Five myths about working mothers

By Naomi Cahn and June Carbone
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Today, the notion of a mother holding a job outside the home is so commonplace, so unremarkable, that the phrase "working mother" seems redundant. Nearly two-thirds of women with children under age 18 now have jobs outside the home -- more than three times the rate in 1960. But while the numbers have shifted rapidly, many of our beliefs about juggling work and family haven't quite caught up.

1. Mothers today spend much less time caring for children than did their parents and grandparents.

Today's mothers and fathers both devote more time than ever to their children, in part because they are less likely than parents in earlier eras to send their kids out to play on their own or to put them to work inside or outside the home. According to a 2006 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, fathers in 1965 spent a little more than one hour per week on child care -- meaning hands-on tending such as feeding, reading aloud, helping with homework, changing diapers or rocking to sleep -- compared with more than three hours per week in 2003. Meanwhile, working mothers, who spent just under three hours per week on child care in 1965, had nearly doubled that number by 2003. Over the same period, the time households spent on house work, including cooking and indoor chores such as cleaning and laundry, plummeted by 6.4 hours per week.

2. Women's jobs interfere with family life more than men's.

If anything, it is men's work that gets in the way. According to Penn State sociologist Paul Amato, approximately 45 percent of husbands in a nationally representative survey conducted in 2000 believed their job interfered with family life; about 35 percent of working wives felt that way about their own employment. This was a big shift from 1980, when around 23 percent of both husbands and wives thought that their own jobs interfered with family life. Part of this change may be because fathers today expect to be more involved in family life than they did a few decades ago.

Amato found that attitudes toward women's work have also changed, with both men and women holding more liberal opinions in 2000 than they did in 1980. By 2000, 74 percent of wives and 59 percent of husbands said that a working mother could be as close to her children as a nonworking mother, a substantial increase from 20 years earlier. Generally, Latinos and whites have relatively liberal beliefs about maternal employment, while African Americans have more conservative attitudes -- even though black mothers are more likely to work outside the home than white mothers.

3. Mothers with college degrees are more likely than other women to opt out of the workforce.

Despite a rash of media reports several years ago heralding an "opt-out" revolution among college-educated women, such women are not abandoning the workplace. In a 2005 paper, economist Heather Boushey reported that the "child penalty" -- the extent to which having a child decreases a woman's odds of having a job -- is greater for women with less education. According to 2007 Census Bureau data, only about 26 percent of mothers with a college degree stay home, while more than 40 percent of mothers lacking high school diplomas are at home. College-educated women are more successful in combining work and family than other groups in part because they tend to have the resources to pay for child care and other help.

At least for mothers of young children, the educational divide is relatively new. According to Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan, in 1970, 18 percent of the most educated mothers and 12 percent of the least educated mothers with young children worked outside the home. By 2000, 65 percent of the more educated group worked, but only 30 percent of the least educated mothers had joined them in the labor market.

4. Women who work are less likely to have successful marriages.

It depends. A couple's values are better predictors of a stable marriage than whether the wife works. In particular, Penn State's Amato finds that egalitarian attitudes (seen in shared decision-making, chores and child care) are linked to higher levels of marital well-being. Amato says the happiest couples are upper-middle-class, two-career couples. They report three times the marital contentment of the next happiest group -- working- and middle-class families who favor a traditional division of labor and have only one breadwinner.

Which families are the least happy? Young, dual-wage, working-class couples -- particularly those who believe that a husband should be the breadwinner but who both work out of financial necessity -- have the highest levels of conflict and are three times more divorce-prone than any other group. However, even dual-income families with egalitarian beliefs become less stable if the wife works more than 45 hours a week outside the home.

5. Parents don't experience discrimination in the workplace.

This is half-true: Although fathers can receive a bonus in the form of more money and better job prospects compared with childless men, the "motherhood penalty" is alive and well. When sociologist Shelley Correll and her colleagues sent out more than 1,200 fake résumés to employers in a large Northeastern city, mothers were significantly less likely than either childless women or fathers with identical qualifications to get interviews. This effect seems to extend even to the political arena: A 2008 study (before Sarah Palin's run for vice president) found Republicans much less likely to vote for a mother with young children than for a father with young children.

Fathers don't always get off free, though: According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers who provide family leave sometimes deny men the same time off they give women, even though it's illegal to do so.

Speaking of time off, while the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows eligible workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child or a family member with a serious medical condition, only slightly more than half of all employees work in businesses covered by the law, according to an estimate that the Labor Department published in 2000. And while federal law protects workers from discrimination based on sex or pregnancy status, it doesn't protect against discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities -- so some state and local governments have begun to pass laws that do. Researchers at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law report that the number of lawsuits claiming discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities has increased almost 400 percent over the past decade.

Naomi Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University, and June Carbone is a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. They are the co-authors of "Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture."

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