Penalties and Premiums: Clarifying Perceptions of Parents in the Professional Workplace
Milkie, Melissa A
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Parental status inequality is pervasive in American workplaces. Mothers' wage penalties and fathers' wage premiums are well-documented, with much academic and policy interest invested in explaining why we observe these disparate earnings patterns. Employer discrimination and biased perceptions of parents are likely, although not easily researchable, culprits. In this dissertation, I contribute to the ongoing effort to explain parental status inequality at work by examining how parents are perceived and evaluated in the context of the professional workplace, beyond differences by gender alone. I advance the literature by assessing how perceptions of mothers and fathers vary based on three dimensions: a) their level of involvement with children; b) their race/ethnicity; and c) characteristics of the perceivers. Data come from three sources: two parallel experimental vignette studies in which nationally representative samples of employed adults rated a fictitious job applicant, one male and one female, who varied on parenthood status (non-parent, nominal parent, less involved parent, highly involved parent) and race/ethnicity (white, African-American, Latino, Asian), as well as a semi-structured interview study of 15 employers in the professional sector. Together, results from these studies expound upon our existing knowledge of workplace parental penalties and premiums, yielding three major findings: 1) Fathers received an involvement premium as highly involved fathers, but not mothers, were offered higher salaries than their childless and less involved counterparts; 2) The documented perceptual penalty leveled at mothers in the workplace was most acutely directed at white mothers, whereas Asian mothers, by contrast, were perceived most favorably among women; and 3) Mothers may suffer from an interpersonal penalty in the workplace as employers observed that their childless employees perceive parent coworkers with resentment and as being unfairly advantaged. Together, these results bring the cultural terrain of parental status inequality into sharper relief. Following a discussion of the dialectical relationship between culture and policy for reducing parental status inequality at work, I conclude by calling for a reconceptualization of the ideal worker norm based on evidence of a cultural shift underway in how parenthood, namely fatherhood, is interpreted in the workplace.