Layoffs: The secret to male domination in science careers

12 Nov 2018

By: Christine Williams

Why are women underrepresented in science and technology? Despite decades of promoting science education and diversity programs for women, few enter and even fewer persist in these lucrative and vital fields. Numerous studies examine the reasons for gender disparities in science careers, but we may have overlooked one of the biggest factors: Layoffs. Women are far more vulnerable than men to losing their jobs during economic downturns.

I studied women scientists and engineers in the oil and gas industry, notorious for its boom and bust cycles. The timing of the study corresponded with the thirty year high point and low point of global oil prices. At the peak, oil was selling at $110/barrel and companies went on a hiring spree. When oil plummeted to $24/barrel, all of the major companies laid off workers. At the company where we were doing research, about half of the scientific workforce was let go.

Women were especially hard hit, especially mothers of young children. Those who had recently returned from maternity leave or were on part-time schedules were targeted for layoffs because they were seen as less productive than others who were working full time—a particularly egregious form of the “motherhood penalty.”

From the outside, it may appear that these women were “opting out”, that is, choosing to stay home with their children. But nothing could be further from the truth. One laid off mother estimated that “80 percent of the women I knew were laid off. 80 percent of the women who were doing the same thing with their life as I was doing. Early-ish 30’s, newish kids. All of those women were laid off.” Another observed that “layoffs were heavily skewed towards women having just come back from maternity leave or who had young children.” With companies trying to become “lean and powerful,” she said, moms like herself were let go because “no matter what you say, a mom with a small kid is not powerful.”

The scope of this problem is obscured by official statistics. In the US, on the Bureau of Labour Statistics Survey those who are unemployed are asked if they are “taking care of house or family,” and if they say yes, they are not counted as part of the labor force. This makes it seem that the discrepancy in men’s and women’s labor force participation rates is a result of women’s choice to stay home.

Instead, having child care responsibilities may be a socially acceptable cover story when mothers are laid off. One woman I interviewed who was laid off when she was 7 months’ pregnant told me, “I’m thinking in a year or two from now, all of this will be fairly easy to explain in a job interview.”

The flipside of the motherhood penalty is the fatherhood bonus. The men who were most likely to stay were new fathers, an advantage that could not be explained by their performance ratings.

Layoffs are not good for any worker. But employers may consider certain groups more “deserving” than others of keeping their jobs. During downturns, companies can wipe out any progress they might have made on diversity hiring and promotions. They revert to being an almost exclusively white male bastion.

As layoffs become standard business practice in the new economy, we must consider them a factor in reproducing gender and other forms of social inequality.


Christine Williams is professor of sociology and The Elsie and Stanley E. (Skinny) Adams, Sr. Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. She writes about gender discrimination and sexual harassment in a wide range of workplace settings. Her most recent book is a study of gender, race, and class inequality in the retail industry. In 2018, she was elected President of the American Sociological Association