It’s no secret that the coronavirus has been very hard on parents.
But a new study conducted by researchers at Tufts University and Duke University shows the exact impact varies by gender and parental status: Fatherhood seems to be shielding some men from the economic fallout.
Analyzing United States employment data between December and May, researchers found that fathers were much less likely to be laid off during the pandemic than mothers and non-parents, even after controlling for race, age, education and other individual characteristics.
These findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that parenthood affects the labor market outcomes of men and women differently. While women experience a motherhood penalty in the form of lower wages and slower advancement, men appear to get a leg up in the labor market after having children.
Felipe Dias, a professor of sociology at Tufts University and an author of the study, says these new findings are evidence of a fatherhood premium rather than a motherhood penalty, as both male and female non-parents were about as likely to be laid off as mothers.
In April, the employment-to-population ratio decreased by 7.4 percentage points for fathers, compared to between 9.3 and 9.9 percentage points for mothers and non-parents. These changes were largely driven by layoffs; quit rates actually declined during April and May across all groups. After accounting for race, age, education and other characteristics, researchers estimated that the probability of being laid off increased by 6.1 percent for fathers, compared to 9.9 percent for non-fathers, 10.1 percent for mothers, and 12.5 percent for non-mothers.
“There’s something going on about how employers are making this decision that is specifically privileging a particular group and not everyone else,” Dias explains.
Compared to the motherhood penalty, research on fatherhood premiums remains somewhat unsettled and its causes aren’t entirely known. One theory holds that fathers appear to have an advantage over non-fathers simply because men with greater earning potential are more likely to have children. Another suggests that any apparent “bonus” is because fathers are more likely to have a partner that does not work or works part-time, allowing fathers to devote more time and effort to their careers.
Michelle J. Budig, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, says both of these explanations fall short. Her research demonstrates that even after taking account of work effort, education, experience, seniority, family structure, spousal employment status and other factors, fatherhood increases men’s earnings by more than 6 percent.
Budig’s research shows the fatherhood bonus is largest among married, White college graduates in jobs that emphasize cognitive skill over physical strength.
Dias’s research suggests that a similar phenomenon is playing out during the pandemic, as employers forced to make quick decisions about who to lay off show preferential treatment to fathers.
There are a couple of different mechanisms by which preferential treatment toward fathers may be occurring. Employers may assume that fathers are the sole or primary breadwinners in their families and therefore need their job more than mothers. This assumption is outdated: Mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinner in over 40 percent of households with children younger than 18.
Beyond breadwinner stereotypes, Dias says the favorable treatment of fathers may be the result of the organizational policies companies used to determine whom to lay off. Because fathers tend to have fewer career interruptions than mothers and advance to managerial positions faster, policies that favor seniority and tenure disproportionately protect them.
Contrary to Budig’s research, Dias found that the fatherhood premium during the pandemic was strongest among lower-educated and mid-educated workers, mainly because higher-skilled workers are able to work remotely and less likely to be laid off.
The findings have both long- and short-term implications, Dias says. The researchers were unable to analyze outcomes by relationship status, but it’s possible employers are assuming mothers have access to a second income that isn’t actually there. So the logic that may have guided employers’ decision to protect fathers — that they have a family to support — may have the opposite of the intended effect.
In the long term, the imbalance may reinforce gender inequality in employment, as even short career interruptions can have long-term consequences.
“Fathers were less likely to get laid off, so they’re able to maintain their job and a stable income, but also maintain the seniority within the company,” Dias says.
In other words, the career interruptions disproportionately felt by both mothers and non-parents threaten to reinforce some of the hierarchical discrepancies that contributed to them in the first place.