Interview IQ

Sure, you're proud of your growing family, but maybe you should keep it to yourself when job hunting. Here's why.

Next time you're on a job interview, it might be smart not to mention the baby. A Cornell University experiment revealed that job applicants who were known to be mothers were less likely to be hired and were considered less qualified and less deserving of a high salary than equivalent female candidates without children. In a paper titled "Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?" Cornell sociologist Shelley J. Correll and graduate student Stephen Benard sum up findings from the experiment, in which 192 undergraduates evaluated equally qualified (but fictitious) candidates applying for the same midlevel management position. Some resumes indicated that the applicants were active in parent-teacher associations, and some were clipped to handwritten notes that said, "Mother to Tom and Emily." Other resumes said nothing about children.

Surprisingly, the evaluators (both female and male) decided to hire 84 percent of the childless women and only 47 percent of the mothers. To add insult to injury, the mothers were offered on average $11,000 less than their childless peers.

Good intentions gone bad

Why such blatant discrimination? It may stem from misperceptions about motherhood, says Jocelyn Frye, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based National Partnership for Women & Families. According to Frye, many people are ingrained with strong, yet outdated, beliefs that women shouldn't work full time once they have children. In addition, employers might fear that a working mom will be unable to give the job her full attention due to family demands.

Discrimination can even take the form of "friendly" advice. One woman was told in a casual job interview that she shouldn't pursue the position if she wanted to have a child. "They said it was too demanding of a position and it was just too hard to try to do both," she recalls.

Frye's advice? "You could respond to this well-intentioned interviewer by saying: 'It's 2006, we should be able to go beyond certain stereotypes. I should be evaluated on my skills and what I bring to the table.' In the end, you'll be helping this interviewer, because someone down the road may take legal action in response to that sort of comment." Although no specific legislation prohibits discrimination against mothers in the U.S., there are laws protecting employees from discrimination based on sex, marital status and pregnancy. Adds Frye, "An employer can't tell someone, 'You can't get the job if you're going to get pregnant.' In the end, it isn't legal."

Job-Search Advice

• Keep the interview professional. If asked whether you have children, skirt the issue by either bringing up your skills or coyly asking, "Are you allowed to ask that?"

• Anticipate issues. For example, if you need to leave at 5 p.m. daily to pick up your child, ask in advance (without discussing your baby) about the flexibility of office hours.

• If you're pregnant and not showing, you may want to mention this out of courtesy during the interview. You are not, however, obligated to do so; first see if you can predict the attitude of your potential employer.

• If personal topics come up during a lunch or other casual interview setting, bring the conversation back to your skills, experience and ability to get the job done.