Nearly three-quarters of American mothers with children at home are employed. That fact doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for mothers to drop a toddler at day care or miss school plays. The mommy wars might seem like a relic of the 1990s, but 41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, while just 22 percent say it is good, according to the Pew Research Center.
Yet evidence is mounting that having a working mother has some economic, educational and social benefits for children of both sexes. That is not to say that children do not also benefit when their parents spend more time with them — they do. But we make trade-offs in how we spend our time, and research shows that children of working parents also accrue benefits.
In a new study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes. Having a working mother didn’t influence the careers of sons, which researchers said was unsurprising because men were generally expected to work — but sons of working mothers did spend more time on child care and housework.
Some of these effects were strong in the United States. Here, daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, after controlling for demographic factors, and sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework.
“Part of this working mothers’ guilt has been, ‘Oh, my kids are going to be so much better off if I stay home,’ but what we’re finding in adult outcomes is kids will be so much better off if women spend some time at work,” said Kathleen McGinn, a professor at Harvard Business School and an author of the study, which is part of the school’s new gender initiative, to be announced Monday, for researching and discussing gender issues.
“This is as close to a silver bullet as you can find in terms of helping reduce gender inequalities, both in the workplace and at home,” she said.
Other researchers are less confident that the data has proved such a large effect, because it is difficult to know whether a mother who worked caused her daughter to work, or whether other factors were more influential. “The problem is we don’t know how these mothers differed,” said Raquel Fernandez, an economics professor at New York University who was not involved with the Harvard study but who has also studied the topic. “Was it really her mother working who did this, or was it her mother getting an education?”
Either way, the new study is part of a shift away from focusing on whether working mothers hurt children and toward a richer understanding of the relationship between work and family. A 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies over 50 years found that in general, children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behavior or social problems, and tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety. The positive effects were particularly strong for children from low-income or single-parent families; some studies showed negative effects in middle-class or two-income families.
Sons raised by working mothers were significantly more likely to have a wife who worked, one well-regarded study led by Ms. Fernandez found. The men might have preferred to marry a woman who worked, the researchers concluded, or were better partners at home to working wives. “If you want to work, the best way you might find a supportive environment for that is to marry a man whose mother worked,” she said.
Many studies have found that parents’ attitudes toward gender roles and work greatly affect their children’s attitudes. The Harvard study, which is unpublished, is broadly consistent with their findings. It goes a step further, by showing that working mothers influence not just children’s preferences, but their behavior.
Ms. McGinn said parents seemed to be serving as role models. “This is our best clue that what’s happening is a real role modeling of skills that somehow conveys to you, ‘Here’s a way to behave, here’s a way you can cope with the various demands of work and home,’” she said.
The Harvard data came from the International Social Survey Program, which asked people whether their mothers worked outside the home for pay at any point before they were 14, though it did not ask for how many years or how old their children were.
Ms. McGinn said she ran dozens of tests to see if the results could be explained by something other than the mother’s time at work — like the influence of a broader culture in which women worked more frequently, or the benefits of a mother’s increased income — but they could not. She controlled for factors including age, education and family makeup. The effects shrank after she controlled for these, but Ms. McGinn said the difference was still statistically significant.
Across 25 countries, 69 percent of women with a working mother were employed, and 22 percent were supervisors, compared with 66 percent and 18 percent of those whose mothers stayed home. Daughters of working mothers earned 6 percent more.
Sons of working mothers in those countries spent an additional hour a week caring for family members and 17 minutes more per week on housework — which research has found increases women’s labor force involvement and might lead to more stable marriages.
The effect was strongest in countries in which there was a bigger divide in opinions about the role of women, like the United States and Israel, and in countries where gender attitudes were more conservative, like Russia and Mexico. It was smallest in countries where there was widesprea acceptance of working women, like the Nordic countries.
In the United States, it turns out that attitudes about working parents depend a lot on a family’s circumstances, like whether parents are happy with their child care and need the income, said Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University. The question is not just how working affects children, but how to deal with challenges like long and unpredictable hours and a lack of child care.
“Even in the U.S., where we continue to have this debate,” Ms. Gerson said, “we found that most people believe the right decision for a family is the one that works best for them.”
The New York Times