Parents who take time off work to look after their children may struggle to get another job, according to a new study.

The research compared three different types of parents seeking work: those who had temporarily opted out to be carers; those who had lost jobs and had time away from work; and those in work looking for new jobs.

The results showed stay-at-home parents were much less likely to interviewed or asked for further information than the others.

Employees who had been made redundant were also likelier to be hired than those who had deliberately put careers on hold.

Job hunt

Exactly 3,374 applications were sent to employers offering real jobs in 50 US cities by researcher Katherine Weisshaar, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina.

She provided three fictitious résumés for each vacancy and used names that could be male or female.

The first résumé had no gaps in employment, the second was for someone who had been unemployed for a year and a half, and the third was for a stay-at-home-parent.

All the applicants had the same level of experience, number of previous jobs and skills. It was obvious that all were parents.

She then tracked which applicants were offered interviews or called for more information.

Image: WEF

‘Don’t call us…’

Only 4.9% of stay-at-home mothers received a callback, while 9.7% of the mothers not working for reasons other than childcare were contacted.

But 15.3% of in-work mothers received a callback - more than three times the number of those who had taken parental career breaks.

The results were similar for fathers.

While 14.6% of the employed and 8.8% of unemployed dads received a callback, only 5.4% of stay-at-home fathers did.

“I found that many employers are biased against job applicants who have temporarily stayed at home with their children, preferring laid-off applicants who have been out of work for the same amount of time,” Weisshaar wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Weisshaar also conducted a survey asking people’s opinions of the résumés.

The respondents viewed those who had lost jobs or taken career breaks as being less capable, less reliable, less deserving and less committed than those in continuous employment.

Weisshaar suggested one reason for this might be because people who had been out of work for longer may be thought to have outdated skills.

Fathers are viewed worse than mothers when they take career breaks.
Image: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

However, fathers came off worse, with stay-at-home dads viewed as the most uncommitted and unreliable group.

“Opting out signals a violation of ideal worker norms to employers - norms that expect employees to be highly dedicated to work,” Weisshaar said.

Her findings were echoed in a US-based survey from the Pew Research Center, a think-tank.

This found that many Americans believe men face more pressure than women to focus on jobs or careers instead of childcare.

More American men believe that society values their contributions at work more than at home.
Image: Pew Research Center

Other studies have shown that unemployed applicants find it harder to secure work than those leaving an existing job. Weisshaar said employers took a dim view of absences from work of nine months or more.

“The results show just how heavily parents reentering the workforce are penalized for their career gap,” she said.

Beat the unspoken bias

Businesses are concerned about stay-at-home parents’ prioritizing family over work, Weisshaar said. “Employers may worry that such an applicant will decide to leave work again or that they will face difficulties transitioning back to work.”

This unspoken bias is difficult to challenge head on, but there are ways around it. Keeping up to date with industry knowledge and being able to prove you have current skills is a start.

Adding to your CV through volunteering, particularly if you have held leadership positions, will help. This shows you have the right mindset and can provide valuable references.

It is also worth remaining visible on work-related social media and in physical networking groups, while keeping in contact with old colleagues can help you to stay in the loop regarding industry developments and job openings.