Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 60, No. 4, 2004, pp. 737--754
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace: How Gender
and Parental Status Influence Judgments
of Job-Related Competence
Ohio State University
University of Kansas
William Patterson University
City University of New York Graduate Center
We investigated the influence of gender and parental status on employment deci-
sions. The shifting standards model predicts that parenthood polarizes judgments
of women and men such that mothers are held to stricter employment standards
than fathers. Social role theory predicts that parenting role, rather than gender,
guides judgments of mothers and fathers. One hundred ninety-six undergradu-
ates at two universities evaluated a job applicant; the applicant was either male
or female and was either single or married with two children. Results showed
that parents were judged less agentic and less committed to employment than
non-parents. Parental status also interacted with gender, indicating that fathers
were held to more lenient standards than mothers and childless men. We discuss
theoretical and practical implications.
Considerable research on stereotyping shows that an individual’s gender af-
fects the judgments that are made about him or her. Consistent with stereotypes,
∗Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kathleen Fuegen, Department of
Psychology, 4240 Campus Drive, Ohio State University, Lima, OH 45804 [e-mail: email@example.com].
2004 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
738 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
women are often judged more communal (e.g., warm, caring) and less agentic
(e.g., assertive, achievement-oriented) than men (Bakan, 1966; Broverman, Vogel,
Broverman, Clarkson, & Rosenkrantz, 1972; Deaux, 1984; Eagly & Steffen, 1984;
Spence, Helmreich, & Stapp, 1975). In the workplace, the domain under inves-
tigation, women are judged less competent than men in traditionally masculine
domains (Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997; Boldry, Wood, & Kashy, 2001; Heilman,
2001). The present research examines how gender stereotypes interact with roles
women and men adopt—specifically, the parenting role—to affect perceptions of
job-related competence. In other words, are perceptions of mothers and fathers in
the workplace driven by gender stereotypes, parental status, or a confluence of the
two? Our approach to this question is framed in terms of the shifting standards
model of stereotyping.
According to the shifting standards model (Biernat & Manis, 1994; Biernat,
Manis, & Nelson, 1991), when we judge individual members of stereotyped groups
on stereotyped dimensions, we compare them to within-category judgment stan-
dards. That is, because of stereotypes that women are less task competent than
men, we are likely to judge the task competence of a particular woman relative to
(lower) standards of competence for women, and the task competence of a par-
ticular man relative to (higher) standards of competence for men. The result is
that evaluations of men and women may not be directly comparable: Good for a
woman does not mean the same thing as good for a man.
With regard to parenting, this model suggests that stereotypes about women’s
greater involvement in parental care than men (i.e., greater nurturing behavior)
lead observers to evaluate male and female parents relative to different standards.
That is, gender matters, as well as specific parental roles. Evidence supportive of
the shifting standards model was found by Kobrynowicz and Biernat (1997) who
examined how gender stereotypes led observers to translate subjective descriptions
into objective judgments. Participants decoded subjective descriptions of parent-
ing effectiveness (e.g., being a “very good” or “all right” parent) into objective
judgments (i.e., how many parenting behaviors does this individual perform?).
Though mothers and fathers were judged equally effective at parenting, mothers
were judged to perform more parenting behaviors than fathers. That is, the same
subjective trait rating translated into different objective judgments: a good mother
performed more childcare behaviors than a good father. Thus, gender stereotypes
served as standards for decoding subjective descriptions of parenting effectiveness.
More recently, Bridges, Etaugh, & Barnes-Farrell (2002) asked participants
to estimate the frequency with which stay-at-home and employed mothers and
fathers performed various childcare behaviors and to judge their effectiveness as
parents. Consistent with Kobrynowicz and Biernat (1997), stay-at-home mothers
and fathers were regarded as equally effective parents, though a stay-at-home
mother was judged to perform more physical and emotional caregiving than a
stay-at-home-father. Whereas an employed mother was judged to provide more
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace 739
physical care than an employed father, an employed father was regarded as a better
parent than an employed mother.
There is evidence, then, that gender stereotypes interact with parental role to
affect judgments of mothers and fathers. Mothers are expected to provide more
physical and emotional care than fathers. Perhaps because of this expectation,
mothers who violate gender roles by being employed full-time are perceived as
less nurturing and less professionally competent than full-time employed fathers
(Etaugh & Folger, 1998). Indeed, mothers who continue their employment after
the birth of a child are perceived as less communal than mothers who leave the
paid workforce after giving birth (Bridges & Etaugh, 1995).
