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The fatherhood bonus: Have a child and advance your career

December 14, 2011

The careers of different men progress at different rates. That’s just as we would expect. Higher performers are rewarded; lower performers slow down. Our accomplishments guide our careers. Good workplaces are meritocracies — do your job well, and you’ll get ahead. That’s what we believe.

Or, at least that’s what we want to believe. But after a few years on the job, we start to wonder. Other factors seem to play a role.

What about parenthood? Does that figure in to how we get evaluated? Does fatherhood affect the careers of men? How are fathers perceived when we’re asked to appraise them?

We know how it works for women. There is a motherhood penalty, and it’s not related to performance; evaluation in laboratory settings of otherwise identical files in which the only difference is parenthood proves this claim. If you’re a mother, that will affect how your job performance is perceived. Negatively.

Is there a fatherhood penalty, too?

It seems not. In fact, it seems that there’s a fatherhood bonus. Fathers don’t simply outpace mothers in the workplace; they even outpace men who don’t have children!

The report on the Position of Women in Science in Spain mentions some facts about the careers of men in academia. Men with children, this White Paper from the Spanish government notes, are more likely than those without children to be promoted.

A man who has at least one child is 1.7 times more likely to be a Full Professor than a man without children.

This finding is not unique.

In a study with kindred results, subjects were asked to read files of fictitious applicants for positions as an attorney. Among the male applicants, fathers were held to lower standards than non-fathers.

Fathers could get hired and promoted, in other words, even when their performance was worse than that of men without children. (Kathleen Fuegen, Monica Biernat, Elizabeth Haines, and Kay Deaux. 2004. Mothers and Fathers in the Workplace: How Gender and Parental Status Influence Judgments of Job-Related Competence. Journal of Social Issues.)

In another study in which subjects rate files of fictitious applicants, the benefits of fatherhood were many. (Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik. 2007. Getting a job: Is there a Motherhood PenaltyAmerican Journal of Sociology.)

Applicants who were fathers were rated significantly more committed to their job than non-fathers. Fathers were allowed to be late to work significantly more times than non-fathers. Finally, they were offered significantly higher salaries than non-fathers.

Why do fathers get ahead?

Does fatherhood bring out the traits we value in a good colleague? At the very least, it seems that fatherhood enhances the perception of highly valued social skills. This is what Stephen Benard and Shelley J. Correll report in their article Normative discrimination and the motherhood penalty from Gender & Society 2010.

Compared to men without children, highly successful fathers are perceived as significantly less hostile, as more likable, and warmer. Parenthood enhances the perceived interpersonal qualities of male but not female applicants. Fatherhood is a signal of positive interpersonal qualities.

As we learn about the enhanced careers of fathers, we realize that a difference work/life balance cannot possibly be the explanation for slower careers for mothers. Fathers have a different work/life balance than their childless male peers. Yet that doesn’t slow them down.

Even if mothers spend more time on childcare than fathers, fathers nonetheless spend more time on childcare than non-fathers. If women are slowed down in their careers by the actual effect parenthood has on their daily lives, then we would expect to see the same effect slowing down fathers as compared to non-fathers. But we don’t.

Other factors are at play.  But what are they? Our perceptions, our stereotypes, our unconscious prejudices, perhaps these are the ingredients creating the bonus for fathers and the penalty for mothers.

If so, then these are the factors that have to be countered. Organizations that see the value of diversity, organizations that want to treat their employees fairly and on the basis of their actual performance, must be proactive in the face of what we now know.

Careers are not built on merit alone. There is discrimination in academia; there is discrimination in law firms. Unfair bias surrounds us. The evidence is clear.

Only one question remains: What will we do about it?

Related entry: The motherhood penalty: It’s not children that slow mothers down
4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2011 23:58

    Hi Curt,
    I am enjoying your blog. Another factor in the beneficial effect of fatherhood may be that the father has a wife, and possibly that wife is part or full time at home (while for a mother, the probability is that her husband has a full time job).

    Here are some comments from Alexandra Beauregard ‘Family influences on the career life cycle’ (p8-10):

    “A longitudinal study of managers and professionals (Tharenou, 1999) revealed that in the private sector, married fathers with stay-at-home wives enjoyed greater career advancement than married fathers in dual-earner partnerships, who in turn enjoyed greater career advancement than single men with no children…”

    The explanation for this is that ‘wives at home’ support their husbands’ career, enabling them to earn more. But this diminishes once the wives have their own careers requiring resources, while the single men receive no spousal support at all.

    In theory, single women’s careers should advance more than married women’s, as the resources of single women can be devoted entirely to their own careers. But Tharenou’s research found otherwise:

    “Mothers in dual-earner partnerships enjoyed greater career advancement than single women, but less advancement than married women whose husbands were not employed. This suggests that husbands can also provide resources for their wives’ careers, at least when their time and energies are not required for careers of their own.

    “It appears that all other things being equal, having a spouse is preferable to being single in terms of career advancement. Whether this is due to the effects of spousal support, the benefits of conforming to social expectations, or to the greater perceived financial need of families compared to single individuals, married employees enjoy more progress within their occupations, with married men enjoying the greatest progress of all.”

    • December 16, 2011 07:51

      Very interesting. Thank you. I think part of the challenge in processing and understanding these data is to separate real-life issues from perceptions and their implications. The “stay at home wife” story would be an example of the former, while some of the studies I cite are in the latter category. It seems that the explanations in the paper you mention may be so compelling that they actually creep into our stereotypes.


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