Why Is It Still Legal to Profile Working Moms?

job interview

In 1994, Kiki Peppard, a single mother of two, moved to eastern Pennsylvania desperate for employment to support her family. And her strategy worked: the savvy job hunter managed to score 19 interviews. But each time a prospective employer learned that Ms. Peppard had children, the interview abruptly ended and she was not offered the job. It was only when one employer did not ask about Ms. Peppard’s maternal status that the single mother was offered a position.

Sadly, Ms. Peppard’s story is not unique. Countless women report being asked if they have children or if they plan to have children, agreed Lisa Quast recently in Forbes Magazine. And if the answer is affirmative, the interview is ended and these women are summarily kicked out the door. Indeed, this epidemic of “mommy profiling” has become so severe it was the subject of The Motherhood Manifesto, a documentary executive-produced by Joan Blades, cofounder of the family-rights organization MomsRising. Kiki Peppard’s quest for employment kicks off the film.

“Mommy profiling” is defined as “employment discrimination against a woman who has, or will have, children.” Says MomsRising’s other founder, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner,

Mothers are 79 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers with equal resume and experiences. … Women without children make 90 percent [of a comparable man’s salary], as compared to 73 percent for women with children and 60 percent for single moms. … Mothers were offered $11,000 less in starting pay than non-mothers with the same resumes and job experiences, while fathers were offered $6,000 more.

How is it possible that in 2013 in the United States women can still be discriminated against when seeking employment, experience such economic disparity or even be passed over for promotion because of being a mother? Because it is still legal in Pennsylvania—and 27 other states—to engage in “mommy profiling”—to question an employee’s maternal status and deny employment because of what the answers to the questions reveal.

“One employer,” says Peppard, “said that he did not want to pay the cost of my children’s healthcare bills.” Other employers claim that women with families take too much time off for maternity leave.

But studies have shown that employees who have to take time off for sick leave due to lack of exercise, poor diet or other bad health habits take much longer leave than that allotted to new mothers—and are much less productive than new mothers when returning  to the job. Employees who are caring for aging relatives take even more time off than new mothers.

So why is it that mothers are the ones being discriminated against? If employers are claiming that they are screening out prospective lost time and lost revenue, should they not screen for these other factors as well? Better yet, why can’t employers just treat everyone equally and not discriminate at all—as the Equal Opportunity Employment Act intends?

Peppard has devoted herself to fighting against “mommy profiling” so that other women will not have to undergo the injustice that she has faced throughout  much of her career. After six years of letter writing, she convinced Sen. Jane Orie and Rep. Draig Dally, to introduce a bill in the Pennsylvania state Senate to prevent employers from asking “mommy profiling questions,” but the bills have never made it from committee to the floor for a vote.

“I’ve been trying to get this changed for the last 18 years and it’s very, very frustrating,” says Peppard. “I don’t understand it.”

Recently, it got even worse. After moving to another district in Pennsylvania, Peppard reported to Blades (who also cofounded MoveOn.org) for The Huffington Post:

I contacted my new member of the House of Representatives several times seeking his support and asking him to introduce new legislation (again) to prohibit employers from asking job candidates about their marital/family status during job interviews. He finally called me back and said not only would he never ever introduce such legislation, if he heard that someone else did, he would devote all of his time and efforts to see to it that the bill failed. He said he would never endorse any laws that would interfere in how businesses are run or take away any rights of a business owner.

Peppard thought it might be time to finally give up the fight and leave it for her granddaughter. But then she realized that that was not the legacy she wanted to leave for the next generation of women. Now she is appealing to President Obama, through the White House Council on Women and Girls, to mandate anti-“mommy profiling” laws on a federal level. Her hope is that the federal government will step in where her state so shamefully refuses to.

And for the sake of all the mothers among us, let’s hope it does.

Image of “Beast of a Job Interview” from Flickr user Mike Licht under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. What are the 28 states that still have this law?

  2. joanne malene says:

    what are the other 27 states who permit this?

  3. Boy, this happened to me years ago when I was single. And I wasn’t the only one. Girlfriends at the time all said it was the same for them. Employers would ask us if we planned to get married. Of course we would say yes, and immediately our chances of getting one of the good jobs at the company faded. Most often, we were offered secretary or support jobs. It was a break through when my friend Linda was promoted to loan officer at the bank we were working at. She was the first female in that position. That was the late 1960s. We were thrilled for her. But we never realized at the time that we all should have been considered for those types of jobs regardless of whether we married, or had children.

  4. Can you pls list other states where it’s legal to “mommy profile”? THX

  5. I know one time I was passed over for a management position with an IT firm though I had never missed any time off work – AT ALL- and my bosses told me, IN FRONT OF OTHERS… “We know you’re more qualified, and even more mature, but we didn’t think it would be fair to your son for you to be at work as much as the job required.” I felt rather humiliated, as though my ambition was found to be unattractive and harmful to my child.

    • That is awful, Kristi. I hope you’ve moved beyond the humiliation. Some of us are much better mothers when we work. I know I am! I’d be pulling out my hair if I stayed at home.

