07 Jul Hiring stay-at-home mothers: Managers’ perceptions
No person may unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly against an employee in any employment policy or practice (from recruitment to exit) on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language and birth [Emphasis added]. (Employment Equity Act, Section 6)
The perceived tension between motherhood and a career is a threat to many women’s well-being.(1) USA and UK data showed that as much as 50% of women feel frustrated by this conflict, and a concerning 18% suffer depression.(2) Research has shown that 49% of mothers intend to take up employment in the near future.(3) This figure is as high as 67% of stay-at-home mothers in Eastern and Western Europe.(4)
Pregnancy, maternity leave, and childcare are often watershed events in women’s lives, and juggling a career and motherhood is undeniably difficult, as the two identities each has its own, often conflicting, demands.
Women suffer psychological difficulties during the time they are not at work while looking after a child, in the form of an identity crisis — being torn between being a professional and a mother. This is particularly prevalent in the early phase of motherhood, and is particularly difficult for women with demanding careers. They cope with the loss of their professional identity and separation from employment by moving back and forth across the line between work and home, a phenomenon called sense-making.(5) Women employ this sense-making to establish a new identity to end the tug of war between the two identities of dedicated mother vs dedicated employee.(6)
The scenario is further complicated by the discrimination women still face in the workplace. Only 49% of women who intend returning to work are successful.(7) Highly qualified women are more successful in this endeavour; 73% are able to secure employment, but it is cause for concern that only 40% are able to secure full-time or comparable employment.(8)
In South Africa, the workforce is not representative of the population. While women account for 51% of the population, they accounted for 44% of the total employment rate in the first quarter of 2021.(9) In addition, women continue to be under-represented in senior positions, occupying only 31% of managerial jobs in South Africa, and are overrepresented in the roles of domestic worker, clerk, and technician.(10)
Women who wish to return to work after giving birth often face prolonged unemployment, or are forced to accept lower-level jobs,(11) especially younger mothers and mothers of three or more children.(12) Women who take career breaks interrupt their accumulation of skills, and pay a penalty in the form of lower wages, except when the career break is for work-related purposes, such as obtaining an advanced degree.(13)
A study of professional women in the USA who took time out of their careers to have a child and sought to return found that only 74% were able to find employment.(14) A study by Clark(15) found that only 40% of women overall managed to secure full-time employment after taking a career break. Though no data is available on the percentages in South Africa, the 44% representation of women in the workplace(16) is concerning, as the majority of graduates in South Africa are women.(17)
The number of children has been shown not to have a significant statistical effect on work intention, but the age of the child does. Mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 5 years are more likely to take up a job in the near future than those with newborn babies and children up to the age of 2 years.(18) Another study found that only 5% of highly skilled women wished to return to their former employers. Furthermore, more than half (54%) wanted to change their profession or career.(19)
What seems to be the problem(s)?
Society holds the view that a good mother is one who invests most of her time and energy in her child,(20) and women who choose to stay at home for a period to raise a child are viewed as undesirable employees(21) and as needing onerous accommodations at work.(22)
Furthermore, the corporate culture of socialising after work hours excludes mothers from such activities.(23) This intensifies the perception of stay-at-home mothers as not fitting the profile of a committed employee. There is a widely held view that a good employee is one who is ‘married’ to the job and willing to work long hours.(24)
This then highlights the problem inherent in the fact that women dedicate much more time to child-rearing over the course of their careers than men with similar skills and level of education do.(25) Women spend three hours more than men on unpaid work such as childcare activities in developing countries, and two hours more in developed countries.(26)
Another concern is the negative perceptions of family-friendly policies. Countries that do not have family-friendly policies often justify their decision on the grounds that such policies undermine the country’s future competitiveness.(27) Therefore, a woman taking a career break to care for an infant may be encouraged by society but perceived negatively as an employee, which strengthens negative workplace gender stereotypes.(28)
Although women surpass men in educational attainment,(29) this advantage is lost due to the notion that the ideal worker and a good mother are incompatible. The explanation offered by some is that women who hold demanding jobs struggle to find a balance between work and family. It is concerning that the gender that has invested the most in education is perceived unworthy of higher positions, and that women’s contribution to organisations is underestimated simply because they have taken a career break to care for a child.
It therefore appears that support for women in the form of laws and policies is ineffective in countering prevailing cultural and social norms. Women are thus, in effect, being punished for having children.
