Supervisors’ implicit beliefs about parental leave and their subsequent perceptions of and task allocation decisions for parental leave takers.

A. Introduction

Taking parental leave has been viewed as a likely hindrance to women’s career advancement as research showed that women who took parental leave were more likely to be perceived and evaluated negatively (Hideg et al, 2018; Morgenroth & Heilman, 2017). What remains poorly understood is how the dynamics between a supervisor and employee can directly challenge women’s career opportunities through disadvantageous task allocation. In this research, we examine how supervisors’ implicit beliefs or lay theories about parental leave influence their perceptions of the parental leave taker, which subsequently shapes whether the supervisors allocate high- versus low-promotability tasks to the parental leave takers. Existing research has also largely neglected the career impact on men who take parental leave although parental leave by fathers is increasingly encouraged (Petts et al., 2019). Therefore, we also examine how gender moderates the relationship between supervisor’s implicit belief about parental leave, perception of parental leave taker, and task allocation decision to fill this research gap.

In sum, we address the following research question in this study: How do supervisors’ implicit beliefs/lay theories about parental leave (whether it is fun or hard work) influence their perceptions of and allocation of high- versus low-promotability tasks to men and women who return from parental leave, compared to an equivalent employee who has not recently taken parental leave? Please refer to our preregistration for specific hypotheses.

Theoretical and practical significance of the study

This research contributes to the literature on the negative employment consequences of taking parental leave by providing an alternative explanation for the commonly observed parental leave penalty via supervisors’ implicit beliefs about parental leave and their task allocation decisions. This alternative explanation supplements the dominant perspective that gender norms and stereotypes are to blame for women’s access to relatively fewer career advancement opportunities post parental leave. Furthermore, although existing research on the career consequences of parental leave focuses almost exclusively on female employees, we offer initial evidence about its impact on male employees. This is timely and significant given organizations, including those in Australia and Canada, are adopting more gender-neutral parental leave policies that offer leave for all parents irrespective of gender (e.g., WGEA, 2019; Government of Canada, 2020). A key implication of this research is that the existing campaigns that promote parental leave by portraying it as a time to bond and have fun with one’s child may strengthen individuals’ implicit belief that parental leave is fun (and underestimate the amount of hard work it involves) and hence exacerbate the flexibility stigma (i.e., negative perceptions of those working flexibly to fulfill childcare duties). Consequently, supervisors may develop unfavorable perceptions of parental leave takers and allocate more low-promotability tasks to the parental leave takers. An implication for policy makers may include revision of their media messages to also highlight the hard work involved during parental leave in order to present a more balanced view.

B. Experimental design

The experiment has a 3 (implicit belief of parental leave: fun vs. hard work vs. control) X 2 (gender: male vs. female) between-subject design. The implicit belief will be shown using a media article, portraying a parent’s parental leave experience as either fun-filled or hard work as commonly portrayed in maternity brochures and parenting magazines. In the control condition, the article will be about a neutral topic unrelated to parental leave, adapted from previous research (Lee et al., 2019). The gender conditions will be built into the parent (i.e., father or mother) portrayed in the task allocation decision scenario.

Upon reading the article, participants will assume the role of a sales manager leading a team of sales staff. The participants will perform a “task allocation” task in which they will assign a variety of tasks (with varying degrees of promotability) to either the employee who has taken parental leave or an equivalent colleague (of equal job motivation and performance) who has not taken leave in the same period in the scenario. The participants will then answer a questionnaire assessing their perceptions of the employee who has taken parental leave as portrayed in the scenario, in terms of the degree to which they should feel energized or depleted on returning to work, warmth and competence, the degree of personal benefit gained by taking parental leave. Finally, a questionnaire will be administer to rule out alternative explanations, including gender stereotype and sexist attitudes.

The results of a pilot study involving 40 participants indicate that participants are paying attention to our manipulation and understanding it as intended. The manipulation was successful and participants understood it as intended.

Measures and Data analysis

The independent variables (i.e., implicit belief and gender of leave taker) will be manipulated as described above. Two potential mediators will be examined. The first is perceived energy level of the parental leave taker upon returning to work adapted from Melamed et al., (1992) and Ryan & Frederick (1997). A sample item include: “S/he will feel alive and vital.” The second is perceived company resource use by the parental leave taker. A sample item: “S/he has taken advantage of the company’s resources for taking parental leave.” Multiple linear regression will be used to analyze the data. A number of items measuring alternative explanatory variables will be included:

  • ambivalent sexism (Glick & Fiske, 1996). (e.g., “Women should be cherished and protected by men.”)
  • attitudes toward parental leave takers (Grover, 1991). (e.g., “Paying employees for having babies is not fair to nonchild bearing employees.”)
  • perceptions about gender discrimination (Stephens, & Levine, 2011). (e.g., “Men and women are equal.”)

We will also measure participants’ implicit beliefs about parental leave (fun or hard work, as they naturally exist) using a 6-item scale adapted from Lee et al. (2019). A sample item: “Parental leave is often filled with fun activities with one’s child(ren).”.

Sample and cost

Sample: Assuming a small-to-medium effect size (f = .20), to obtain 95% power in an F test (ANOVA, fixed main and interaction effects) involving 6 groups (3X2 design), a sample size of 620 participants is required. Buffering for a 20% exclusion based on our exclusion criteria (see pre-registration) , we plan to sample at least 775 participants and will over-sample where resources allow.

Cost: The participants will be paid based on the prolific rate (ÂŁ7.5 per hour). It should take each participant about 30-40 mins to complete the online survey. Therefore, we estimate the total cost including the Prolific fee for our survey to be ÂŁ5 x 775 x 1.33= ÂŁ5154.

Open Science Commitment

The experimental design and hypotheses are pre-registered at Link: We will share our data and code on OSF after we publish the paper in a peer-reviewed journal.


Ethics approval has been obtained from our institution to conduct the study.


Upon request (not included to stay within the word limit).