions in fictitious communications company.

After going over the applications, the reviewers were asked to deeper evaluate the applicants with questions about various subjects, including the applicant’s marital status.

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Abromaviciute wants to continue this line of research.

“In the current study, single parents were presented as driven, ambitious and accomplished,” Abromaviciute said. “In real-world situations, single mothers (and perhaps single fathers) 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. So, these findings likely apply for middle-class applicants and employees. We don’t know what happens in working-class jobs. Therefore, in my future research, I would like to broaden the scope of my study, to include working-class single parents.”

The study was presented at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.


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