Moving into a workplace setting, the shifting standards model predicts that
judgments of competence will be driven by both gender stereotypes and parental
role: mothers’ workplace competence will be judged according to a stricter stan-
dard than fathers’ workplace competence. In other words, one might expect a sta-
tistical interaction between gender and parental role on standards and inferences
about competence on the job. Data consistent with this hypothesis are reported
by Firth (1982). Firth mailed letters of application to several accounting firms
in which the applicant’s gender and parental status were manipulated. He found
that motherhood decreased the likelihood that a female applicant was contacted,
butfatherhood had no effect on a male applicant’s success. Based on earlier re-
search and predictions derived from the shifting standards model, we predicted
that mothers—because they are perceived as unreliable and less committed in the
workplace (Firth, 1982)—will be held to higher pre-employment standards than
fathers or non-parent applicants. If parental role polarizes gender effects, fathers
may be held to particularly low pre-employment standards.
An alternative prediction—one not positing an interaction between gender and
parental role—would be made by social role theory. Social role theory (Diekman
&Eagly, 2000; Eagly & Steffen, 1984, 1986; Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000)
proposes that gender stereotypes arise out of men’s and women’s distributions into
social roles. Women are regarded as more communal and less agentic than men
because women have traditionally been associated with the homemaker role. Men
are regarded as more agentic because they have traditionally been associated with
the provider role. Eagly and her colleagues assert that differential judgments of
agency and communality reflect social roles. Indeed, when women are depicted
as employees, they are assigned more agentic qualities than otherwise, and when
men are depicted as homemakers, they are assigned more communal qualities than
otherwise (Eagly & Steffen, 1984, 1986; Eagly et al., 2000). The implication of
these findings is that social role (in this case, parenthood) may be more potent than
gender in affecting judgments of mothers and fathers.
Of course, social role theory does assume that gender roles can affect judg-
ments. Gender roles may “spill over to workplace roles and cause people to have
different expectations for female and male occupants of the same workplace role”
740 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
(Eagly et al., 2000, p. 155; see also Gutek & Morasch, 1982). Research on the
behavior of men and women in leadership roles does document that men and
women may fill the same role in different ways (e.g., women may adopt a more
democratic leadership style; Eagly & Johnson, 1990). However, the bulk of the
research on social role theory that examines perceptions of women and men finds
main effects of other roles (e.g., occupation) that override the effects of gender
(Eagly & Steffen, 1984). With regard to judgments of mothers and fathers in the
workplace, social role theory would predict that parent role should override the
effects of gender. Mothers and fathers will be judged equivalently, resulting in a
statistical main effect of parental status.
In addition to exploring how perceptions of mothers in the workplace compare
with those of fathers and non-parent men and women, we are also interested in
how judgments of parent and non-parent targets correspond to judgments of the
ideal worker. In the United Statesthe ideal worker is one who enters the workforce
in young adulthood, works 40 or more hours per week, is always available to the
employer, works consistently for 40 or more years, and does not take time off
for raising children (Williams, 2001; Williams & Cooper, this issue). In short, the
ideal worker is the “unencumbered” worker (Crittenden, 2001). Such a description
is inconsistent with work patterns for many women, particularly women who have
children. Indeed, many of the traits deemed necessary for being a good mother
(e.g., nurturing, affectionate) are contrary to those needed to be successful in the
workplace (e.g., independence, competitiveness, dominance; Halpert, Wilson, &
Hickman, 1993; Schein, 2001). For these reasons, we anticipate that mothers will
be perceived as less competent than the ideal worker. To the extent that parenthood
does not encumber the employment patterns of fathers as it does mothers, we
anticipate that fathers will be perceived as similar to the ideal worker.
To summarize, the extant literature shows that employed mothers are often
judged more harshly than employed fathers: Employed fathers are regarded as
better parents and more professionally competent than employed mothers (Etaugh
&Folger, 1998), and mothers must do more than fathers to be labeled a good parent
(Bridges et al., 2002; Kobrynowicz & Biernat, 1997). Based on this research, we
hypothesize that the parental role will polarize judgments of mothers and fathers
in the workplace such that mothers will be held to a stricter standard than fathers.