      • Adrienne Sadovsky says:

        Thank you so much for saying this. I have felt this way but felt guilty for thinking it. I’m glad someone else out there feels this way.

    • Oh, how KIND of you to make that parenting decision for me, sir!

    • To be fair, and I know your bosses weren’t thinking this because they weren’t that altruistic, but kids *do* need to see more of their parents–PLURAL, though. Not just moms. It amazes me how conservatives rant about single mothers because kids need dads, but the kind of dads conservatives favor spend 40-70 hours a week at work and only see their kids on the weekends for any meaningful amount of time; how’s that different from weekend visitation?

      But this speaks to a larger problem of adults generally not wanting to be around kids, to which I have to question why any of us have kids in the first place. Or if we do want to be around kids, we don’t want it enough, and we don’t fight to change workplace policy in *that* direction. It’s not right to have children and then hire the state or a sitter to raise them. That’s not what they’re for.

      And yes, I’m liberal, voted for Obama, etc., etc. But this has always bugged me. The work world should serve US, not the other way around.

      • Couldn’t agree more.
        That is the real threat to the family, not gay marriage!

        I agree both parents should be home more. It shouldn’t be standard to inky see the whole family one hiur a day, if that.

        I voted Obama, pro choice, pro gay marriage… But yes… We should be a rich enough country that we don’t work more than we see our family we are building.

  6. These are some serious horror stories. I am APPALLED that mothers are still encountering this kind of discrimination. Thankfully, there are some employers that have evolved beyond this sort of thing. I was very clear I was leaving behind a 6 month old during my last round of academic interviews and even told members of each search committee when we were arranging my itineraries that I would need some time to pump, since I was still breastfeeding. I was offered both jobs.

  7. In Spain it is illegal to ask such questions but enterprises still do, as it’s very hard to prove you have been asked about it. I myself was questioned several times during an interview about my private life. They wrote down my age on my CV (29) and they asked me to be sincere about if I was planning on having children or not. It was really frustrating! And the worst of all is that the person who was asking me that was a pregnant woman!!! What’s wrong with people?!

  8. “But studies have shown that employees who have to take time off for sick leave due to lack of exercise, poor diet or other bad health habits take much longer leave than that allotted to new mothers.”

    Which studies? The author needs to document which studies and by whom. Otherwise, the article has less credibility. And we must have credibility, because this discrimination does exist. Women are still at a disadvantage when seeking employment.

  9. In general the work culture in this country is terrible! But, the victim blaming has to stop:
    “But studies have shown that employees who have to take time off for sick leave due to lack of exercise, poor diet or other bad health habits take much longer leave than that allotted to new mothers.”
    Seriously? Don’t target others when trying to create empathy, please.

  10. UGH. Just UGH.

    I was asked if I was married or had children at a job interview once, and I declined to answer. I didn’t get the job. Turned out that since it was for a foreign diplomatic mission, they were exempt from whatever profiling laws existed in that state. Oops. I landed another interview with them a year later, and I was hired. After I smiled sweetly and told them I hoped to get married, but it wasn’t likely to be soon. Then I met my husband there, and we both quit at the same time 3 years later. BOOM.

    A positive story: my dad runs a small artisan studio in which I spent a lot of time as a child, and he built me an “office” to keep me out from underfoot. When a prospective employee came to interview, she saw me in my office and immediately knew she wanted to work there–they had daycare!

  11. THIS IS APPALLING! I’m in the UK and here it is illegal to discriminate on grounds of race, age, gender, etc. it is no longer normal practice for your marital status to be on your CV (resume) and I have never been asked in an interview if I have or intend to have children. Moreover as a team manager, I have never considered this factor when making decisions about developing or promoting staff. Parenthood is a normal part if life, therefore it is a normal part of business life.

    I believe this attitude is the norm across Europe now. It is time the USA caught up.

  12. Thankfully, I don’t think I’ve ever been discriminated against by answering a mommy question. Currently, I’m married but don’t have children, and honestly I’m not sure if I do want to have children. But on the other hand, when mommy questions have popped up in an interview, I’m always afraid to say that I don’t want children or don’t plan on having them, just in case that makes me look like some sort of un-woman in the eyes of the interviewer. I get that some of it is just the interviewer trying to make small talk during the interview, but honestly I do find those types of questions to be inappropriate.

  13. I had a terrible time finding employment when we moved back to the US from England. I sent out no less than 87 resumes and online job applications over a six month period. I scored ONE interview. With the Girl Scouts. Meanwhile my brother in law who has a track record of quitting or being fired from jobs after a matter of weeks, seems to waltz in and out of new employment without any issue. I have a bachelor’s in Media Communications and experience managing a retail shop with annual revenue of over $1 million. I applied for office roles but as time ticked on I was applying for ANYTHING, seasonal work at Target, Walgreens, Walmart. Not even so much as a callback.

