Penalized or Protected? Gender and the Consequences of Nonstandard and Mismatched Employment Histories

Being in a job that underutilizes a person's skills is as damaging to a person's work history as a year of unemployment, and men are penalized for having part-time employment histories while women are not.


“Ideal workers” are expected to have employment histories in which they are employed full-time, at a level that is consistent with their skill or education level, without any unemployment breaks. In the modern era, alternative employment histories are becoming increasingly common. For many reasons, many workers end up in jobs that are part-time, temporary, and/or underutilizes their skill or education level.

Flexible or alternative work arrangements, sometimes referred to as being on the “mommy track,” can be gendered. For instance, women make up approximately 70% of the part-time workforce in the United States in the 25 to 54 age range, and flexible work arrangements have been found to increase the general well-being of women. However, alternative employment histories can also be taken negatively to signal a worker’s parental status as well as their competence and commitment to work.

This study investigates how part-time, temporary, or skill-underutilized employment histories impact the labor market outcomes of job applicants, and whether this impact differs based on the applicant’s gender.


Being in a job that underutilizes a person's skills is as damaging to a person's work history as a year of unemployment. Furthermore, men are penalized for having part-time employment histories while women are not.

  • The callback rate for job applicants with full-time employment histories was 10.4% for men and 10.4% for women
  • Whereas men were penalized for having part-time employment histories (receiving a callback rate of 4.8%), women were not penalized for having part-time employment histories (receiving a callback rate of 10.9)
  • The callback rates of men and women with temporary employment histories (that is, with jobs from temporary employment agencies) were not significantly different from those for men and women with full-time employment histories
  • An employment history in which the worker’s skill and education levels were underutilized is as damaging to their prospects of receiving callbacks for a job application as an employment history with a year of unemployment.
    • Men with skill-underutilized employment had a 4.7% callback rate, whereas women with skill-underutilized employment had a 5.2% callback rate.

Why were only men penalized for part-time work? One reason could be a protective effect of gender stereotypes on work history. As women are presumed to be more likely to have part-time employment, a part-time employment history doesn’t negatively impact their candidacy. However, because men are expected to be “ideal workers” working full-time, a part-time employment history can signal lower competence or work commitment to a hiring manager, penalizing men in the recruiting process.

Furthermore, many workforce development programs push unemployed workers to accept any employment, even if mismatched to their skill level, as a “stepping stone” to better future jobs. While workers may benefit from income from skill-underutilized jobs, these jobs may inadvertently harm their future job prospects—by reflecting poorly on their competence and commitment to work—at a level comparable to being unemployed.



In this study, the researcher used original field and survey experiment data to investigate the impact of nonstandard and mismatched employment histories on future labor market outcomes and additionally, whether these outcomes varied by gender. In the field experiment, the researcher sent 2,420 fake job applications to 1,210 real job openings from November 2012 to June 2013 in four occupations (sales, accounting/bookkeeping, management/project management, administrative/clerical). Employers could identify gender from the randomly assigned male and female names on each fake application. Each fake job applicant was randomly assigned a specific employment history for the most recent 12 months (full-time, part-time, employment through temporary help agency, employment below an applicant’s skill level, or unemployment).

The outcomes were recorded based on whether the applications received a phone or email callback. In the survey experiment, a voluntary online survey was conducted from December 2012 to January 2013 of 903 hiring decision-makers at U.S.-based firms, to investigate the factors that cause employers to evaluate certain employment histories positively or negatively. All resumes distributed were for an accounting or bookkeeping job at the respondent’s company. The respondents then rated statements on an applicant’s perceived competence and commitment. This methodology differs markedly from previous studies as it surveys real hiring decision-makers, while many previous studies have surveyed undergraduate and graduate students.

In contrast to what was reported in those studies, this study found that gender effects were muted. This study’s limitations include that it only investigated the impact of an applicant’s employment history on their likelihood of getting a first callback, but not on their prospects in the final hiring decision, wage setting, promotions, or terminations. Further, additional research should be done to generalize the study’s findings to populations beyond college-educated workers, such as in the low-skilled labor market.

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