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How to relaunch a career after being a stay-at-home parent

Published: Saturday, July 13 2013 8:20 a.m. MDT

After spending a period of time at home to raise children, can a woman successfully return to work?

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Kristy Rae Williams knew she had an inside lane on the career track when she landed an entry-level position at Bain, a prestigious consulting firm, right out of college.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in economics and plenty of ambition, Rae Williams spent five years with the company, traveling to meet clients, managing projects and weighing in on internal strategy. It was hard work, and she was good at it.

Then Rae Williams and her husband decided to have a baby. “Up to that point my thought process was that I wanted to continue working after the baby came mainly for financial and security reasons,” she said.

But as the pregnancy progressed, Rae Williams questioned her decision. She and her husband went over all the reasons it made sense for her to return to work, but something about it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until the couple began toying with the idea of her staying at home after the birth that she started to feel settled.

“You only live once, and your kids are only little once,” she said. “I will never have the chance to be with them like this again.”

While she is committed to being there for her kids (there are now four of them), the Houston mom hasn’t ruled out returning to work at some point. “It is hard to predict the future,” she said. Financial considerations, like putting four kids through college or the possibility of her husband’s loss of income, might require her to re-enter the work force full-time. As her children become more independent, she might want a more-involved project to occupy her time and energy.

With her impressive resume and extensive work experience, Rae Williams is certain that she will have no trouble finding something when and if she feels so inclined. A growing body of research, however, suggests this confidence might be misplaced, perhaps not for Rae Williams personally, but certainly for stay-at-home moms generally.

Trouble for moms

Many employers shy away from hiring mothers, according to a study performed by Shelly Cornell, Stephan Bernard and In Paik, all professors of sociology at Cornell University. The team asked lab participants to evaluate the resumes and cover letters of pairs of same-gender applicants for entry-level professional positions. The applicants had the same level of experience and qualifications but differed on parental status.

Lab participants consistently rated applicants described as mothers as less committed to work and less qualified for the position. Childless women were recommended 1.8 times more frequently than mothers. When mothers were recommended, evaluators suggested lower salaries than they suggested for equally qualified non-mothers or men. Researchers found that being a father does not negatively impact the way evaluators responded to resumes. In fact, some evidence suggests that fathers are evaluated more positively than non-fathers.

To find out if these results would hold true in the real world, researchers used the pairs of resumes from the lab experiment to apply for real positions throughout the Northeastern United States. As it turns out, real-world discrimination against mothers was more pronounced than discrimination in the lab. Childless women received 2.1 times as many callbacks as equally qualified mothers. Fathers received 1.7 times as many callbacks as equally qualified non-fathers.

Add this to employer concerns about women’s ages and the skill loss that occurs when women are out of the work force for even just a few weeks, and it can seem like the odds are stacked against stay-at-home mothers who want or need to return to work.

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