    It was a learning experience. Now my 9 yeardaughter and I have our own online shop for side income but it is also a way for my daughter to learn how to own and run her own business. She has learned about finding suppliers, cost/profit margins, marketing , fulfillment, etc. I told her it is essential to know how to make her own job & secure her own income source, especially since profiling of women (mommy or not) is rife. I don’t ever want her to go through what I went through, where I was practically begging to be given a chance to work at a freakng big box retailer because I needed the money. It was the most helpless feeling I ever had in my life.

    • I think it’s outrageous that women are still being profiled on whether or not they have or intend to have children at some point, and it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon.

      However, as difficult as it is for women with babies or small children to find jobs, I can say from personal experience that it is even harder for women who have children with a disability. Even when the children with disabilities grow to adulthood, many of them still cannot be left on their own. This puts an added hardship on mothers who may have to pay extra money for people to care for a disabled child or adult while they are at work. If the job is low- or minimum-wage, there may not be much point to working such a job at all.

  14. Lever Brothers asked what kind of birth control I was on–this was in the 90’s, mind you. They also asked what kind of antibiotics I was on when a bout of bronchitis lasted “too long”. Y&R ad agency (circa 2001) asked if I was married or if I wanted to have kids–and the other companies I can’t share about bc still too recent–this.goes.on.every.day.

  15. Although there is no direct law that prohibits discrimination based on family responsibilities. Job applicants who are not hired because they have kids can file suit under Title VII, which is a federal law that covers all states. Employees have a higher conviction rate against employers for these types of discriminations than other discrimination suits (SHRM 2010). These types of questions can be tied to gender discrimination. Therefore, if this happens to you, I would contact the EEOC.

  16. I have been asked how many children I have, who watches them if they get sick, and will I be putting all of them on my health insurance. One of the places that asked all those questions also asked who my parents were and where I went to church. But I have never been antibiotic profiled.

  17. Jennifer Mc says:

    Could you please clarify how these states can discriminate if it is a violation of federal law? According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Council it is illegal to ask questions about marital status, pregnancy, and numbers and age of children and future child bearing intentions. I though federal law trumps state law, therefore making this practice illegal. http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/practices/inquiries_marital_status.cfm

  18. Kiki Peppard says:

    EEOC only steps in if questions are asked of women and NOT men – then it is considered sex discrimination. If question are asked if only women applied for a job – this is not illegal according to the federal government because it applies only one gender. The EEOC web site states that such questions “MAY” be considered discriminatory if asked of women only and not men. It does not specifically state that asking such questions is against the law. The word “may” is used many times in their description of marital status discrimination. Federal law does trump state law, but the language of marital status is not included in the specific wording of the law. The law states: “Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” The actual term marital status is not contained in the letter of the law. Hope this helps. EEOC would not help me unless I could prove to them that a man interviewed for the same job as me and was not asked the same questions as I was. Interviews are theoretically confidential. How would one know not only who else applied for the same job but what specific questions were asked during the interview?

  19. Kiki Peppard says:

    Federal Law Title VII also protects against AGE discrimination. I apologize for not including that in my response.

  20. It is appalling to hear that anyone, let alone a district representative – elected to VOICE the concerns of their constituents!!! – would be unwilling to raise this discussion to the level of government required to make a change. I am a single, childless woman in my 30s, and have also been asked during job interviews of my intention to have children. Considering that the interviewer is not my significant other, parent, sibling, or close friend, my first instinct was to let him know that it was none of his business. With experience as a female in a male-dominated field (engineering), I bit my tongue and told him that it was not in the cards for the foreseeable future. I have constantly, and with only growing passion, been frustrated that women are assessed and judged under a completely different lens than men. I was once told by a colleague, after expressing that I was not interested in being a stay-at-home mom in the future (I have TREMENDOUS respect for stay-at-home moms, but not the right decision for me), that “one day I would understand and feel differently about it”. This person knew me for about 1 month at that point. I was astonished that he felt so confident that he knew me so much better than myself, that he would tell me how I would be feeling in 10 years (must be able to see the future, right?!). Every time an interviewer sits across the table from a woman, asks the question of whether they have or intend to have children, and make the unfounded judgment of how the woman will act or make decisions based on her answer, discrimination is ABSOLUTELY in play. Each woman, mother, father, PERSON, has different goals, makes decisions in a different way, prioritizes different things. What right does the interviewer have to project their belief or experience with one woman on another?
    The only thing that makes me feel even the slightest bit better about this is that all of these hard-working, multi-tasking, determined, and strong-willed woman will find a home at companies that support them, and that all of these traits will help to grow the strength of their company. Corporate Darwinism!

  21. I’m not at all surprised that the anecdote is about a woman in Pennsylvania. I was asked “so do you just want to be a mother or what?” and told “mothers don’t like X positions because there are so many evening meetings,” or some version thereof, multiple times in interviews in PA. Partly because these were small business and PA has no anti-discrimination laws for businesses with fewer than 4 employees. Partly because the culture there assumes this is acceptable. I’m not sure lawsuits are the answer–it’s just so hard to prove these cases. The EEOC should be out with phony job applicants with microphones. And you academics out there need to do some studies on the true difference in job performance between parents and nonparents.

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