The greatest obstacle faced by stay-at-home mothers wishing to re-enter the labour market after taking a career break is the perceptions of managers who appoint staff. In an MBA study, Lunga Tukani wanted to understand hiring managers’ perceptions of these women.
The sample of this qualitative exploratory study was 12 line managers (six men and four women, and two who chose non-disclosure) of teams or departments with whom the final hiring decision had rested for a period of at least five years, and to whom mothers who had stayed at home for a minimum of 12 months would report. The full study write-up is available from the Stellenbosch Business School.
Participants were contacted via LinkedIn, a professional network on the Internet with more than 756 000 000 members,(30) and asked to write short, essay-style responses to open-ended questions. Content analysis was used to analyse the data, augmented by quantification.
The questionnaire contained six questions. These are listed below, each followed by the findings, accompanied by supporting verbatim quotes.
What comes to mind when considering the curriculum vitae of a stay-at-home mother applying for a position?
Three main categories emerged from the data on managers’ impressions: competence, time, and divided attention.
Some participants noted the concern that the weight of childcare duties negatively impacts women’s workplace performance. This finding confirms the notion of ideal employees being married to their work and willing to work long hours.(31)With regard to competence, cultural beliefs hold that motherhood negatively affects a woman’s competence(32) and commitment as an employee, due to contradicting conceptualisations of dedication to family and work commitment.(33)
Will she be able to manage the job and her mother duties? Will the company get full value for what it pays? (Participant)
With regard to time, cultural beliefs about the role of a mother create expectations that mothers should place the needs of the child above any other activity, and that they should always be available and attentive to the child’s needs. Therefore, good mothers are not ideal workers, as workers who demonstrate intensive effort at work appear to sacrifice all other interests.(34) Examples given by Willett are employees who are willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice for a new work demand, devoting considerable time to working late nights and weekends. Other participants mentioned time in the context of full-time work, indicating that they perceived stay-at-home mothers as unwilling to commit to full-time hours.
I see a candidate that has demanding family responsibilities and a balancing act. (Participant)
In terms of divided attention, there is a perception of mothers’ attention being divided between work and childcare. Theoretically, the role of motherhood and the notion of the ideal employee are in conflict.
Divided attention between work and kids, and extra time-offs. (Participant).
Observation: The concern is that, if these perceptions govern the employer’s decisions when considering applications, a stay-at-home mother, competent as she may be, and despite the fact that she had made childcare arrangements, will not be successful in her application.
Skills of Stay-at-Home Mothers
Participants identified four categories of skills: team-building, administration, competence, and efficiency.
Team-building emerged as a strong category, indicating that these women are seen as team players and having the ability to grow team strength and cohesion. Participants described them with words such as “maturity”, “patience”, “emotional intelligence”, and “caring”, to mention a few, which refer to attributes, rather than a particular skill.
Observation: Overall, the participants held positive perceptions of the skills of stay-at-home mothers.
What kinds of positions in your organisation are best suited to stay-at-home mothers?
The categories identified were: all positions, administration, limited travel, flexible working hours, and none. Only four participants (33%) noted being willing to employ stay-at-home mothers in any position, but one participant added a proviso:
All positions, but most suitable is administrative posts that create a flexible working time.
Three noted that they would offer these women only administrative jobs. Suggestions included office-bound positions that require little travel, and
Flexible-hour jobs. (Participant)
A total of eight (67%) participants thus attached some form of condition to employing these women. Some examples of positions the participants considered suitable are:
Data capturing, report writing. (Participant)
“Office-bound positions, for example, IT, QA, Finance, HR, GM. (Participant)
The concern of time is evident in the suggestions, and three participants indicated that they would limit employment of these women to administrative roles. The words “administration”, “hours”, and “limited travel” all imply some form of limitation on stay-at-home mothers’ ability to contribute in the workplace. Furthermore, administrative roles are often associated with low earnings.
Observation: Sadly, only one participant did not place any limitations on the positions suitable for stay-at-home mothers. It is also worth noting that one participant responded that “no position is suitable for stay-at-home mothers”, implying that this stereotypical notion may still be deeply entrenched.
Responses regarding suitable jobs for stay-at-home mothers
What skills do stay-at-home mothers possess that your organisation can use?
The three main categories that emerged were team-building, competence, and efficiency. On the positive side, none of the participants indicated that stay-at-home mothers do not have any skills. However, a few implied that these women are only capable of fulfilling lesser administrative roles, using words such as “co-ordinate”, “organise”, “filing”, and “assisting.”
