Compared to other workers, mothers face a number of disadvantages, including lower wages, bias in recruitment and promotion, and a greater risk of joblessness. These disadvantages may be more prevalent in professional jobs where ‘ideal worker’ norms are most salient. Professional employers tend to view mothers as less competent and committed than other workers—a major stigma in careers that require around-the-clock dedication.
These biases are so strong that employers often discriminate against mothers irrespective of their experience, skill or job commitment.
Our own research has shown that employers use a variety of strategies to shed, demote and otherwise marginalize professional mothers, including screening mothers out of the recruitment process or channeling them into positions with lower pay, prestige and responsibility.
But little is known about which kinds of professional jobs are better—or worse—for working mothers.
What role does job context play in shaping professional mothers’ access to highly skilled professional jobs? In a recent study we sought to answer this question. Our analysis drew on 51 in-depth interviews with employers in two professional sectors in Hungary: finance and business services. These two sectors allowed us to compare the ways job context shapes recruitment and hiring norms and practices.
Both sectors are comprised of global firms like GE, Citibank, HP and Unisys, with robust foreign investment in Budapest. These companies also represent some of the most attractive and lucrative jobs in the country, paying wages much higher than the national average and recruiting top graduates with degrees in finance, law and economics.
Job Context Matters
Despite these similarities, the nature of the jobs—what we term the job context—varies in important ways across the two sectors.
In finance, jobs are much more vertically structured than in business services. This creates competition among workers for advancement and, as other scholars have found, competition increases the penalties mothers pay.
More opportunities for advancement also motivate employers to screen for leadership traits—like assertiveness, competitiveness and ambition— typically conceived in masculine terms and measured by a resolute dedication to work. As others have shown, such “ideal worker” norms often disadvantage mothers, who are assumed to have divided commitments to work and family.
Finally, finance employers view the skills necessary to succeed as dynamic and constantly changing. This means that they associate any breaks or gaps in the career—including and especially those associated with caring for children—with insurmountable skill depreciation.
Overall, we found that finance employers view mothers as ill equipped to meet the non-stop demands of the industry. Maternity leave robs women of the knowledge and skills to compete, while their status as mothers means they lack a full commitment to the job.
Competition versus Cooperation
By contrast, jobs in business services are more horizontal with fewer opportunities for vertical advancement. Instead, work is more collaborative and team based. This means there is less competition among workers and employers prioritize interpersonal, relational and communication skills; employers privilege friendliness and teamwork over competition and ambition.
Qualified applicants possess not only these soft skills but also multiple foreign language skills. While the business language of finance is English, business services require servicing of clients in multiple languages. The language requirements mean that it is harder to find qualified applicants and those who do possess requisite hard and soft skills are highly valued.
Jobs in business services are more routinized and standardized than in finance, and employers view requisite skills (hard and soft skills) as relatively stable and constant. This means that breaks in the career can be overcome through training and re-integration into a team. In the business service sector, employers prioritize experience and seek to retain good workers, including after long maternity leaves.
So for business service employers, supporting mothers’ re-integration into professional jobs was just part of doing business. Many employers were eager to bill their firm as “family friendly” (a term used by not a single finance employer), seeing their efforts to retain workers before, during and after maternity leave good business.
These differences in the job context matter for mothers.
Finance employers exclude mothers by screening them out of the recruitment process, limiting their promotion opportunities and downgrading or even terminating them upon return from maternity leave.
By contrast, business service employers were eager to accommodate mothers through flexible hours, part-time work, home-based work and subsidized childcare—all practices that remain exceptionally rare Hungary.
Our work contributes to new understandings of the types of jobs that are more—or less—likely to limit mothers’ professional status and mobility. We also address the concept of the ideal worker norm and argue that it is constructed differently depending on job context and labor market constraints.
How professional employers “manage motherhood” depends on how employers perceive the nature of the job.
While previous research concluded that professional job are likely to be less accommodating to mothers than other jobs, our work shows that not all professional jobs are created equal. Even in professional sector, employers’ views of mothers are variable and context specific.
In professional jobs that privilege loyalty, likeability, friendliness, teamwork or cooperation, bias against mothers is lessened. By contrast, in jobs where flexibility and skill dynamism are privileged, mothers are likely to be disadvantaged due to real or perceived skill depreciation due to career discontinuity.
Our findings also suggest ways in which job design can alleviate the biases mothers face in professional jobs.
For example, emphasizing collaborative or team-based client relationships over worker-specific client servicing can reduce the salience of motherhood for employers by reducing their anxieties about career disruption.
Similarly, designing ongoing virtual or distant training modules can enable workers on family-related leave to engage in continuous learning and skill development and reduce employers concerns about skill depreciation.
Finally, our findings suggest that long maternity leaves like those in Hungary are not necessarily detrimental to professional women’s careers. Thus rather than limiting parental leave, social policy should focus on enhancing women’s employment security through the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws—especially in jobs where career continuity is enforced through biased recruitment, hiring and retention practices.