However, if the parenting role is thought more important than gender on certain
dimensions related to job competence, a main effect of parental status should
emerge. Rather than viewing the shifting standards model and social role theory
as competing approaches, we view them as complementary. To test predictions
from these models, we present participants with a male or female job applicant
who is depicted as single or married with two young children. Participants judge
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace 741
the applicant’s job-related attributes (e.g., competence, commitment to the job,
expected availability on the job), they set standards for hiring the applicant (e.g.,
what level of performance would you require of this applicant before hiring?, what
degree of time commitment would you require before hiring?), and they indicate
whether they would hire the applicant. Again, a pattern showing that a female
applicant with children is judged more harshly than a male applicant with children
would support the shifting standards model. A pattern showing that applicants with
children are judged more harshly than applicants without children would support
social role theory. Regarding the ideal worker, if a female applicant but not a male
applicant with children is held to stricter standards than the ideal worker, this
finding would support the shifting standards model. Evidence that both parents
are judged equivalently relative to the ideal worker would support social role
theory. We present data collected from two samples. One sample is comprised of
undergraduates from a large Midwestern university; the other sample consists of
(slightly older) undergraduates from a mid-sized Eastern university.
The Midwestern sample was comprised of 58 females and 49 males (with
1 gender-unspecified individual). The vast majority of the sample (90%) self-
identified as White with the remainder identifying as Asian (3.8%), African-
American (2.8%), or Hispanic (2.8%). The mean age of participants was 19
(range =17–25). Each received course credit in exchange for participation. The
Eastern sample was comprised of 66 females and 21 males (with 1 gender-
unspecified individual). This sample was 8.0% African-American, 4.6% Asian,
13.9% Hispanic, 1.1% West Indian, and 72.4% Caucasian; the average age was
22 (range =18–45). The alphas reported below are derived from analyses with
Participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions
or a control condition. The experimental conditions crossed applicant gender with
parental status. Participants in the control condition made judgments about the
Participants in every experimental condition received a binder containing a
short introduction to the study, a description of the job for which the applicant was
applying, and the job applicant’s r´esum´e. Participants read that they would evaluate
an applicant seeking an entry-level position as an attorney. The position described
wasanactual job posting for an immigration law attorney whose responsibilities
742 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
involved conducting research for the U.S. Customs Service. All participants re-
viewed the same r´esum´e (that of a law student about to complete his or her degree
with some work experience in a legal setting), except that half received a r´esum´e
with a male name (Kenneth Anderson) and half received a r´esum´e with a female
name (Katherine Anderson). The names Kenneth and Katherine were chosen be-
cause they convey a nonspecific age (Kasof, 1993) and roughly equal intellectual
competence (Mehrabian, 1990; J. Kasof, personal communication, January 19,
2001). In addition, half of the r´esum´es identified the applicant as single and hav-
ing no children; the other half of the r´esum´es identified the applicant as married
and having two young children. The purpose of the control condition was to as-
sess whether judgments of mothers or fathers differ from judgments of the ideal
worker. Participants in the control condition (hereafter referred to as the “ideal
worker” condition) received an introduction to the study and the job description.
The introduction described their task as reading a job description and making
some judgments about what the ideal applicant for the position would look like.
All participants completed the dependent measures after reviewing the materials.
All were probed for suspicion about the true purpose of the study and debriefed
before being excused.
Attributes of the applicant. One set of dependent measures assessed partici-
pants’ impressions of the applicant’s competence, commitment to the job, avail-
ability on the job, agency, and warmth. Participants in the experimental conditions
judged how competent the applicant would be if offered the job. They judged
how the applicant would perform compared to all others in the position (i.e.,
applicant would perform better than X% of all others), the applicant’s rank rel-
ative to all other employees, the percentage of work responsibilities the appli-
cant would competently perform, and what letter grade the applicant would earn.
These four items were standardized and combined to form an impressions index
(∀=.72). Participants in the ideal worker condition indicated the level of per-
formance they would expect of “an employee” in this position. Participants in
all conditions also indicated how committed to the firm they expected the ap-
plicant (or the ideal worker) to be (i.e., more committed than X% of all other
Because mothers are assumed to take more time off than fathers to care for
children, we assessed participants’ expectations regarding the applicant’s likely
availability on the job. Participants in the experimental conditions indicated the
number of hours per week they expected the applicant would be able to work
(including time at the office and at home), the number of sick days per month they
expected the applicant would take (reverse scored), and the number of times per
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace 743
month they expected the applicant would arrive late or leave early (reverse scored).
These five items were standardized and combined to form a predicted availability
index (∀=.68). These items were not included in the ideal worker condition.
