When Brooke Bleyl started job hunting after taking 10 years off to care for her children, her interviews did not go well.
“They even said they typically don’t hire people with such a gap,” said Bleyl, who lives outside Cleveland and has three children, ages 7, 10 and 12.
Bleyl, who worked as an employment recruiter before taking time off, said she tried to fill in gaps on her résumé, including online selling to earn extra money.
“But when you see eBay on someone’s résumé, you know that’s a stay-at-home job,” she said, “and that you’re just selling stuff out of your basement.”
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After receiving “rejection after rejection after rejection,” Bleyl said, “I was very defeated.” She eventually found a job as an account manager at a staffing service, but only with the help of a personal connection.
For women hoping to return to the workplace after caring for their children, the advice is often “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Many women who described themselves as stay-at-home mothers can attest to receiving denigrating nods and hasty rebuffs. Researchers have repeatedly found ample evidence of discrimination against mothers in the hiring process and the workplace.
But women may be better off explaining their decision to stay home to a potential employer upfront, said Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt Law School, and co-author of a new study on the subject, “Something to Talk About: Information Exchange Under Employment Law.” Employers, afraid of running afoul of anti-discrimination laws, don’t bring up the subject, she said, and female applicants, picking up on those cues, often don’t offer information, leaving hirers to guess at the reasons behind a hiatus.
But, Hersch said, “women who conceal personal information dramatically lower their hiring prospects.”
Bleyl, despite her own experience, shares that view. “It’s better to be upfront, because it’s who you are,” she said. “I was so hungry to get in there and work, work, work.”
Some experts were skeptical of the experiment Hersch and her co-author, Jennifer Bennett Shinall, an assistant law professor at Vanderbilt, conducted for their study. They said it was too far removed from the actual job-hunting experience.
The authors of the study did not interview recruiters or human resources professionals.
Instead, they asked more than 3,000 people recruited online to act as potential employers and choose one of two candidates with similar experience.
One applicant provided an explanation for a 10-year gap in her job history – such as taking time off to raise children and then going through a divorce – while the other provided no explanation at all. Those who revealed the personal information were 30 to 40 percent more likely to be chosen than those without.
“The number of people who preferred the woman who explained her résumé gap was staggering,” Hersch said. “I was shocked.”
She said that the way many employers have responded to the law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, serves to hinder women rather than help them. In their report, Hersch and Shinall argue that overly broad guidance offered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the primary federal agency entrusted with enforcing the law in the workplace, has had the effect of freezing out discussion about family life during interviews.
The commission, for example, warns employers, “Questions about marital status and number and ages of children are frequently used to discriminate against women and may violate Title VII if used to deny or limit employment opportunities.”
Hersch says that more neutral language that invites employers to broach the issue of family with all candidates – both men and women – would be preferable.
A lot of the interview process is about ensuring a good fit, Hersch said, but now there is “an environment where you’re dancing around the elephant in the room.”
Ofer Sharone, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who researches career transitions and hiring, disagrees. He said that changing the EEOC guidelines would be disastrous.
Marriage and children tend to hurt women much more than men in the workplace, he said, and MHersch’s and Shinall’s recommendation “would greatly exacerbate that discrimination.”
Employers often wrongly assume that mothers will not be able to commit to their jobs as much if they’re committed to their families. Saying a candidate is the wrong fit can be code for discrimination, Sharone said.