Discrimination Against Mothers in Promotion Processes: Evidence from a Vignette Study

M. José González, Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Teresa Jurado-Guerrero, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED)
Irina Fernandez-Lozano, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED)

Macro-level data on labour market discrimination sometimes fail to disentangle the real explanations of gender inequality, i.e. differences in the professional capabilities, average performance and aspirations vs. pure discrimination against women. Experimental designs, such as vignette studies, can be a useful tool to control for those variables that, in the real world, are usually linked to endogeneity issues and selection biases (e.g. motherhood and adoption of work-life balance strategies such as reducing work hours).

To our knowledge, the present study represents the first attempt to assess the evidence of discrimination in promotion processes against mothers in the Spanish labour market using a vignette study. A vignette study is a particular type of survey-based experimental design, which tries to expose respondents (in our case, employers with supervisory responsibilities) to a particular reality-inspired treatment (candidates who are mothers), by rating fictitious situations (potential candidates for a promotion).

We hypothesize that mothers are subjected to “paternalistic stereotypes” which portray them as “warm” but “incompetent” and thus less interesting for a promotion. Other characteristics (such as skills or experience) being equal, it could be concluded that mothers in this case would be subject to discrimination. We also hypothesized that motherhood could be particularly costly when combined with the adoption of work-life balance measures (i.e. reducing work hours or teleworking).

To test these hypotheses, an e-mail survey was administered to managers /supervisors inside companies belonging to three industries in Spain (a male-dominated one, a female-dominated one and a mixed one). Preliminary findings seem to suggest that, even if there is not a generalized motherhood penalty as such, particular groups of employers (such as male recruiters or those working in female-dominated industries) might be particularly reluctant to promote mothers, in comparison to fathers or childless women.


Introduction

Gender inequalities have often been addressed by social and economic research, but some issues still remain relatively underexplored. First, motherhood has often been neglected as the underlying determinant of gender inequality (Boeckmann, Misra, & Budig, 2014). Second, macro-level data sometimes fail to disentangle the real explanations of inequality, i.e. differences in the professional capabilities, average performance and aspirations vs. pure discrimination against some groups of employees.

To our knowledge, the present study represents the first attempt to assess the evidence of discrimination in promotion processes against mothers in the Spanish labour market using a vignette study. A vignette study is a particular type of survey-based experimental design, which tries to expose respondents (in our case, employers with supervisory responsibilities) to a particular reality-inspired treatment (candidates who are mothers), by rating fictitious situations (potential candidates for a promotion). The added value of vignette studies is twofold. First, they try to tackle desirability issues by addressing attitudes indirectly, through the presentation of a fictitious situation that tries to hide the treatment. Second, thanks to an orthogonal design, they avoid the problems of endogeneity and selection effects which happen in the real life.

Theory and hypotheses

According to the Stereotype Content Model (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2004; Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2002) warmth and competence have been empirically proved as strongly gendered, negatively correlated dimensions. Previous research on discrimination carried out mainly in the US (Correll, Benard, & Paik, 2007; Merluzzi & Phillips, 2014) leads us to posit our main hypothesis: mothers are subjected to “paternalistic stereotypes” which portray them as warm but incompetent and thus less interesting for promotion. Motherhood will act as a negative signal as perceived by employers, who, other job-related characteristics being equal, will favour childless candidates in promotion processes. Apart from gender traits (parental status and gender), our fictitious candidates also differ in some work conditions that are often used by mothers seeking work-life balance (e.g. reducing work hours or tele-working) as well as in some of their managerial skills (experience in team work). From this theoretical background we have derived the following specific hypotheses:

H1. Motherhood penalty vs fatherhood premium: while women with children are less likely than similar men and childless women to be considered for a promotion into a supervisory position, working fathers as compared with childless men gain in perceived traits of warmth while increasing perceived competence and thus promotion opportunities. Moreover, mothers will be particularly penalized when adopting work-life balance measures, because they depart more from the ‘ideal worker’ norm.

H2. Recruiter-level characteristics enhancing discrimination: due in part to in-group favouritism, some respondent-level traits (such as a traditional gender ideology, childless status or working in a male dominated industry) will accentuate discrimination against mothers.

Methodology

An email survey was administered to employees in charge of supervising at least another employee inside companies belonging to three industries in Spain (a male-dominated one, a female-dominated one and a mixed one). Fictitious candidates were rated according to their perceived warmth and competence, and their likelihood to be promoted if they worked in the respondent’s company. A final questionnaire included relevant respondent-level characteristics. The final sample included 82 supervisors in companies from all Spain (which represents a sample of 492 rated fictitious candidates). Fieldwork was carried out during the second trimester of 2017.

Preliminary findings

Contrary to our expectations, our results seem to suggest that there is not a straightforward discrimination against mothers. However, when getting into the detail of respondents characteristics, a more nuanced picture appears, as mothers would be particularly penalized with respect to childless women or fathers when rated by men who work in a Human Resources department or in a female-dominated industry. Our results also suggest that having adopted work-life balance measures can be particularly costly when associated with both fatherhood and motherhood.

References

Boeckmann, I., Misra, J., & Budig, M. J. (2014). Cultural and Institutional Factors Shaping Mothers’ Employment and Working Hours in Postindustrial Countries. Social Forces, 93(4), 1301–1333. http://doi.org/10.1093/sf/sou119

Correll, S. J., Benard, S., & Paik, I. (2007). Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty? American Journal of Sociology, 112(5), 1297–1339. http://doi.org/10.1086/511799

Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2004). When Professionals Become Mothers, Warmth Doesn’t Cut the Ice. Journal of Social Issues, 60(4), 701–718.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Glick, P. (2002). A Model of (Often Mixed) Stereotype Content : Competence and Warmth Respectively Follow From Perceived Status and Competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878–902. http://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.82.6.878

Merluzzi, J., & Phillips, D. (2014). Leadership and the Single Woman Penalty: A Role Expectations Account of Early Career Barriers to Promotion for Female MBAs.

Presented in Session 1146: Economics, Human Capital, and Labour Markets