Trait judgments were included to assess perceptions of the applicant’s agency
and warmth. Participants indicated the extent to which each trait was true of the ap-
plicant on a 9-point scale (endpoints labeled “not at all true” and “very true”). The
traits aggressive, competitive, dominant, independent, intelligent, self-confident,
trustworthy, hard-working, irresponsible (R), and unreliable (R) were averaged
to form the agentic index (∀=.70). The traits helpful, warm, kind, understand-
ing, aware of others’ feelings, unlikeable (R), unfriendly (R), and narrow-minded
(R) were averaged to form the warmth index (∀=.77). Participants in the ideal
worker condition indicated the importance of each of the above traits for the ideal
Decisions regarding the applicant.Asecond set of dependent measures as-
sessed the standards participants set for hiring the applicant, whether they would
hire the applicant, and whether the applicant would make a good candidate for
promotion. Regarding standards, participants in the experimental conditions indi-
cated what level of performance they would require of the applicant in order to
hire him or her for the position. They indicated the percentile ranking the appli-
cant would need on a general standardized ability test, the percentile ranking the
applicant would need on three letters of recommendation, and estimated scores (in
% correct) the applicant would need on standardized tests of the following skills:
decision making, interpersonal relations, leadership, monitoring, motivation, oral
communication, problem solving, planning, and seeking/accepting advice. These
eleven items were submitted to a principle components analysis. Six items (ability
test score, monitoring, motivation, planning, seeking/accepting advice, and rec-
ommendation scores) were retained. These items were standardized and combined
to form the performance standards index (∀=.84).
To parallel the items measuring participants’ expectations regarding the ap-
plicant’s likely availability on the job, a similar set of items assessed participants’
standards regarding the time commitment they would require of the applicant
before hiring. Participants indicated the number of hours per week the applicant
would need to be available to work, as well as the maximum number of days per
month the applicant would be allowed to call in sick (reverse scored) and arrive
late or leave early (reverse scored) in order to be hired. Five items were stan-
dardized and combined to form the time commitment standards index (∀=.56).
Participants in the “ideal worker” condition indicated the standards they would
set for “a candidate.” Lastly, participants in the experimental conditions indicated
whether they would hire the applicant, and whether the individual would make a
good candidate for promotion.
744 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
The job of immigration law attorney was perceived as more masculine (M=
3.99) than feminine (M=3.40; using two 7-point scales; t(192) =6.50, p<.0001).
These ratings were not affected by sample, participant gender, or any manipulation
(all ps>.22). Also, the job of immigration law attorney was perceived as relatively
high in status overall (M=5.38, 7-point scale).
We first tested whether sample (Midwestern or Eastern) affected any depen-
dent measures. We conducted Applicant Gender X Parental Status X Participant
Gender between-subjects ANOVAs adding sample as a variable. Sample did not
interact with any independent variable on measures tapping attributes of the ap-
plicant or standards set for hiring. However, sample did affect perceptions of job
status, hiring, and promotion decisions. An analysis of job status revealed a Sam-
ple X Parental status interaction F(1, 148) =7.47, p<.01. Participants in the
Midwestern sample perceived the job as higher in status when the applicant was
a non-parent (M=5.62, SD =.88) than a parent (M=5.28, SD =1.18). In con-
trast, participants in the Eastern sample perceived the job as higher in status when
the applicant was a parent (M=5.62, SD =.92) than a non-parent (M=4.91,
SD =.97); To test whether these differences in perceived status affected any other
dependent measures, we covaried out the effect of status on all analyses. These
ANCOVAs did not alter any of the reported findings. Main effects of sample also
emerged on the hiring and promotion decisions: Participants in the Eastern sample
were more likely to hire and promote the applicant than participants in the Mid-
western sample. However, this tendency did not interact with applicant gender,
parental status, or participant gender. Because sample did not interact with any
of our manipulations on the main dependent measures, we elected to combine
samples in all subsequent analyses.
For the main part of the data analyses, we first ignored the ideal worker
condition to use a full factorial design, using Applicant Gender X Parental Status X
Participant Gender between-subjects ANOVAs. For those measures also assessed
in the ideal worker condition, we then computed one-way ANOVAs (with five
levels of the condition variable) followed by post-hoc tests comparing the ideal
mean to those of the other conditions. When indexes were based on standardized
variables, the ideal condition was included in the standardization process.
Attributes of the Applicant
Impressions. Analysis of the index tapping overall impressions of the ap-
plicant’s competence revealed no significant effects. There was no evidence that
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace 745
parents or mothers, in particular, were expected to perform worse on the job than
non-parents or the ideal worker.
Degree of commitment. Judgments of the applicant’s job commitment were
affected by the Parental Status main manipulation, F(1, 155) =4.13, p< .05.
Parents (M=72.99, SD =19.49) were perceived as less committed than non-
parents (M=79.04, SD =13.03). The only other effect was an Applicant Gender
XParticipant Gender interaction, F(1, 155) =5.15, p<.03. This pattern sug-
gested outgroup favoritism: Female participants rated the male applicant as more
committed than the female applicant; the opposite was true for male participants.
