The Hidden Biases That Shape Inequality

New York—Take two equivalently qualified job candidates. One is known to be a parent. The other is not a parent.

With experimental scenarios like these, researchers have found substantial evidence of bias against mothers. In the studies of Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology at Stanford, childless women were roughly twice as likely to be called back or recommended for hire by an employer. And when childless women were recommended for a job, they were offered salaries approximately $11,000 higher.

Ms. Correll presented this research at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting here on Saturday as part of a panel spotlighting how inequality is perpetuated by things like interpersonal behaviors and local settings—what sociologists call “micro mechanisms.”

When sociologists talk about inequality—which they’re doing a lot at this inequality-themed event, from how inequality is changing to how it connects to social unrest and social media—they often discuss it through the macro prism of social structure. Much research on race, for example, analyzes where a minority group stands in relation to the dominant group when it comes to economic well being and legal rights.

The plenary session featuring Ms. Correll was billed as a foray into less familiar territory: how everyday interactions and attitudes influence gender, race and class disparities. (A new edited volume, The Handbook of the Social Psychology of Inequality, collects much research on these topics.)

With class, for example, research highlights the potential health consequences of doctors’ beliefs about the competence of patients hailing from different classes. A physician might prescribe a simpler but less effective treatment regime for a working-class diabetes patient, whereas a middle-class patient might receive a more complicated and better regimen, according to Cecilia L. Ridgeway, a Stanford sociologist who organized the session and is president of the American Sociological Association.

Or take race. Another panelist, Lawrence D. Bobo, described how society had repudiated Jim Crow even as survey research shows the endurance of other charged racial attitudes, with powerful implications for public policy. Mr. Bobo, a scholar of race at Harvard, pointed in particular to the belief that minorities should overcome prejudice without special favors.

“This is the core modern expression of racial resentment,” he said. “This is in fact the third rail of American racial and cultural politics. Touch this attitude as a political figure, and you will get electrocuted. It is the seedbed in many respects of the launch of the Tea Party—this sense that African-Americans and other minorities … are getting some special thing from us that they do not deserve.”

Ms. Correll presented her workplace-bias studies as an explanation for what she called “the motherhood wage penalty”—the growing  evidence that mothers earn less than both men and childless women. (Mothers earn 5 to 7 percent lower wages per child compared to equivalent childless women, she said.) At a time when debates about women and work have captured broad attention, Ms. Correll argued that reducing disadvantages would require “a deep cultural change” to workplace norms.

Motherhood, she said, is “a devalued status” at work. Mothers are perceived as less devoted to their jobs and less competent at them. They violate the “ideal worker norm,” she said, by which workers are expected to be fully committed and always there for their employers.

So how do you change that?

By redefining what it means to be a good and productive worker, Ms. Correll said, recognizing that all employees have needs outside of their jobs and that work can happen beyond the traditional day and the physical workplace. She presented one “encouraging example” from Best Buy’s corporate headquarters—a policy, since rescinded by the company, that had sought to value results rather than face time.

Her conclusion: “To the extent that the motherhood penalty comes about because face time signals both a commitment to work and to a masculine, bread-winning role, a deep cultural change that reduces the value placed on face time can minimize the motherhood penalty.”

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