When Carolyn Gable's then 4-year-old son woke up one morning feeling too unwell for day care, she had no doubt he would recover.
She was less sure about how her reputation at work would fare.
After 10 years of waiting tables at Hyatt Hotels, the single mother of two had finally landed a stable customer-service position at a transportation company just days earlier.
Ms. Gable scoured newspaper classifieds for in-home care until she found an agreeable nanny late in the evening.
"The moment you use your child as an excuse in the workplace you are stigmatized," says Gable, who was afraid she would lose her job if she called in sick during her first week.
That was two decades ago.
But Gable, still a working single mother, represents a deep-seated workplace trend: Single mothers, say experts, are treated differently at work from other employees.
They typically have a harder time finding stable employment, are paid less, and have less opportunity for advancement than other workers.
Single fathers face the same issues. Experts say the stigma is related more to responsibility than to gender. But only 1 in 6 single working parents is a father with sole custody, according to census data.
"There's a lot of prejudice in the workplace" directed toward single mothers, says Gina Delmastro of the Gottman Institute, a Seattle-based marriage and family therapy clinic. "They still face the stigma of being divorced."
With that stigma comes greater difficulty in finding jobs, say experts, because employers tend to view them as less flexible.
Their abilities may also be called into question.
A new American University Law School study shows businesswomen are rated as similar in competence to businessmen until they have children, at which point they are rated similar to the elderly. Those polled represented a broad public cross section, not just prospective employers.
This perception, say experts, has triggered a small wave of discrimination lawsuits.
The university's study cites recent court decisions where mothers and fathers have successfully sued for workplace discrimination due to their status as parents.
"Courts are beginning to understand that an employee, despite an impeccable performance record, may experience workplace discrimination once he or she becomes a parent, or begins a flexible work arrangement to accommodate child rearing," says AU executive director Joan Williams.
"There is plenty of hiring discrimination against single mothers," agrees Mark Rednick, president of MRI Sales Consultants in Dallas. "The hiring person may never voice it or think it, but subconsciously they feel they will have more trouble with a single mother than with other employees."
Single mothers make up about 18 percent of the workforce, according to the US Department of Labor. As a group, they earn about 20 percent less on average than single women or married moms.
Ken Siegel, organizational psychologist and chief executive of The Impact Group, a corporate-management consultancy, says single working mothers tend to hit a glass ceiling because management perceives they have limits to how much they can take on.
"Whether that perception is true or untrue is immaterial," says Dr. Siegel. "People will come to a conclusion that they cannot take on the responsibilities and duties of a senior position because they are single moms."
Married or single, women hold only 12.4 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on women in business.
While the number of single mothers in senior positions has not been formally tracked, experts doubt a high percentage of this subgroup is single. Sears, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard declined to disclose data on single mothers working at executive levels in their companies.
Another reason single mothers have more difficulty advancing their careers, say experts, is the inability to take part in social activities after work.
"It's the old adage that more business gets done on the golf course than in the office," says Siegel. "The extracurricular social world in business is much more difficult for a single mom to navigate."
A lack of high-quality, extended-hour day care is a stumbling block for many single mothers. Corporate and government-sponsored day-care assistance could help, say experts.
"It's typically only big companies that can do this," says Jeff Heath, president of the Landstone Group, an executive search and consulting company in New York. "And it's not practical that all single mothers could find employment with big companies that have on-site day care."
But perhaps the biggest step toward finding a solution, say experts, is admitting there is a problem.
"This is one of the undiscussables that people are aware of but don't have the courage to bring up," says Siegel. "Right now, no one wants to acknowledge the problem."
Gable, the former waitress, offers a ray of hope to frustrated single working mothers.
Bucking the trend toward poverty-stricken single moms census data show that 42 percent of single-mother households are poor, compared with 8 percent of households with married parents Gable now runs a multimillion-dollar trucking company, New Age Transportation, from her basement.
And while she'd rather have recognition for raising her children almost entirely on her own, Gable recently received the Ernst & Young "Entrepreneur of the Year" award.
She also runs the Expect a Miracle Foundation, helping low-income single mothers send their children on school field trips, pay fees for extracurricular activities, and buy holiday presents.
"Being a single parent is much harder than starting a business from scratch," says Gable. "But you can do both. I was a waitress. I didn't even have a college degree. And I did it."