The one-way ANOVA that included the ideal worker condition (5 levels of
condition) was only marginally significant, F(4, 190) =2.28, p=.06. Both parent
Katherine (M=73.16, SD =17.57) and parent Kenneth (M=72.83, SD =21.29)
were perceived as less committed than the ideal worker (M=81.61, SD =13.44),
Predicted availability. Analysis of the index assessing participants’ judg-
ments regarding the applicant’s likely availability on the job (predictions regarding
number of hours worked per week, [in]frequency of leaving early and taking sick
days) revealed two main effects: Parents (M=−.24, SD =.62) were predicted
to be less available than non-parents (M=.23, SD =.63), F(1, 156) =22.40,
p<.0001, and female participants viewed candidates as less available (M=−.05,
SD =.70) than male participants (M=.10, SD =.61), F(1, 156) =6.01, p<.02.
There were no effects for applicant gender.
Agency and warmth.The index based on the agentic traits was affected only
by the Parental Status manipulation, F(1, 156) =5.53, p<.02. Parents (M=6.98,
SD =.95) were judged to be less agentic than non-parents (M=7.26, SD =.68)
and the ideal worker (M=7.57, SD =.71), ps<.01. Warmth ratings, however,
were unaffected by the manipulations and did not differ from the ideal.
Decisions Regarding the Applicant
Performance standards. The analysis of the six-item index assessing the per-
formance standards the applicant would need to meet to be hired revealed only an
Applicant Gender X Parental Status interaction, F(1, 156) =6.33, p<.02. As indi-
cated in the top panel of Table 1, when the applicant was a parent, standards were
higher for Katherine than for Kenneth, p<.01, but there was no gender difference
in standards for non-parents. Simple effects tests also indicated that Kenneth was
held to a significantly lower standard when he was a parent than when not a parent,
p<.01. In short, standards were particularly low for the male parent relative to both
the female parent and the male non-parent. The one-way ANOVA that included
the ideal worker condition was significant, F(4, 191) =3.04, p<.02. Post-hoc
746 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
Table 1. Performance and Time Commitment Standards for Hiring, Applicant Gender X Parental
Female Applicant Male Applicant
Performance standards for hiring
Non-parent −.06 (.65) .15 (.67)a
Parent .13 (.72)b−.32 (.93)ab
Time commitment standards for hiring
Non-parent −.02 (.57) .18 (.55)a
Parent .06 (.40) −.20 (.73)a
Note. Means reflect standardized values; higher numbers indicate the setting of a stricter standard.
Standard deviations are in parentheses. Means with matching superscripts differed significantly from
each other. Performance standards for ideal worker, M=.12 (SD =.65). Time commitment standards
for ideal worker, M=−.01 (SD =.69).
tests indicated that the only mean that differed significantly from the ideal worker
condition was the Kenneth/parent condition; standards for the father were lower
than the ideal (p<.02).
Time commitment standards. The index assessing the time commitment the
applicant would need to meet to be hired also produced an Applicant Gender
XParental Status interaction, F(1, 156) =6.66, p<.02 (see bottom panel of
Table 1). Consistent with findings for performance standards, there were no gender
differences in time commitment standards for non-parents. Again, Kenneth was
held to a significantly lower standard when he was a parent than when not a parent,
p<.01. No means differed from the ideal worker condition.
Hiring and promotion. Hiring and promotion decisions were tapped with
simple yes-no responses. These were recoded as no =0 and yes =1toreflect pro-
portions of affirmative decisions. These proportions were then arcsine-transformed
and submitted to the factorial ANOVA. For hiring, there was only a marginally
significant Parental Status X Applicant Gender interaction, F(1, 156) =3.09,
p<.09. Parenthood did not harm Kenneth’s chances of being hired (untransformed
Mparent =.88, Mnon-parent =.86), though it had a detrimental effect on Katherine’s
chances (Mparent =.98, Mnon-parent =.76). Analysis of the item assessing whether
the individual would make a good candidate for promotion revealed a significant
Parental Status X Applicant Gender interaction, F(1, 155) =4.04, p<.05 (see
Table 2). When the applicant was male, parental status made no difference in
Table 2. Promotion Rates, Applicant Gender X Parental Status Interaction
Female Applicant Male Applicant
Non-parent 97.67 (15.24)a87.80 (33.13)
Parent 78.95 (41.31)a87.80 (33.13)
Note. Range =0–100; higher numbers indicate greater likelihood of promotion. Standard deviations
are in parentheses. Means with matching superscripts differed significantly from each other.
