Do Hiring Managers Discriminate against Stay-at-Home Fathers?

Tuck professor Julia Melin charts evolving perceptions of men who return to work after taking time off to raise their kids.

It is well documented that women suffer disadvantages in the labor market due to motherhood and gender stereotypes. The “motherhood penalty,” for example, causes mothers to be perceived as having lower competence and commitment, which in turn leads to lower likelihood of hiring and promotion, and lower recommended salaries, as compared to non-mothers and men. 

A new professor in Tuck’s Organizational Behavior group, Julia Melin teaches Managing Organizations as well as Equity Analytics in Organizations in the MBA program. Her research focuses on gender and workplace inequality, career transitions, economic sociology, organizational design, and more.

As an academic who studies gender in the workplace and workplace inequality, Tuck assistant professor Julia Melin suspected the motherhood penalty is more nuanced than it appears. Counterintuitively, she wondered if gender stereotypes against men perpetuate the motherhood penalty.

The logic goes like this: Traditional gender norms hold that fathers should be the breadwinners while mothers stay home and take care of the children. These norms may dissuade fathers from taking parental leave, because they feel they will be penalized when trying to return to the workforce. Conforming to traditional gender norms thus puts the onus of child rearing on women, preventing their speedier return to the workforce. 

To exit this vicious cycle, men need to be confident they won’t be subject to discrimination after taking time off to raise their kids. 

In a series of research papers, Melin charts society’s location on this journey. Melin ran online survey experiments where hiring managers were asked to evaluate a candidate who had previously left the workforce for full-time childcare. The respondents were asked to make hiring and salary recommendations for either a stay-at-home mother or father who had or had not used a “returnship”—a 16-week program designed to ramp up the skills of people who had been out of the workforce for several years. 

“What I wanted to know,” Melin says, “is how do hiring managers perceive men and women who have used these types of programs, and are they going to be beneficial or not?”

In the conversation below, Melin, who joined Tuck in July, explains how she came to this research and what it tells us about this moment in time, after COVID has shifted age-old habits and expectations around work. 

What motivated you to study discrimination against men in the workplace?
After college, I began working for Goldman Sachs. They had recently started what they called a returnship program. Return-to-work internships had existed, but Goldman was the first company to coin the term “returnship,” and actually trademarked it. As someone who had always had an interest in gender and workplace dynamics, it was obvious that a lot of the people taking advantage of returnships were women, but I also noticed when looking at pictures of prior cohorts that there were some men using them. Then when I started my graduate school training in economic sociology and considered the topics I wanted to study, I began thinking from a sociological perspective: what do these types of programs offer people from a perceptions standpoint, and how are workers evaluated by employers when their returnship doesn’t convert into full-time employment and they then try to obtain future employment elsewhere? In other words, what does a returnship signal?

What did you expect to find?
My hypothesis, based on what we know about gender stereotypes and what we call prescriptive (how men and women are supposed to act) and proscriptive (how they’re not supposed to act) norms, was that using these types of programs would be perceived differently for men than they were for women. Several colleagues I spoke with had predicted that women would be more likely to be penalized, because I think academics—and society, in general—tend to default to gender biases that affect women, and give less thought to the gender biases that affect men. What I found very meaningful about this project was being able to think critically about how gender stereotypes negatively affect men in ways that end up reinforcing a vicious cycle, which ultimately hurts women too.  

You conducted these experiments both before and during COVID. How did your findings differ?
In an earlier study, which was published recently in Social Psychology Quarterly, I found that fathers were overall penalized relative to mothers simply for having left paid work, regardless of their returnship status. I also found a within-gender effect among men, whereby men who used a returnship were less likely to be interviewed and offered lower compensation relative to men who did not use a returnship. In other words, men were being dinged not only for having taken time off work to become a caregiver, but also for having used a returnship to get back in. For mothers, on the other hand, no such penalties emerged.

When a coauthor and I replicated the experiment during the height of COVID—we recently submitted the paper for peer review—we were surprised to find that all the negative gender effects against men had disappeared. Men were no longer being penalized for using career reentry assistance, and they were not being penalized for having taken time out of the workforce altogether—even when their workforce exit pre-dated the pandemic by many years. That was shocking because we know these types of penalties against men and nontraditional parents are incredibly sticky and have been observed in prior research for quite a long time. Our paper discusses how there might now be an opportunity to take advantage of this normative change that occurred during the pandemic, and leverage that to move the needle on gender equality. 

[P]olicies alone won’t necessarily change individual behavior. We need visible normative change to encourage more men to feel like they can actually take advantage of those generous family policies. … We need more men leaders taking time off to take care of their children.
— Julia Melin, Assistant Professor of Business Administration

How do you explain this change in perceptions of male caregivers?
One of the things we discuss in the paper is the concept of social tipping points. When you have a critical mass of people violating a gendered norm, it makes that violation more normative. During the pandemic, there were a lot of news stories about the rise in stay-at-home dads. There was a 50 percent increase among men who were staying at home to become full time caregivers. For women, the increase was not nearly as dramatic. The absolute number of women staying home was much higher than that of men. But the visible surge in the percentage of men becoming stay-at-home fathers was unprecedented.

Have social tipping points had a positive effect on gender equality in other areas?

Absolutely, and sometimes it doesn’t even take that many people to foment real change. It can be a very concerted effort among a few vocal people in a group. Up until the 1970s, before a lot of universities started to allow women to learn beside men, there was a fierce resistance to the idea of co-education, because many people thought it went against traditional values. But as more universities started to accept women, co-education quickly became the norm. 

Another good example of social tipping was the legalization of same-sex marriage. Before it was legalized in 2012, the majority of Americans were opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage. Once it was legalized, that statistic flipped and within just four years the majority of Americans supported it. One could say this sudden social change was legislation driven, but it was also because same-sex marriage was now more visibly normative. People had friends and family who were getting married and were being invited to same-sex weddings. It became more front and center in people’s everyday lives.

How can companies seize this moment to promote greater gender equality?
Given the many benefits that organizations can reap from offering paid parental leave, such as increased worker retention and productivity, companies should be offering these types of generous policies to their employees, regardless of gender. But policies alone won’t necessarily change individual behavior. We need visible normative change to encourage more men to feel like they can actually take advantage of those generous family policies. We talk a lot about the advancement of women in organizations and how we need more role models—women in positions of leadership to show other women they can get there. The same applies to men. We need more men leaders taking time off to take care of their children. If that behavior can trickle down to middle management, then I think that’s where you’ll get real change.