Research shows stay-at-home parents have trouble re-entering workforce

HUNTINGTON Sara Wyrick Catron says being a stay-at-home mom was a part of her life journey that she believed would lead to following her career path after her children were grown.

However, Catron says re-entering the workforce isn’t always that easy for stay-at-home parents.

“I have been trying to re-enter the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom for the past 17 1/2 years,” she said. “I have submitted 30 to 40 applications and resumes, including several interviews over the past several months, but no employer will hire me.”

Catron, 41, of Huntington, said she has been told the same thing at every interview.

“They say, ‘Sorry, you just don’t have any job experience and we are looking for someone with some job experience,’” she said.

Catron is one of about 11 million parents in the United States who are staying at home right now, taking care of their children. Research shows most stay-at-home moms and dads plan to return to work at some point, whether it’s after the kids start school, stop nursing or whenever financial necessity becomes a reality.

“While I was a stay-at-home mom, I was able to work around my kids’ schedules and attend Marshall University, where I graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice,” Catron said. “Even with a college degree, I am still finding it extremely difficult because I don’t have job experience in that career field. It makes me feel like my degree is worthless.”

Recently the Brookings Institution published a study that emphasized just how difficult it can be for those who have been out of the workforce for a long period of time to get a job.

“The longer a worker is unemployed, the less likely they are to get a job,” the study said. “The short-term unemployed [less than five weeks] are more than three times as likely to find a job in a given month as people who have been unemployed for a year or more.”

While there is a difference between voluntary unemployment to stay home with the children and being laid off (or fired), it doesn’t change the fact that it’s difficult to find a job when you’ve been out of the workforce.

“I shouldn’t be ashamed or judged for making the decision to stay home to raise my three kids, but I just sort of feel like I am not being given a fair chance at a good job, despite my education and skills,” Catron said. “I raised three great kids, and that was a lot of work. That is something I am proud of and I don’t regret.

“I just think many of these companies are missing out on amazing workers, and the reason seems to be just because we have been out of the workforce for a while. I am not saying it’s discrimination, but it sort of feels like it.”

Catron said she also did lots of volunteer work while she was a stay-at-home mom and includes that on her resume as part of her life skills.

“Because I don’t have a paid job as experience, businesses say they don’t have the time to train me,” she said. “It’s sad, because I am so ready for a job. I will work the hardest and look forward to coming into work.”

Kate Weisshaar, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, published her research in the Harvard Business Review on the topic of stay-at-home moms last year.

“Re-entering the workforce after taking a leave of absence can be difficult, but is it harder for workers who lost their jobs and have been unemployed or workers who took time away to care for children? My research shows it’s the latter who have it worse,” she wrote.

Weisshaar said her research study found that many employers are biased against job applicants who have temporarily stayed at home with their children, even preferring laid-off applicants who have been out of work for the same amount of time.

“While researchers have studied why parents might decide to leave work and stay at home with their children, previous research did not have a clear understanding of what happens to these parents when they decide to return to work,” she wrote.

In the study, Weisshaar sent fictitious resumes to real job openings.

“I developed a set of resumes to represent three types of job applicants: currently employed applicants with no employment gaps, unemployed applicants, and stay-at-home parent applicants. Male or female names made the applicants appear to be either men or women,” she said. “The application materials implied that all fictitious applicants were parents and all applicants had the same level of experience, number of jobs and skills. Those who had employment gaps had been out of the workforce for 18 months.”

In the span of several months, Weisshaar sent 3,374 resumes to job listings in 50 U.S. cities for accountants, financial analysts, software engineers, human resources managers and marketing directors. She then tracked which applicants received requests for interviews, more information or a “call back.”

The results show just how heavily parents re-entering the workforce are penalized for their career gap, with 15.3 percent of the employed mothers, 9.7 percent of the unemployed mothers and only 4.9 percent of the stay-at-home mothers receiving a call back. The results were similar for fathers. While 14.6 percent of the employed fathers and 8.8 percent of unemployed fathers received a call back, only 5.4 percent of stay-at-home fathers did.

“Put simply, stay-at-home parents were about half as likely to get a call back as unemployed parents and only one-third as likely as employed parents,” Weisshaar wrote in her study.

In Weisshaar’s survey experiment, she said she found that people viewed both unemployed applicants and stay-at-home applicants as less capable than continuously employed applicants, perhaps thinking their skills had become rusty while they were not working.

“Respondents viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job and — the biggest penalty — less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants,” she wrote. “Interestingly, while I found very few gender differences in the audit study call-back rates, in the survey experiment I found that stay-at-home fathers are perceived as even less committed and reliable than stay-at-home mothers. This could be because fathers face expectations to provide for their families and respondents viewed stay-at-home fathers negatively for not adhering to these expectations.”

Weisshaar reported the findings suggest that employers are concerned about stay-at-home parents prioritizing family over work.

“Employers may worry that such an applicant will decide to leave work again or that they will face difficulties transitioning back to work,” she wrote. “These concerns might be triggered because stay-at-home parents violate ubiquitous expectations that employees should dedicate themselves completely to work and prioritize it over other areas of life — what sociologists call ideal worker norms.”

These ideal worker norms can be problematic for parents who want to work, Weisshaar added.

“My study shows that these same norms are invoked when employers evaluate stay-at-home parents job applicants,” she wrote. “In other words, these norms produce a reinforcing cycle: They push some parents out of work and then keep stay-at-home parents from regaining work. Until we re-evaluate the norms and expectations applied to employees, it is likely that parents who choose to stay home will continue to face limits to their careers.”

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