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace 747
Table 3. Correlations Between Hiring and Other Variables, Separately for Each Type of Target
Female Non-Parent Female Parent Male Non-Parent Male Parent
Attributes of the applicant
Impressions .10 .74∗.14 .36∗
Predicted availability .07 .23 .19 .06
Commitment .13 .46∗.32∗.38∗
Agency −.05 .46∗.33∗.66∗
Warmth −.22 .03 .02 .30∗
Standards set for hiring the applicant
Performance standards −.04 .13 −.05 .04
Time commitment standards .07 .06 .11 −.31∗
Notes:Ns range from 38–43 for each correlation.
promotion rates. However, when the applicant was female, she was significantly
less likely to be promoted when a parent than when not a parent, p<.02.
We were particularly interested in which dependent measures predicted
whether the applicant was hired. To address this question, we ran a series of
correlation analyses separately for each of the four targets (male and female par-
ent and non-parent). As can be seen in Table 3, favorable impressions of the
applicant strongly predicted hiring of the female parent (and, to a lesser extent, the
male parent). Though parents were perceived as less available on the job than non-
parents, predicted availability was not reliably associated with hiring decisions for
any target. However, commitment to the job was positively correlated with hiring
decisions for both parent targets, though parents were perceived as less committed
than non-parents. An interesting pattern of results emerged for correlations with
agency and warmth. Though parents were judged less agentic than non-parents,
to the extent parents were perceived as agentic, hiring occurred. Warmth was neg-
atively related to hiring the female non-parent but positively related to hiring the
male parent. That is, the male parent was hired to the extent that he was agentic
and (to a lesser extent) warm, the female parent was hired to the extent that she
was agentic (but was unhelped by the perception of warmth), and the female non-
parent was harmed by the perception of warmth (and unhelped by the perception
Though we anticipated that high standards would produce less favorable eval-
uations, both performance and time commitment standards were largely unrelated
to hiring. The one exception is the relationship between time commitment stan-
dards and hiring for the male parent. The male parent was held to the lowest time
commitment standards of the four targets (see bottom panel of Table 1). To the
extent that the male parent was held to low standards, he tended to be hired.
748 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
This research investigated how being a parent interacts with gender stereo-
types to affect decisions regarding workplace competence. Parental status either
acted alone or in concert with applicant gender to affect evaluations of applicant
attributes, standards set for hiring, and hiring and promotion decisions. When
these factors interacted, the resulting pattern indicated harshness toward mothers
and lenience toward fathers. A male job applicant was held to significantly lower
performance and time commitment standards when he was a parent than when
he was not a parent. The male parent was also held to more lenient performance
standards than the female parent. In contrast, a female applicant tended to be held
to somewhat higher standards when she was a parent than not a parent. In particu-
lar, a female parent was judged less likely to be hired and promoted than a female
non-parent. On measures assessing attributes of the applicant, parental status alone
affected judgments. Parents were regarded as less committed, less agentic, and as
less available on the job than non-parents. In sum, parents were judged to be poorly
suited to the workplace compared to non-parents, and mothers were disadvantaged
relative to fathers.
Social Role Theory and the Shifting Standards Model
These results suggest that social role theory and the shifting standards model
are both valuable approaches to explaining perceptions of mothers and fathers
in the workplace. To reiterate, social role theory posits that gender stereotypes
reflect men’s and women’s distribution into different social roles: Stereotypes
of men’s greater agency reflect their traditional role as breadwinner, and stereo-
types of women’s greater communion reflect their traditional role as caregiver.
As social roles change, so too will stereotypes. Thus, a woman employed in a
traditionally masculine job—such as that of immigration law attorney—should be
judged equally agentic compared to an employed man and as more agentic than
an unemployed woman or man (Eagly & Steffen, 1984, 1986).
The main effects of parental status revealed in our research support so-
cial role theory. That judgments of commitment, agency, and job availability
were affected only by parental status (and not applicant gender) suggests that
parent role overrode gender stereotypes in participants’ judgments: Any gen-
der stereotypes participants may have held regarding these job-related attributes
were subsumed under the social role of parenthood. Thus, expectations about par-
ents’ employment suitability were more potent than gender stereotypes on these
Where decisions regarding the applicant were concerned (e.g., standard set-
ting, promotions), both gender stereotypes and parental role affected judgments
of job-related competence. On these measures, a job applicant’s parenthood role
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace 749
had a polarizing effect on gender stereotypes: Participants judged mothers harshly
relative to fathers. These interactions between gender and parental status are con-
sistent with the shifting standards model. The shifting standards model predicts
that stereotypes prompt the setting of different standards for groups. In other
words, when we judge others, we judge them relative to within-group standards. A
woman’s job-related competence is judged relative to expectations of competence
for women in general, and a man’s job-related competence is judged relative to
expectations for men. In the workplace, parental status may exaggerate typical
sex differences in competence judgments such that mothers will need to do more
than fathers (i.e., meet higher standards) to prove their competence. Though we
predicted that mothers would be held to stricter standards than women without
children, our results showed that it was fathers who were held to more lenient
standards than men without children. Though the polarizing effect of fatherhood
is consistent with the shifting standards model, this pattern of results is not exactly
as we had predicted.