The participants used phrases like “bringing teams together”, “building a caring family culture in the workplace”, and “patience.” However, these attributes appear to contradict the view that stay-at-home mothers are best suited to administrative jobs such as filing and data capturing, as these do not require teamwork. The participants’ views in this regard are consistent with the view that parents make effective managers. Successful managers express care, practise patience, leverage the unique strengths of the different role players in the team, develop individuals’ capabilities, and set appropriate expectations and boundaries for their team members.(35)
Observation: Therefore, the skills of stay-at-home mothers may fill a need in the workplace, and it seems short-sighted to limit their capabilities to menial tasks.
What have been the problems encountered in hiring women who had recently been stay-at-home mothers?
The issue of time was a pervasive complaint, but it was interesting to note that, for this question, the notion of rustiness manifested to a greater degree. In this regard, Becker(36) defines human capital as knowledge and skills acquired through education, on-the-job training, and the activity of doing the job. During employment breaks, this acquired human capital may lose some value; new procedures replace old ones, and people may simply forget what they have learned.(37)
Observation: Women taking extended work breaks should guard against losing their previous investment in human capital to the point of becoming obsolete and irrelevant in the world of work.
A participant stated that stay-at-home mothers may take too long to adjust and learn new skills specific to the workplace. The perception of five (42%) participants was that stay-at-home mothers’ work skills become rusty. This finding is related to the theme competence, and the two themes combined represent 50% of participants’ views.
Time was the next significant category, and was mentioned in various contexts:
Adapt to working full-time. (Participant)
Not able to get to work on time. (Participant)
Mostly time management. (Participant)
Only one participant noted not having encountered any problems in hiring stay-at-home mothers.
Observation: The identified preconceived and biased notions of rustiness deny the organisation useful skills that could contribute to its success.
Problems participants had encountered in hiring stay-at-home mothers
What have been the benefits of hiring women who had recently been stay-at-home mothers?
The main themes that emerged were attitude and team-building. Participants believed that stay-at-home mothers are caring, patient, mature, and proficient at uniting teams, which are aspects of team-building. A few participants mentioned innovation and efficiency.
With regard to the theme attitude, participants commented:
Dedicated, and know that they and willing to fight for it. (Participant)
Motivated to perform and bring change to the business. Full of ideas, creativity. (Participant)
They want to be back in the workplace. There is a drive to succeed, due to the added family responsibility. (Participant)
Some may be enthusiastic to get back to work and start adding value. (Participant)
Have a much better understanding of being unemployed and taking the new job seriously. (Participant)
The themes that manifested from this question are associated with the view that women value connectedness with others(38) and are relational.
Observation: Stay-at-home mothers are perceived to be well suited to working in roles where a high level of teamwork is required, and where conflict has to be resolved.
One of the participants explained that the added responsibility of providing for a child is the reason for these mothers’ positive attitudes. Another noted that stay-at-home mothers’ understanding of being unemployed for a period of time is behind their positive outlook when they secure a job.
Some participants mentioned stay-at-home mothers’ innovation and efficiency. Dinardi notes that focusing on feelings can reawaken one’s creativity.(39) He(40) further states that neuroscientists have found that rational thoughts and emotions involve different hemispheres of the brain, and that innovation requires both.
Observation: It may therefore be that time spent with their children holds positive outcomes for mothers, from which the workplace could benefit.
Overall, participants’ perceptions in this regard were positive. It therefore appears that stay-at-home mothers could be more successful in applying to organisations and managers who hire employees with the right attitude, rather than skills, despite the perception of the skills of stay-at-home mothers being rusty.
What can be done to increase the number of stay-at-home mothers returning to the workplace?
Three themes emerged, namely intervention, time, and policy. The findings also indicate a need to create awareness and promote dialogue. In this regard, a participant suggested that employers need to be educated on the topic under study.
The majority of the participants mentioned mothers’ need for flexibility, which resorts, in part, under intervention. However, operational constraints may void this accommodation. Half of the participants were of the view that intervention in some form is needed:
Introduce flexi-work hours, increase focus on results, not on office presence. (Participant)
Give stay-at-home mothers opportunities and change perceptions about stay-at-home mothers. (Participant)
Flexible working hours and change of perspective by managers. (Participant)
There must not be a negative perception from those doing the hiring. (Participant)
While not all participants were specific about the type of intervention, they indicated that they saw a need for a change in organisational culture. Three (25%) of the participants indicated that perceptions of stay-at-home mothers need to change, which implies that these women are currently seen in a negative light. The theme time once more emerged, with participants referring to the need for flexible hours to accommodate mothers. Two (17%) participants felt that organisations need policies to effect the required change. Lastly, a participant indicated a need for legislation that ensures equal opportunities for stay-at-home mothers seeking employment.
