Are you ready for some good news about the way the workforce treats parents? Of course you are. A new study shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, parents returning to the workforce after a childcare hiatus are more likely to be hired if they explain the gap in their career experience.
That is to say, if you’re interviewing for a job after taking several years off to stay at home with your kids, just come right out and say that. In a new study by two Vanderbilt Law School economists, 3,000 participants playing the role of “employers” were 30 to 40 percent (that’s a lot!) more likely to say they would hire a female candidate with a 10-year gap in her résumé if she offered a personal explanation,
Any explanation improved employment prospects relative to no explanation for an otherwise identical job candidate. Our results are consistent with the behavioral economics theory of ambiguity aversion, which finds that individuals prefer known risks over unknown risks.
“The number of people who preferred the woman who explained her résumé gap was staggering,” Hersch, told the New York Times. “I was shocked.”
The study deals exclusively with hypothetical mothers—who still dominate the stay-at-home population and who face far greater judgement for having procreated than the dads do—but with stay-at-home fatherhood on the rise (albeit, not always willingly) it’s a meaningful distinction for both parents. Beyond that, the study invites broader considerations about how family obligations should be handled in interviews.
The authors argue that the well-intentioned advice provided by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that employers should steer clear of any questions relating to an applicant’s personal life actually works against parents—both the individuals themselves and the institution of parenthood—in the hiring process. As Slate explains:
Hersch and her co-author, Jennifer Shinall, believe that conversations about spouses and children should be considered as natural and appropriate to an interview as discussion of “athletic pursuits, travel, hobbies,” all of which can “help employers and applicants understand whether there is a fit with the workplace culture.” The EEOC, they say, should encourage “information sharing” about potential employees’ family needs—as it does between employers and applicants with disabilities, who are entitled to “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This would require not just a shift in the legal interpretation but also in the way society values workers. Needless to say, we’re not quite there. As Ofer Sharone, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, critiqued the study to the Times:
Reducing the choice to one woman who explains a gap and another who doesn’t, he said, misses the more likely reality: that both would probably be screened out before they got to the interview stage.
But don’t let retrograde realities completely dissuade you from applying the surprisingly optimistic actionable findings if you get the chance. Next time you’re interviewing for a job, don’t be ashamed of the obligations you have outside the office. If that costs you the opportunity, maybe it wasn’t such a great fit anyway. At the very least, if you’re returning from a long hiatus, it might give you a 30 to 40 percent better chance of landing the job.