Fertility Discrimination in Hiring: A Field Experiment


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It is believed that part-time jobs help reconcile work and family obligations. However, women with a higher probability of becoming pregnant in the near future have less chance of being invited to an interview for a part-time job than women who have an already established family and older children. No such difference is apparent when it comes to full-time employment.  We interpret our findings as evidence of fertility discrimination, even though part-time employment is typically considered to be particularly family-friendly.

Men and women still have very different labor market outcomes – when it comes to employment in terms of wages, earnings, participation rates, as well as with regard to other aspects. While the gender wage gap has decreased over time, significant gender disparities remain.

The empirical evidence in this respect points to the birth of children as one defining moment after which labor market asymmetries emerge.  Maternity, and the possibility of maternity, can disadvantage women in the labor market on two fronts.  Employers may perceive women of child-bearing age to be at «risk» of becoming pregnant, with the consequent possibility of a business having to face replacement costs to accommodate parental leave.  And even if a woman already has children, employers may be concerned that, due to conventional gender norms, women are more likely to be in charge of childcare than men. This may lead to more frequent absences – for example when their children are ill.  Panel survey data for average «days absent at work» indeed shows that the number of child-related absences is higher for mothers than fathers – and that it is particularly high when children are young. (See Figure below based on the German Socioeconomic Panel).

Labor Market Discrimination

Discrimination is commonly defined as a situation where individuals with identical capabilities  are treated differently because of the demographic group to which they belong.  Thus, if women of child-bearing age were treated differently to other female candidates because of their potential fertility, this would amount to discrimination.

Experimental methodologies in economics are particularly suitable for identifying discriminatory behaviour in the labor market. Correspondence tests, for example, involve sending companies fake applications in response to real job advertisements. Applications are carefully designed by researchers so that the different applicants are fully comparable in terms of their ability to perform the task required by the company. They differ only in the particular characteristic that is of interest to the researchers, such as ethnicity, gender or age.  In correspondence testing, researchers keep track of the percentage of times a particular candidate type receives an invitation for a job interview, in this case designated a «callback». In this context, if employers responded differently to e.g. male versus female applicants whose qualifications show them to be equally suited for the post in question, this would be evidence of discrimination. Such an employer reaction would be reflected in statistically different callback rates for the various candidate types.

A Field Study

In our survey, we undertook a large-scale correspondence test in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, sending out approx. 9000 job applications, varying the job candidates’ personal characteristics such as marital status and age of children.  We targeted both secretarial and accounting jobs.  We simultaneously considered both full- and part-time employment, our hypothesis being as follows. When applying for a part-time job, individuals clearly indicate their desire to reconcile family obligations with work. In contrast, applicants for full-time jobs signal that they have suitable childcare arrangements in place – otherwise they would not be able to reconcile a full-time job with, for example, the logistics of picking up children from kindergarten or school.  We would thus expect the employer reaction to the risk of pregnancy-related effects to be intensified in connection with part-time employment when compared with the outlook of companies advertising full-time positions.

In our study, we were able to establish that fertility-related information in the case of applicants for full-time jobs did not result in different callback rates.  However, we also determined with regard to part-time employment that married women with older children are at a significant advantage vis-à-vis other groups of women, because they are more likely to have completed their childbearing cycle and have more predictable childcare responsibilities than women with very young children. At the same time, married but childless applicants with an increased likelihood of becoming pregnant are at a disadvantage in comparison with single and childless applicants for part-time jobs. The calculated difference in callback rates for a job interview between married and childless candidates and mothers of older children is 12 – 15 percentage points , which is a sizeable effect compared to the average callback rate of 19% in connection with part-time jobs in our sample.  This effect is not observed for full-time jobs presumably because, by applying for these rather than part-time jobs, women are presumed to be signalling that they have arranged for external childcare.

A lot of progress has been made over the last decades in order to promote the equal treatment of women in the labor market. Labor laws in German-speaking countries have strict anti-discrimination regulations that prohibit differential treatment based on sex or (expected) motherhood. However, our results in the case of applications for part-time employment demonstrate that employers are not fully immune to a consideration of potential or actual motherhood in female applicants for part-time jobs, even in female-friendly occupations.

3rd International BFH Conference on Discrimination in the Labor Market

30 – 31 August 2019, Bern University of Applied Sciences, Business School, Bern

This conference brings together high-level academic researchers and influential policy makers to address the challenges posed by labor market discrimination. Distinguished academics will be presenting their latest findings on various cases of discrimination.

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