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The potential payoff for kids of working mothers

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The seemingly never-ending debate about whether it's better for children if their mothers work or stay at home has long focused on the impact on young kids. How do their test scores fare? What about their social skills? How's their emotional well-being?

But new research looks a little further down the road — at the actual careers of those children once they grow up. It finds that the children of working mothers turned out just fine, thank you very much.

In fact, the daughters of working mothers appear to have really benefited in their own jobs. They were more likely to hold managerial roles and to earn more than women whose mothers stayed home full time. Some of the results were particularly stark: In the United States, for instance, daughters of working moms earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers.

And their sons? There was no effect at all on their employment. However, they were more likely to contribute to work around the house as adults and to spend more time caring for children and family.

The findings, which have yet to be published in an academic journal, were released Friday by Harvard Business School as part of the launch of the school's Gender Initiative, a new effort announced Monday to put more of its resources toward research about gender and work. The study examined data from some 50,000 respondents in 24 countries who took part in an international survey on gender and attitudes.

We dug in deeper about the results with Kathleen McGinn, who teaches at Harvard Business School and authored the study. The Q&A that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let's start with a quick synopsis of your results. What did you find?

Being raised by a mother who worked outside the home, at any point in time before you were 14 years old, was associated with positive career outcomes for women and greater contributions in the home for men. We controlled for as many things as we could think of—demographics such as, age, education, spouse income, spouse education, religion, urban status—and then controlled for many factors at the country level.

What we find across 24 countries is that these effects are very consistent, and it looks like they’re driven by what we call nontraditional gender role models. That is, working moms are affecting their children's gender attitudes. They're affecting the way they think about what's appropriate behavior. And those gender attitudes in turn are affecting outcomes.

What's the significance, do you think, of the results? You’ve called it "as close to a silver bullet as you can find” to help improve gender inequality.

In our gender attitudes, we reflect what we see around us. Those gender attitudes tell us what’s appropriate for a woman to do, what’s appropriate for a man to do. Those can constrain men’s involvement in their children's lives and constrain women's involvement in their careers.

So the magic bullet is this exposure to alternative ways to think about gender roles. The greater the set of options available to girls and boys as they grow up, the greater the set of options they’ll consider as adults.

A different recent study looked at the quantity of time mothers spend with their children, and found it had virtually no effect on things like academic achievement or emotional well-being. Is more research starting to examine the positive impacts of working mothers?

There's very, very little research suggesting that being raised by a working mom is bad for kids. I think that's something we harbor. It's hard to leave your kids every day—it's probably hard for men, too—so we feel like we're doing them a disservice. But the bulk of the research on working moms actually suggests that it's positive for kids.

One researcher questioned whether the findings really show it was the mother’s working that was influential, or other factors like the mother’s education. What do you make of that?

We can’t control for the mother’s education. We don't have that data; I wish we did. We control for the children’s education, and education certainly improves the lives of kids. But it's hard to understand why (if the main factor were education) that wouldn’t benefit their sons' careers as well. If it's not a role model effect than it should affect both children. 

What else did your research find?

The findings vary across the world, based on the gender attitudes in the country. We find that among the 24 countries we looked at, there are three types. One group is called the "liberalizing egalitarians." These are the Nordic countries, the countries that had liberal gender attitudes in 2002 and have only gotten more egalitarian.

Then there's a larger group that we call the "stagnating moderates." The United States is in this group. Israel is in this group. These are countries that had fairly liberal or egalitarian gender attitudes in 2002, but they've just really been stuck for a decade.

Then there were countries that were more conservative in 2002, and they’re stuck too.

The places where we see the biggest effects are places like the United States, where there is a wide dispersion of gender attitudes and things are pretty stuck. Those are the places where what you’re exposed to at home can really matter. Having a working mom exposes you to something that isn't yet agreed upon in society. So the effect that we see in the United States [on the incomes of daughters whose mothers worked] is bigger than the effect we see overall.

This issue has become one of such personal, intense debate, and it's been going on for years. What's missing in the discussion?

That people should have choices, and that those choices should be constrained by their abilities and their preferences, as opposed to by what society thinks is appropriate.

I certainly am not advocating that all women should work. Many of the studies, like ours, really just ask the question: How does it help and how does it hurt? We found that it really, really helped, but that doesn’t mean that moms being employed outside the home is always the right answer. In the same way, it doesn’t mean the right answer is dad always goes to work and mom stays home.

What I find telling in the responses to the research is how the focus is just on moms—that kids are going to suffer if their moms aren’t home. What about their dads? Men raised by working mothers spend more time with their children. Isn't that good for their kids?

Do you have any concerns some will take this as a recommendation that mothers should work?

What I take from this is kids benefit from being exposed to a wide set of alternatives about what to do with their lives. That could come from your mom working outside the home full time. It could come from your dad cooking dinner every day. It could come from your aunt who's a scientist. It could come from your uncle who's a child-care specialist.

The benefit of a working mom is about this exposure to nontraditional gender role models. That exposure can come in lots of different ways.

You work in the business school. What do you think is the takeaway for managers, CEOs, leaders of companies?

Don’t be paternalistic about the women in your organization. I so often hear people say, "She wouldn’t want this job because she’s got kids." I hope that managers take from this that having career opportunities equally open to men and women is not just helping the men and women, it’s helping their kids as well. 

It seems the next question to address is the effect fathers who don't work, or who help out more at home, have on their kids' careers. Are you planning to look at that?

We would love to tackle it next. There are very few sources that have whether your mother worked and your career outcomes in the same data set. We don’t know of any that have the number of hours your father contributed at home when you were a kid and your career outcome. We’re busily trying to see if we can find those data. We would love to study this question.

Read also:

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An unusual new policy for working mothers

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