The polarizing effect of parental status on judgments of mothers and fathers
may reflect the fact that occupation roles conflict with parental roles for women but
not men (Bridges & Etaugh, 1995; Etaugh & Folger, 1998). A full-time employed
mother violates norms regarding the caretaker role, but an employed father em-
bodies the provider role. Because mothers are more closely aligned than fathers
with the parenthood role (Deaux, Winton, Crowley, & Lewis, 1985), observers
may resolve women’s role conflict by assuming that a mother’s care-taking re-
sponsibilities take precedence over her job responsibilities. Thus, an employer
may set strict standards for hiring mothers. Similarly, the relatively lenient stan-
dards set for fathers may reflect the congruence between a father’s employment-
seeking behavior and his role as provider. In addition, because fathers are as-
sumed to be providers, they may be perceived as needing the job more than
The “Ideal” Worker
As suggested earlier, many of the traits deemed necessary for being a good
mother are contrary to those needed to be successful in the workplace (Halpert
et al., 1993; Schein, 2001). We thus anticipated that mothers would be judged
particularly harshly relative to the ideal worker. Participants in the ideal worker
condition were given only a job description and asked to indicate how well the
ideal worker would perform on the job if hired, and how committed to the job the
ideal worker would be, and the standards the ideal worker would need to meet in
order to be hired. Though both parents tended to be judged as less committed than
the ideal worker (p=.06), only the male parent benefited by being held to lower
performance standards than the ideal worker.
750 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
Limitations and Future Directions
With the exception of time commitment standards and hiring of the male par-
ent, the standards participants set for hiring were uncorrelated with their actual
hiring decisions (rs ranged from −.05 to .11; see Table 3). One might expect that
harsher standards would be associated with less favorable hiring and promotion
decisions—to the extent that one holds an individual to higher standards, that in-
dividual should be less likely to meet those standards and, consequently, be less
likely to be hired or promoted. That was clearly not the case here. In retrospect, our
assessment of standards may not have been pure; that is, participants set standards
after they had received all the applicant information. The perception that the appli-
cant was qualified may have led participants to set high standards that the applicant
had, in fact, obtained. Future research in which participants set standards before
reviewing an applicant’s credentials would help clarify the relationship between
standards and decisions.
It is also noteworthy that applicant gender did not affect attribute judgments,
standards, hiring, or promotion decisions for non-parents. That is, non-parent male
and female targets received comparable evaluations, were held to similar standards
for hiring, and were hired and promoted at equal rates. These results are incon-
sistent with earlier research showing that women are held to higher confirmatory
standards (i.e., standards for inferring that one’s competence reflects ability) than
are men (Biernat & Fuegen, 2001; Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997). The absence of
different standards for non-parents may be because the applicants were perceived
as particularly well-qualified for the job. If this is the case, a replication in which
the applicants’ credentials are ambiguous may yield evidence of gender stereo-
typing of non-parents (see Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000, for evidence of race-based
stereotyping when target credentials are ambiguous). The absence of gender ef-
fects among non-parents may also indicate that sexism is manifested in a more
subtle fashion, as in judgments of mothers versus fathers.
In addition to varying the applicant’s credentials, this research would profit
from replications varying the sex-typing of the job. Because the job of immigration
law attorney was perceived as more masculine than feminine, the perceived role
conflict for employed mothers may have been accentuated. A job perceived as
traditionally feminine (e.g., elementary school teacher) may attenuate perceptions
ofrole conflict. Whethera mother is still held to stricter standards than a father when
applying for a job where communal traits are thought important is a question worthy
of research. Replications in which the applicant is an unmarried parent may also be
informative.Ourresearchconfounds parenthood with marital status: the non-parent
applicants are single, and the parent applicants are married. Studies independently
varying parenthood and marital status would reveal whether it is parenthood—
rather than marriage—that polarizes judgment of men and women. Evidence that an
unmarried mother is evaluated more negatively than a married non-parent woman
Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace 751
would lend credence to the idea that the parental role rather than the marital role
influence judgments of men’s and women’s job-related competence.
