Workplace discrimination refers to differential treatment on the job based on characteristics of one’s background that are irrelevant to the job (i.e., gender, race, age, appearance). New research published in Social Science Research found that mothers, but not fathers, who subscribe to ideologies that disadvantage themselves are less likely to perceive and react to workplace parenthood discrimination.
“Much existing research on discrimination approaches the problem either as an event at the market interface (e.g., hiring discrimination), or as a persistent, ambient feature of marginalized communities’ experiences,” wrote study authors Nicholas Heiserman and Brent Simpson. “But to its targets, workplace discrimination is not always a black box hidden from view, nor is it always a diffuse atmosphere of hostility or incivility. Rather, it often involves concrete events in which targeted people are allocated fewer rewards and resources or excluded from valued opportunities by specific, known decision-makers.”
Parenthood discrimination, a form of workplace discrimination, is the focus of this research as mothers and fathers receive differential treatment in the workplace after becoming parents. For instance, mothers can suffer a “penalty” in the workplace in the forms of hiring biases, lower income, and slower career advancement. Fathers, on the other hand, typically see an improvement of workplace standing and career outcomes as men are seen as being more committed to work after becoming fathers.
Employers justify parenthood discrimination by citing traditional beliefs about gender roles in the workplace and home (i.e., “separate spheres gender ideology”) or beliefs about the “ideal worker.” The former ideology involves a distinct choice or tension between work or family life, while the latter ideology assumes that an ideal worker is fully devoted to work.
To explore how ideology might affect parenthood workplace discrimination, the researchers recruited 747 parents to participate in an online study via Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Each participant was “assigned” a low status role in a work group and were given either a generally acceptable logistic rationale for the decision (control condition) or a rationale based on stereotypes about parenting and work ethic (bias condition). Each participant then gave their attitudes about this decision, and what factors they believed were relevant in the decision. Participants also completed some logic questions to test performance and then completed measures assessing attitudes about the task.
Results showed that only about 1/3 of participants reported the bias condition rationale to be parenthood discrimination, which was still more than the control condition. These findings show that even in the face of clear and biased rationale for hiring decisions, most parents did not label this treatment as parenthood discrimination.
Further, conservative mothers were less likely to identify discrimination in the bias condition compared to liberal mothers. Mothers in the bias condition who strongly endorsed “separate spheres” ideology and/or “ideal worker” ideology were less likely to label the bias treatment as discrimination compared to mothers who did not endorse these ideologies strongly. In contrast, for fathers, endorsement of neither ideology was related to the likelihood of labeling the biased treatment as discrimination.
Results also showed that mothers who believed they were being discriminated against performed better on the logic questions compared to those who did not. In contrast, mothers who labeled their treatment as discrimination saw the task to be less interesting, fun, and enjoyable compared to those who did not identify discrimination. These effects were specific to mothers as fathers were similarly interested in the task regardless of labeling discrimination.
“Employers often cloak discrimination in ideologically-tinged rhetoric aimed at legitimating their aims and decisions, and our results show that this rhetoric is more likely to succeed when the ideologies of more vulnerable workers (i.e. mothers) align with it,” concluded the researchers. “Given the power of organizational decisionmakers to define ‘conventional thought’ in the organization, this may indicate a process in which decision-makers use their power to promote ideologies that they can use to discriminate against workers.”
The study, “Ideology shapes how workers perceive and react to workplace discrimination: An experimental study on parenthood discrimination“, was authored by Nicholas Heiserman and Brent Simpson.