Recommendations for practice
The recommendations are focused on the four most pervasive themes that emerged from the data, namely time, competence, rustiness, and divided attention.
Human resources policies have historically been formulated for men’s vocations, and do not cater for the complexities of women’s social roles and careers. One of the key traditional measures of a good employee is ‘face time’ at the office, which has traditionally served as an indication of employee performance and commitment.(41) Managers who subscribe to this notion will therefore tend to perceive women with household responsibilities as underperformers who are not committed to their work.
Progressive companies are now focusing on measuring and rewarding actual performance, regardless of where and when the work is done, and not the hours spent at the office.(42) This focus encourages organisations to be flexible with regard to working hours and the use of technology to work from home, even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Technological advancements therefore make it easier to break some of the barriers inherent in the traditional models, and companies should consider ways in which they could use technology to bring about flexibility in the workplace, in order to accommodate the needs of stay-at-home mothers. In this regard, one of the participants aptly noted that employing stay-at-home mothers saves costly office space.
Managers’ perceptions need to change. Stay-at-home mothers should be given the opportunity of an interview, during which they could indicate what contingency plans are in place, to ease the employers’ concerns.
Sullivan and Mainiero(43) developed the Kaleidoscope Career Model as an alternative way to view women’s careers. According to this model, women shift their career patterns by rotating various aspects of their lives to accommodate roles and relationships.(44) Three parameters, namely authenticity, balance, and challenge, shift over the course of their careers; they are always present, but have different levels of importance, depending on the events in a woman’s life at a particular point in time.
According to Sullivan and Mainiero,(45) competent women sometimes leave the workplace due to the job being boring and not offering advancement opportunities. In this regard, the view of some participants that only certain jobs are suitable for stay-at-home mothers could result in organisations losing scarce skills.
It is important that organisations recognise the drain of female talent. A number of high-profile companies have instituted leave programmes that enable women to retain their company links and return to their jobs after an extended period of maternity leave.(46) Employers need to offer this support in order to retain talent, and women should consider such benefits when deciding where to work if they are planning to have children in the future.
Stay-at-home mothers need to be aware of the skills they acquired through motherhood, and position themselves positively in interactions with prospective employers. Those doing the hiring need to be equally aware of the attributes of stay-at-home mothers.
Literature suggests that companies benefit from employees taking sabbaticals. These individuals are able to rest and regain focus, while the company is able to stress-test other employees’ willingness to cope with a smaller staff complement and take up leadership roles.(47)
Clark(48) suggests that mothers keep their professional network current, and also demonstrate that their skills are current at the time of returning to work. This will help allay the employer’s fears about rustiness, while a current professional network will keep the stay-at-home mother abreast of new developments in the field.
Clark(49) advises that women can increase the likelihood of securing employment by ensuring that their skills remain current. Maintaining a public profile of activities, such as publishing articles on her field of specialisation, for example, will indicate to prospective employers that she has kept abreast of developments in the industry. Stay-at-home mothers should also take part in workshops or take a course to bridge any knowledge gaps they may have developed while they were on leave.(50)
Clark(51) and Konrad(52) both highlight the importance of maintaining an industry network, as most people find work through personal contacts. Clark(53) also advises women to explain to prospective employers why they have chosen that particular time to return to work, thereby repositioning themselves through an expression of ambition and interests, as well as highlighting the contribution they are able to make using up-to-date and newly acquired skills.
Simultaneously playing the roles of employee, parent, and spouse may result in conflict and stress.(54) Women therefore need to make suitable childcare arrangements and contingency plans, and clearly communicate this to the organisation, to allay fears of her attention being divided.
It is evident from the findings of this study that managers who oversee hiring have perceptions of stay-at-home mothers that are not in alignment with the Employment Equity Act. This study has revealed some of these perceptions, and shown the need to create awareness and take action. Managers need to perform honest introspection regarding biases that appear to cloud their decision-making in the hiring process. Further, they need to commit to creating a workplace environment and culture that ensure an equitable and representative workforce.