Researcher found many employers are biased against job applicants who have temporarily stayed at home with their children.

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Re-entering the workforce after taking a leave of absence can be difficult, but is it harder for workers who lost their jobs and have been unemployed or workers who took time away to care for children? My research shows it’s the latter who have it worse.

In a recent research study, I found that many employers are biased against job applicants who have temporarily stayed at home with their children, even preferring laid-off applicants who have been out of work for the same amount of time.

In the study, I sent fictitious résumés in response to real job openings. Résumés represented three types of job applicants: currently employed applicants with no employment gaps, unemployed applicants and stay-at-home parent applicants. Male or female names made the applicants appear to be either men or women. The application materials implied that all fictitious applicants were parents and all applicants had the same level of experience, number of jobs and skills. Those who had employment gaps had been out of the workforce for 18 months.

In the span of several months from 2015 to 2016, I sent a total of 3,374 résumés to job listings in 50 U.S. cities for accountants, financial analysts, software engineers, HR managers and marketing directors. I then tracked which applicants received requests for interviews or for more information.

Put simply, stay-at-home parents were about half as likely to get a callback as unemployed parents and only one-third as likely as employed parents.

Why are employers less likely to want to interview stay-at-home parents? I examined attitudes about these types of job applicants by asking survey respondents to read two fictitious rsums and to evaluate the job applicants based on how capable, committed, reliable and deserving of a job they believed the applicants to be. I found that people viewed both unemployed applicants and stay-at-home applicants as less capable than continuously employed applicants, perhaps thinking their skills had become rustier while they were not working.

Respondents viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job, and — the biggest penalty — less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants. Inflexible workplaces and demanding work cultures can contribute to parents leaving work in the first place. My study shows that these same norms are invoked when employers evaluate stay-at-home parents as job applicants. Until we reevaluate the norms and expectations applied to employees, it is likely that parents who choose to stay home will continue to face limits to their careers.

Kate Weisshaar is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.