Evidence of a Mommy Track Bump: Returnees are seen as more motivated

by cv harquail on October 21, 2009

This just in from the The Journal of ‘I’m Not Sure I Can Believe It’ Well actually, from the The Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies:

Research published in the August 2009 issue suggests that coming back to full-time work after a few years on the Mommy Track can make you look “unusually” motivated and committed to your career.

Is this a “Mommy Track Bump“?

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Some details:

In an lab study, participants were asked to assess a female employee’s file and evaluate whether she was suitable for promotion.

One group of participants got the personnel file of an employee had just come back to a full time schedule after 3 years at a reduced workload (80% time) to care for a child. A second group of participants got the very same personnel file, except that this female employee had worked full time the entire time, with no mention of whether or not she had children. Both profiles had the employee working a full-time schedule for the past 6 months and had been with the company 5 1/2 years.

Since the profiles were otherwise the same, what the researchers were testing was how a mother who took a reduced work schedule to care for children and then came back to full time compared to a woman (presumably without children, but you don’t know) who always worked full time.

Here’s what the researchers found:

“A woman who was previously on an AWA (alternative work arrangement) but who had returned to a regular schedule was actually perceived as having greater advancement motivation and advancement capability than a woman who had never been on an alternative work schedule. She was also somewhat more likely to be recommended for a promotion than a woman who had never been on an alternative work schedule. (p. 79)”

This result was not what the authors Margaret Padgett, Lynn Harland and Stephen Moser expected.

Could it be that coming back from the mommy track can actually make you look more committed to your career?

The authors believe so.  Offering employees a variety of “Alternative Work Arrangements” has been shown to benefit organizations (with increased employee commitments and increased attractiveness to job applicants). However, it’s been unclear how much these Alternative Work Arrangements have helped the employees themselves. These arrangements have helped to reduce work-family conflict and stress, and burnout, and yet employees are often reluctant to use them.

Employees fear – often rightly- that their careers will be derailed, or that they will be seen as less committed to their careers, if they use an alternative work arrangement. This concern is even more pronounced when the alternative arrangement is made to facilitate child care. (Note, Mothers are also discriminated against with fewer job offers and job offers with salaries lower than those offered to non-mothers and to men.)

The authors’ conclusion

As the authors explain, previous research has suggested that individuals who take alternative work arrangements “run the risk of being perceived as poor organizational citizens who are uncommitted to their jobs and therefore unworthy of promotion. (p 76).”  They believe that their data show, not that there are no negative perceptions when mothers reduce their work schedules, but that the negative effects of adopting that AWA may not be permanent. Rather, a period of time back at 100% may reverse these negative effects.

What’s going on for evaluators that makes their perception of these mommy track returnees more positive?

The authors propose that:

  1. Evaluators see a mother who returns to full-time after reduced time as being “unusually committed to her career”.
  2. Evaluators see a mother who chose to remain in the workforce even at 80%, rather than dropping out altogether, must possess an unusually high commitment to her job.
  3. Evaluators see view a mother who returns to full-time as being “very capable anyway” if she could handle full-time work (again) as well as childcare/parenting.

An alternative interpretation

It is disappointing that evaluators may be viewing this returning-to-full-time mother as someone “unusual”. That perception does not reflect reality.

While it is true that some women do not return to full time work after becoming mothers, and that some mothers drop out of the paid work force altogether, what is “usual” is for mothers to stay in or to go back into the workforce.

Which makes me wonder– if the evaluators had an accurate perception of what workers who become mothers actually do, would there still be a mommy track bump?

What’s your interpretation?

What do you think of this finding (putting aside any caveats about their research methods)? Do you think that there really might be a Mommy Track Bump? If there is, what does that say about our perceptions of women who work and have children?

Margaret Padgett, Lynn Harland, & Steven B. Moser (2009). The Bad News and the Good News: The Long-Term Consequences of Having Used an Alternative Work Schedule, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 73-84.

Photo: “Kim, due in November” by dkjd on Flickr

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