The careers of different men progress at different rates. That’s just as we would expect. Higher performers are rewarded; lower performers slow down. Our accomplishments guide our careers. Good workplaces are meritocracies — do your job well, and you’ll get ahead. That’s what we believe.
Or, at least that’s what we want to believe. But after a few years on the job, we start to wonder. Other factors seem to play a role.
What about parenthood? Does that figure in to how we get evaluated? Does fatherhood affect the careers of men? How are fathers perceived when we’re asked to appraise them?
We know how it works for women. There is a motherhood penalty, and it’s not related to performance; evaluation in laboratory settings of otherwise identical files in which the only difference is parenthood proves this claim. If you’re a mother, that will affect how your job performance is perceived. Negatively.
Is there a fatherhood penalty, too?
It seems not. In fact, it seems that there’s a fatherhood bonus. Fathers don’t simply outpace mothers in the workplace; they even outpace men who don’t have children!
The report on the Position of Women in Science in Spain mentions some facts about the careers of men in academia. Men with children, this White Paper from the Spanish government notes, are more likely than those without children to be promoted.
A man who has at least one child is 1.7 times more likely to be a Full Professor than a man without children.
This finding is not unique.
In a study with kindred results, subjects were asked to read files of fictitious applicants for positions as an attorney. Among the male applicants, fathers were held to lower standards than non-fathers.
Fathers could get hired and promoted, in other words, even when their performance was worse than that of men without children. (Kathleen Fuegen, Monica Biernat, Elizabeth Haines, and Kay Deaux. 2004. Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace: How Gender and Parental Status Influence Judgments of Job-Related Competence. Journal of Social Issues.)
In another study in which subjects rate files of fictitious applicants, the benefits of fatherhood were many. (Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik. 2007. Getting a job: Is there a Motherhood Penalty. American Journal of Sociology.)
Applicants who were fathers were rated significantly more committed to their job than non-fathers. Fathers were allowed to be late to work significantly more times than non-fathers. Finally, they were offered significantly higher salaries than non-fathers.
Why do fathers get ahead?
Does fatherhood bring out the traits we value in a good colleague? At the very least, it seems that fatherhood enhances the perception of highly valued social skills. This is what Stephen Benard and Shelley J. Correll report in their article Normative discrimination and the motherhood penalty from Gender & Society 2010.
Compared to men without children, highly successful fathers are perceived as significantly less hostile, as more likable, and warmer. Parenthood enhances the perceived interpersonal qualities of male but not female applicants. Fatherhood is a signal of positive interpersonal qualities.
As we learn about the enhanced careers of fathers, we realize that a difference work/life balance cannot possibly be the explanation for slower careers for mothers. Fathers have a different work/life balance than their childless male peers. Yet that doesn’t slow them down.
Even if mothers spend more time on childcare than fathers, fathers nonetheless spend more time on childcare than non-fathers. If women are slowed down in their careers by the actual effect parenthood has on their daily lives, then we would expect to see the same effect slowing down fathers as compared to non-fathers. But we don’t.
Other factors are at play. But what are they? Our perceptions, our stereotypes, our unconscious prejudices, perhaps these are the ingredients creating the bonus for fathers and the penalty for mothers.
If so, then these are the factors that have to be countered. Organizations that see the value of diversity, organizations that want to treat their employees fairly and on the basis of their actual performance, must be proactive in the face of what we now know.
Careers are not built on merit alone. There is discrimination in academia; there is discrimination in law firms. Unfair bias surrounds us. The evidence is clear.
Only one question remains: What will we do about it?