June 29, 2015 Practice Points

Mounting Evidence of the Advantages for Children of Working Mothers

By Heather K. Murphy

A recent article by Claire Cain Miller of The Upshot, a New York Times politics and policy website, explores the “mounting evidence” that children of working mothers receive many educational, social, and economic benefits. This is true notwithstanding that a Pew Research Center poll concluded that 41 percent of adults believe an increase in working mothers—nearly three quarters of American mothers are employed—is bad for society. Miller notes that while it is clear that children benefit when their parents spend more time with them, the evidence shows that working parents make certain trade-offs in how their time is spent, and as a result their children also accrue benefits.

In a study that spanned tens of thousand of adults across over two dozen countries, results have shown that both sexes experienced benefits when raised by working mothers. Daughters often went further in their education and careers, while sons spent increased time involved in housework and childcare. These effects were strong in the United States, even after controlling for demographic factors.

Kathleen McGinn, a professor at Harvard Business School and an author of this study, which is part of Harvard’s new gender initiative for researching and discussing gender issues, believes that these new results about the positive outcomes of children raised by working mothers will relieve some of “working mothers’ guilt.” Others are less confident that the results were as significant. They argue it is difficult to know what factors were determinative in causing the aforementioned effects. For example, Raquel Fernandez, an economics professor at New York University who has also researched the topic, sees these results and wonders, “Was it really her mother working who did this, or was it her mother getting an education?” Both sides agree, however, that the study is part of a more general shift in understanding and discussing the relationship between work and family. In fact, a 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies over 50 years demonstrated that rather than children with decreased learning abilities or social/behavioral issues, working mothers tended to have children who were high achievers with less depression and anxiety.

Fernandez also led a study that showed that sons raised by working mothers were more likely to have a wife that works. This is just one example of how parents’ attitudes toward gender equality and careers are often reflected in their children’s attitudes on the topics. The Harvard study was consistent with and expanded on the findings of Fernandez’s study and the idea of shared preferences. With the Harvard study, it seems that the influences of a working mother expand beyond preferences to actual behavior. McGinn explained that she ran a number of tests to determine if the results were in fact due to having a working mother in the household and not some other factor. While the effects were smaller when controlling for such factors as age, education, and family makeup, the differences were still “statistically significant.”

The effects of having a working mother, such as daughters being more successful professionally and sons spending more time at home and with the children, were strongest in countries with a more conservative attitude toward gender roles and countries with a big divide in opinion about working mothers (such as we see in the United States). Particularly in the U.S., attitudes about working mothers vary greatly from family to family, depending on the childcare they have available to them and the income requirements for each. As all families know, how working parents affects children is only one part of the puzzle; challenges such as long hours, time constraints, financial requirements, and childcare options come into play. Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University, rounds out the main article with an important takeaway when she is quoted as saying, “Even in the U.S., where we continue to have this debate [about working mothers], we found that most people believe the right decision for a family is the one that works best for them.”

Keywords: working mother, working parents, stay-at-home, gender inequality, family, children

Heather K. Murphy works at Bressler, Amery & Ross, PC in New York, New York


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