Attached is a link to a research study published in 2007 in the American Journal of Sociology. The study looks at some already established data about the inequities women face in the workplace and seeks to nail down a why.
Previous data has already established that women are statistically paid less than men for the same work. When looking more closely at women, it’s been established that even though single mothers statistically earn more than mothers who are married, a traditional family’s household income is still more than three times higher than a single mother’s. This leads to some questioning about how motherhood is viewed in the workforce and if those views can be identified as a cause of unfair disadvantage.
Often the existence of other variables makes pointing to an exact cause of an outcome very difficult. This research did several tests to isolate the variable of motherhood, to scientifically determine if motherhood was a determining factor in how a woman is treated in the job market. It pointed to all the “maybe”s. Maybe mothers are better or less well suited for particular jobs. Maybe mothers’ performance is different or less consistent because of their divided focus. Maybe mothers are a legitimate threat of absences due to needs in the home. Even if none of these arguments are considered legitimate, as long as variables exist as to why they are being paid less or getting less opportunities, we are unable to point to a direct cause of their unequal treatment and unequal treatment does not necessarily mean unfair treatment.
The first task in the study was to isolate motherhood as the one test variable and control for the other potential variables. This was done with an entirely separate laboratory experiment using undergraduate students. The students were asked to participate in some hiring research for a marketing firm that was seeking to hire new talent, but who wanted the opinion of young people, since young people represented the target audience. This was done so that the students would take the role seriously. The chose marketing as the job position in order to control for the factor of job suitability. If they had chosen a construction job, which is male dominated, then job suitability could have been a factor. Marketing management is a position that is almost equally represented by men and women. It controlled for racial discrimination, by replacing the applicants’ names with ones that were less characterizing of race and then switching back and forth between the two selected names evenly and at appropriate times to make sure that any one name didn’t play into any one outcome. It made the resumes equally qualified and even pre-tested to get a survey of the qualifications of the resumes and determined that they were all equally qualified. The test was careful to operationalize for motherhood as the hypothesized variable, but it was only intended to determine if motherhood could be factored as a legitimate cause of perception and treatment in the workforce. It did. The students, even after saying that each resume was equally qualified, still gave their recommendations to significantly fewer applicants identified as mothers. It was undeniable.
By first isolating motherhood as a determined factor in hiring, they then simply ran an audit of hiring at a few marketing firms, being careful to use the same field again. Applicants were introduced into their pool and the same variables were controlled for, operationalizing motherhood as the only definable variable. The audit of the marketing firms’ callbacks were consistent with the findings of the laboratory experiment and therefore able to be attributed to the same causality for the same outcomes in actual hiring.
To me this was a very important study that allows us to advance the conversation in a way that is scientifically meaningful and is a great example of how social problems are complex, but how social science can help us get past the complexities, on to causes, and then hopefully to some solutions. Now, how do we begin to solve for x?