Signaling Parenthood: Work and Parenting in the Low-Wage Service Sector

A person standing in front of a store filled with lots of food

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Image Source: Kaleb Snay

Should you talk about your kids at work?

This question is the subject of numerous blog posts and articles, often intended for women in white-collar jobs. And there is good reason for women to be wary of the consequences associated with motherhood: women experience a wage penalty at work when they become mothers.

According to Budig and England, this motherhood wage penalty is about 7% per child. Recent research suggests that wage penalties may be greater for women at the bottom of the income distribution. As Budig notes, this means that “women who least can afford it, pay the largest proportionate penalty for motherhood.”

Fathers not only escape this penalty, but may experience a fatherhood premium. According to one estimate, fatherhood increases men’s earnings by more than 6%. Many researchers argue that this is because employers see fatherhood as a sign of increased loyalty, work commitment, or stability.

Much of the existing research on wage penalties and premiums assumes that employers are aware of a worker’s parental status. But given the different consequences that parenthood has on outcomes such as pay and promotions, it is possible that men and women may announce or hide  their whether or not they are parentsdifferently. Yet we know little about whether mothers and fathers let their bosses know their children even exist.  

The Research

In a forthcoming article in Gender & Society, I draw on interviews with 36 mothers and fathers working in the retail and food service industries to examine how they signal their parental status at work. While parents in all sectors of the economy struggle to meet the competing demands of work and parenthood, parents in the low-wage service sector do so with very little support. These workers often lack resources to help with childcare and rarely have access to family protections through work. At the same time, their often-unpredictable schedules can make it difficult for these workers to plan for other aspects of their lives, including childcare.

Fathers: “My kids come first”

Fathers in this sample often discussed their children with their employers and characterized their managers as “understanding” of their parenting obligations. Fathers explained that they were prepared to “drop everything” if they were needed at home, reiterating the idea that their “kids come first.” Moreover, fathers faced few repercussions from their managers for taking this stance. When asked what he does when he needs to miss work, Bill – a multiracial father of two – explained that his manager is understanding, but only when it comes to his children:

“I have to call my manager. Usually he’ll give me a break if it involves my kids. There is no other excuse; it’s only for my kids then he’s like, ‘Go ahead. Take time off.’ But I don’t have any other excuse. It’s only that one.”

Previous research finds that men who ask for work flexibility to care for their children are evaluated more positively than men who ask for flexibility for other reasons. While caregiving is often seen as an obligation of good mothers, it is seen as more optional for fathers. Men who do “step in to help” with childcare may therefore  be seen as especially praiseworthy, and receive added rewards for their efforts.

Mothers: “I have a kid. I have to show them a work ethic”

Mothers were less likely to discuss their children at work and used a variety of strategies to minimize the extent to which their managers were aware of their family obligations. These included claiming open availability, using breaks strategically, and concealing their childcare obligations altogether.

Many women used their work breaks to take care of their children. By doing so, they avoided asking their managers permission for time off and instead sacrificed their breaks to take care of obligations at home. Others refrained from using their children as a reason to miss work, choosing to call in sick when they actually needed to stay home with their children.

In some cases, women purposefully concealed the fact that they had children altogether. This was especially true of Black mothers, who were concerned with countering assumptions that they may be unreliable workers. Melody, a Black mother of two young children, works at a big box store and a local music venue. When asked whether she discusses her children when she needs to change her work schedule, Melody explained that she has not told her primary employer that she has children:

“I try not to. [The music venue] knows that I have a child. [The big box store] doesn’t, actually. Not yet. I try not to use him as an excuse just ‘cause I don’t want it to be one of those things where it’s like, “Well, she has a kid, so maybe this isn’t a job for her.”

Melody implies that she may be penalized if she discloses to her employer that she is a mother. She chooses, for the time-being, to present herself as an unencumbered worker.

The Takeaway

I find that mothers are aware of the penalties associated with motherhood and try to downplay their parental status at work. Yet the strategies they used to conceal their motherhood often require mothers to sacrifice care for themselves. While mothers emphasized their commitment to work to their employers, they were still working to be good mothers behind the scenes.

These interviews also provide some evidence that expectations for fathers are moving in a more equitable direction. Fathers were surprisingly open to discussing their childcare obligations with their managers. This supports the idea that “good” fathers are now expected to do more than simply provide for their children. However, discussing children may also be an astute strategy for fathers. By emphasizing their parenthood, fathers may gain access to positive assumptions that employers make of fathers, thereby helping to reproduce gender inequality in the workplace.

Sigrid Willa Luhr is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the reproduction of inequality within the workplace and family. Her current projects examine workplace gender inequality across various sectors of the economy, from the low-wage service sector to the high-wage tech industry. You can find her research in the Journal of Family Studies, Journal of Family and Economic Issues, Social Service Review, and forthcoming in Social Problems and Gender & Society. She is also on twitter @sigridluhr.

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