The research described here examines perceptions of women who have already
become mothers—of two children. There is some concern that two children (rather
than one) may truly signal a woman’s lack of commitment to her job (Crittenden,
2001). Thus the effects we noted here may not be as extreme among potential
employees with one child. At the same time, other research has documented that
women about to assume the motherhood role are negatively stereotyped in the
workplace. Pregnant women are less likely than non-pregnant women to be hired
(Bragger, Kutcher, Morgan, & Firth, 2002), the performance of pregnant employees
is evaluated more negatively than that of non-pregnant employees (Halpert et al.,
1993), and individuals are less satisfied with pregnant managers than non-pregnant
managers (Corse, 1990). This research suggests that the mere anticipation that a
woman will adopt the motherhood role is sufficient to elicit negative work-related
Because the findings presented here are based on college students’ perceptions
of employed mothers and fathers, conducting replications with older, employed
samples is important. Participants who are parents and who have workplace ex-
perience may possess fewer negative stereotypes of employed mothers (Etaugh
& Moss, 2001). For example, participants in our Eastern sample were older and
more likely to be employed than participants in our Midwestern sample, and the
former perceived the job as higher in status when sought by a parent than a non-
parent. However, the fact that these two samples did not differ reliably in the
standards they set for parents or in the manner in which gender and parental sta-
tus affected hiring and promotion decisions suggests that older employed persons
are not immune to the biases against mothers in the workplace. Results gathered
from younger samples also permit a glance into what the future may be like. Both
men and women—many of whom are not yet in the workforce—anticipate that
motherhood will have a detrimental effect on women’s career opportunities but an
enhancing effect on men’s opportunities.
Finally, it is interesting to consider the present results in light of Burgess and
Borgida’s (1999) analysis of descriptive versus prescriptive stereotyping. Accord-
ing to their analysis, descriptive stereotypes (which refer to the characteristics men
and women are believed to have) are most likely to influence discrimination in
hiring (i.e., disparate impact judgments). Prescriptive stereotypes are more norma-
tive, referring to characteristics and behaviors that women and men are expected
to adopt. Burgess and Borgida (1999) argue that prescriptive stereotypes are more
likely to operate in the case of discriminatory treatment on the job, where women
are seen to violate the norms of what women should do. It seems likely that be-
liefs about parental roles contain both types of stereotypes. On the one hand, the
close affinity between stereotypes of woman and mother suggests that descriptive
stereotypes might well influence judgments of hiring suitability and goodness of
752 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
fit for women who are married. (Our data also suggest that descriptive stereotypes
of parents as opposed to non-parent persons also affect hiring recommendations.)
At the same time, normative beliefs about what mothers and fathers should do seem
likely to influence on-the-job judgments and could result in stronger differences
than we have observed here for hiring decisions. Clearly, it would be useful for
future research to explore these different stages of employment decisions.
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KATHLEEN FUEGEN is Assistant Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State
University, Lima. She earned a BA in psychology from the University of Northern
Iowa and a MA and PhD from the University of Kansas. Her research interests
concern how stereotypes are activated and applied in the workplace, specifically
how factors such as gender, race, and solo status affect evaluations. She teaches
courses in Social Psychology, Stereotyping and Prejudice, and Organizational
MONICA BIERNAT is Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas. She
earned her PhD in social psychology at the University of Michigan in 1989, and
wasonthe faculty at the University of Florida before moving to Kansas in 1992.
Her research examines the processes of stereotyping and prejudice, and focuses
specifically on how stereotypes guide (and distort) judgments of individual mem-
bers of stereotyped groups. She is currently associate editor of the Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology and was the 1998/1999 winner of the Amer-
ican Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career
Contribution to Psychology in the area of Social Psychology.
ELIZABETH HAINES is Assistant Professor of Psychology at William Patterson
University in Wayne, New Jersey. She is a graduate of University of Delaware
and the City University of New York, Graduate Center with postdoctoral work at
the University of Washington, Seattle. Her research has focused on investigating
women’s self-perception of power in response to a powerful role, reducing implicit
racism, and the system justifying effects of being powerless. She teaches across
754 Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, and Deaux
the psychology curriculum with Psychology of Women, Social Psychology, and
Research Methods at the core of her teaching.
KAY DEAUX is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at
the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is currently President-
Elect of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). Her
involvement in the study of gender issues has been extensive, including basic
research inside and outside the laboratory; expert witness testimony in cases of
gender discrimination; and teaching courses related to gender issues (most recently
a course in Psychology, Gender, and the Law).