Women And Employees With Working Spouses Given Fewer Chances For Job Relocations, According To New Study

November 07, 1997

ATHENS, Ga. -- An estimated 40 million Americans relocate each year for job-related reasons -- often for promotions or better pay. And yet women and employees with working spouses may be offered fewer chances to relocate because of a not-so-subtle bias among employers, according a new study led by a researcher at the University of Georgia.

The apparent bias was found in a two-part study that raises questions about how bosses decide who should be offered positions that include job relocation.

"Our study is one of the first to provide an in-depth look at the complexities of work and family life in the context employee relocation and how the intersection between these roles may have important career consequences for all employees," said Lillian Eby, an industrial/organizational psychologist in the applied psychology program at UGA.

Others who participated in the study are Shane Douthitt and Jennifer Matthews, also of UGA and Tammy Allen of the University of South Florida. The research was presented today at the meeting of the Southern Management Association in Atlanta.

Mobility is crucial for employees in many businesses and industries, and it's not just the employees who move. Between 1991 and 1995, some 56,000 businesses moved across state lines. Eby said having a mobile work force allows organizations to be more flexible and respond more quickly to competitive pressures. Relocations can also be important steps in employees' career development.

There has been anecdotal evidence of a bias in selecting candidates for job relocation, but until the current study, very little empirical evidence of it. The research reported today makes clear that managers give females and employees with working spouses fewer chances to relocate. Despite the perception that these employees would be less likely to accept a relocation, their acceptance rates for relocation were no different than rates for employees in other categories.

"These findings can help explain why a glass ceiling exists for many working women and why a pay gap persists between men and women in comparable jobs," said Eby.

The research combined a carefully designed laboratory study (Study 1) with an examination of the actual mobility rates of 879 recently relocated employees (Study 2).

Study 1 was designed to systematically assess what effect, if any, job applicant sex, parental status and marital type had on managers' perceptions of equally qualified employees for jobs requiring relocation. Participants were 144 undergraduate students at the University of Georgia, who were asked to evaluate job candidates who had carefully developed fictitious application forms, external letters of recommendation, personal statements, detailed resumes and personal background information. A videotaped segment of the applicant's performance was also provided to increase realism.

These participants were led to believe they were involved in a collaborative study with another university designed to help identify successful applicants for a post-doctoral fellowship that required relocating to a host university. The study was also designed to discover how the 144 participants rated the suitability of certain of the fictitious job candidates to move.

Study 1 found that if a man does not have children, the presence of a working spouse does not significantly affect others' perceptions that he will be willing to move to accept a job. On the other hand, when children are present in the home, having a working spouse appears to have a negative effect on the perception that a man would take a job that required relocation. These effects show the extremely complex relationships of family, sex and children.

"For female applicants, an interesting pattern emerged," said Eby. "When there are no children in the home, a woman with a working spouse is rated lower in perceived willingness to move; however, this same dual-earner female is rater higher when she has children."

The results of Study 1 established that biases exist in the perceived suitability of equally qualified candidates, said Eby. Study 2, on the other hand, is one the first to examine whether actual mobility rates are affected by employee sex, parental status or marital type. The researchers looked at the mobility rates of both managerial and non-managerial employees who relocated primarily between 1992-1994. These employees were from 76 organizations in the public, non-profit and private sectors.

"We found in Study 2 that being female or a member of a dual-earner marriage decreases the chance that an employee will be offered a job opportunity requiring relocation," said Eby. "Moreover, because employees in Study 2 did not differ in their actual acceptance rates, it appears as if these biases may be based on non-job related factors such as sex and marital type. Combining the methods of both studies allows us to isolate effects and take into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of each approach."

Eby said the study reported on today makes clear that issues surrounding employee relocation are complex and that the many roles played by employees can have a crucial impact on their careers. The overall affect of bias against women and employees in dual-earner marriages, however, could lead companies to rethink their positions about who is offered a chance to relocate -- and why.

University of Georgia

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