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LinkedIn Must Remedy Its Implicit Bias Against Women

How a simple platform fix can help millions of women trying to re-enter the workforce

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Working Black mom kneeling with daughter on city street
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

It’s tough to be a stay-at-home-mom trying to re-enter the workforce.

Most SAHMs (stay-at-home-moms) intuitively know the obstacles they face, myself included, but a recent study in Harvard Business Review demonstrated that employers are generally biased against stay-at-home-moms, viewing them as:

  • Less capable
  • Less reliable
  • Less deserving of a job
  • Less committed to work

Ouch.

The study also found that stay-at-home-moms were only half as likely to get a call back for a job or land an interview as parents who had been laid off for the same amount of time. And if they actually land the job? Across sectors, women lose a staggering 37% of their earning power when they spend three or more years out of the workforce.

It’s doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that this will also be the case for the millions of women leaving their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic but who likely hope to return to the workforce in the future.

By simply modernizing its profile editing options, LinkedIn holds the key to encouraging transparent dialogue about employment gaps. These conversations could help set the stage for improvements in company leave policies and work arrangements that better support primary caregivers.

LinkedIn Relies on Old-Fashioned, Sexist Terminology To Describe Caregiving Roles

After a successful corporate career at Starbucks, I was one of the one-in-five U.S. parents who stayed at home to raise their children for a period of time.

Like millions of other job seekers, I got started rebooting my career by updating my LinkedIn profile.

For the fun of it, on my profile page, I typed mom into the blank space of the job title drop-down box. I didn’t really expect mom to pop up but stumped for the best way to label my gap in paid employment, I plugged it in on a whim.

To my surprise and disappointment, the drop-down list auto-suggested homemaker.

I typed in dad, the same thing. Stay-at-home, same thing. Housewife, same thing.

Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t have dared inserted homemaker on my LinkedIn profile to describe my time out of the paid workforce. It certainly didn’t aptly depict the real work I’d been doing during my “time off,” with its implied emphasis on (presto!) perfectly waxed floors and made beds. Worse, still, I didn’t think recruiters or employers would give me a second glance with the homemaker headline.

To be clear, the term homemaker was first used in 1867 and common usage goes back 50 years.

LinkedIn Offers No Options Under Employment Type To Describe Employment Gaps

The only viable drop-down option under LinkedIn’s employment type to describe my years as a SAHM (or homemaker as LinkedIn suggests) is self-employed or freelance, neither of which adequately represents my unpaid work stint.

I would also argue that being a SAHM is full-time, but of course, LinkedIn intends to describe paid work only.

Strikingly, there are zero pre-populated options on LinkedIn to identify maternity leave, parental leave, adoption leave, sick leave, bereavement leave, elderly care leave, or for long term injury/illness, education/re-training, volunteering, long term travel, a gap year, a sabbatical — or for a pandemic.

LinkedIn’s silence is tantamount to a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” in which employers and prospective employees dance around the topic of family, thereby preventing meaningful conversations about workplace policies that could better support the hiring, productivity, job satisfaction, and retention of employees who are also primary caretakers.

In fact, the anti-discrimination guidelines in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 restrict employers from asking these questions directly, which puts additional pressure on job seekers to decide to bring up their employment gap and family situation — or not.

To the extent all types of caretaking roles are often filled by women, the stigma of stepping away from paid employment is even further borne by women.

LinkedIn Forces Women To Resort to Gimmicks in Describing Time Away From Paid Employment

Admittedly, it’s easy enough to type a custom descriptor in the blank box for job title and company. This, however, puts the burden on women to creatively call out their role as primary caregivers. I’ve seen MomFamily COODirector of Operations, and Chief Home Officer.

Meanwhile, outside agencies and public policy advocates, like The Pregnancy Pause, can create a fake company on LinkedIn to give people a way to explain a gap in their employment.

The Pregnancy Pause was introduced by the creative agency, Mother New York, the idea of which is women can write in Mom as their job title and then select a prepopulated “company” (The Pregnancy Pause). The initiative is a stopgap solution to get moms and employers talking openly about maternity leave and should be applauded for supporting women trying to return to the workplace after having babies and raising children.

Still, I’m left feeling disheartened and wondering why it is still necessary, in 2021, to manipulate a global platform like LinkedIn for something as common and essential as maternity leave.

Why is it still necessary for women to find cutesy workarounds to justify the time they take away from their careers to have babies and care for their children?

Why do qualified, skilled women have to stage a professional comeback and bear the stigma of gimmickry in doing so?

Gimmicks, by the way, are the luxury of the privileged. Marginalized groups likely cannot afford stunts.

LinkedIn Ignores Women Leaving the Workforce Due to COVID-19

Of the 43% of women who leave work to be stay-at-home-moms, 67% plan to return to work within five years according to another Harvard Business Review study. But sadly, the reality is that many mothers won’t return to the workplace at all due to the bias they face, but also due to poor family leave policies, inflexible work arrangements, and high childcare costs.

These women feel they must choose between a career and motherhood.

In fact, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that the number of women in the workforce peaked in 1999 and has been falling ever since. This contrasts sharply, notes the New York Times, with other countries where the numbers of women entering the workforce are rising, thanks to the expansion of programs and policies to support women at their prime career and childbearing years.

It is already clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend.

According to CBS News:

“Nearly 3 million American women have left the labor force over the past year in a coronavirus-induced exodus that reflects persistent pay inequality, undervalued work and antiquated notions of caregiving.”

The Center for American Progress warns:

“The collapse of the child care sector and drastic reductions in school supervision hours as a result of COVID-19 could drive millions of mothers out of the paid workforce. Inaction could cost billions, undermine family economic security, and set gender equity back a generation.”

$64.5 billion per year, to be exact, in lost wages and economic activity from the exodus of women from the workplace.

It’s time for employers to accept that careers are often non-linear and to provide improved policies for remote work, flex time, and paid family leave. And it’s time for job seekers to not feel like they must skirt around employment gaps, lest be frozen out.

At the moment, it’s impossible to call out pandemic leave on LinkedIn in a straightforward manner.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce of Coqual use the analogy of a highway, with on-ramps and off-ramps. In their HBR study, they advise:

“What are the implications for corporate America? One thing at least seems clear: Employers can no longer pretend that treating women as ‘men in skirts’ will fix their retention problems. Like it or not, large numbers of highly qualified, committed women need to take time out. The trick is to help them maintain connections that will allow them to come back from that time without being marginalized for the rest of their careers.”

Indeed, the trick may very well be in helping maintain connections.

80% of jobs are filled through personal and professional connections (and not published publicly). Professional networking must become a useful tool for all individuals, including those who have stepped away from paid employment.

It’s hard enough to frame up one’s experience on a professional profile, even more so when the platform doesn’t recognize an aspect of that experience.

LinkedIn May Not Be Able To Change Workplace Policy on a National Scale, but It’s in a Unique Position To Help Reframe the Conversation

With over 766 million users, 50 million companies listed, and 14 million open jobs posted, LinkedIn is the leading social media platform for professionals.

Its stated mission is to “connect the world’s professionals” and provide a platform for individuals to “showcase [their] professional life, milestones, skills, and interests.”

LinkedIn has the influence to help legitimize résumé gaps by providing users with options to describe those gaps on their profiles. To name it normalizes it.

Put another way, to endorse it, normalizes it.

LinkedIn knows the power of a strong, tailored endorsement. Endorsements are a key feature on the site. Allowing job seekers to formally call out a résumé gap with a title and employment type may offer the seal of approval needed for professionals to own it and to open up conversations with recruiters and employers. Dialogue, in turn, offers the chance for real change in the workplace.

In the spirit of words matter, I call on LinkedIn to come up with fresh and inclusive options for both job title and employment type to accommodate the most commonly encountered employment gaps listed above.

LinkedIn must scrub the patriarchal lens through which the platform views the world and link us all in. It’s time to end the stigma of unpaid leave.

This is a matter all the more poignant given LinkedIn’s stated commitment to diversity and inclusion. And this is a matter all the more urgent as the U.S. faces an economic crisis due in part to the pandemic’s she-cession.

The road back to work must be smoothed out before it’s too late.

For now, I’m resorting to gimmicks and going with Family COO (Chief Operating Officer) on my LinkedIn profile.

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