A bit of good news from the “can women have it all?” trenches: According to new research, there are significant benefits for children growing up with mothers who work outside the home.
The study, which surveyed 50,000 adults in 24 developed countries, found that “daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles, and earned higher incomes,” reports Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times.
And while working mothers didn’t influence the careers of sons, they did influence their attitudes toward domestic labour. Men raised by working mothers spent more time on household chores and childcare.
In the US, daughters of working mothers earned 23% more than their peers who were raised by stay-at-home mothers, the study found, while “sons of working mums spent seven and a half more hours a week on childcare and 25 more minutes on housework.”
“All of us grow up with a set of expectations about what we’re supposed to do,” the study’s lead author, Harvard Business School professor Kathleen L. McGinn, tells Business Insider. “Role modelling is a way of signalling what’s appropriate in terms of how you behave, what you do, the activities you engage in, and what you believe.”
It’s the same reason so many of us follow in our parents professional footsteps. If your father is a doctor, for example, you learn that’s a normal thing to do. If your mother works outside the home, you learn that’s normal, too.
For sons, who grow up with the default expectation they will eventually be providers, the effect of role modelling happens at home. “Sons of working mums see everybody in the household pitching in — they don’t see mum taking care of everything,” McGinn says.
As a result, they grow up to do more care-taking than their peers raised by stay-at-home mums, and (slightly) more housework. They’re also more likely to be married to women who work, she notes, pointing to previous research by professors Raquel Fernandez, Alessandra Fogli, and Claudia Olivetti.
The conclusion is stark: “There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother,” McGinn told Working Knowledge.
Of course, that doesn’t dismiss the benefits of stay-at-home parents, and McGinn emphasises that she’s not suggesting that working motherhood is morally superior. “It’s not that it’s right or wrong for women to work,” she says. “It’s that there’s a set of options that seem fully available.”
Having a working mother may be the strongest means of signalling those options, but it’s not the only one. “You can get exposure to non-traditional gender role models in lots of ways,” she says. “You garner roughly the same benefits by having friends whose mums work.” What matters is seeing mothers working — whether or not that working mother is yours.
“The important piece here,” McGinn explains, “is that you’re offering a set of alternatives around what’s appropriate behaviour for boys and for girls, and that those alternatives aren’t constrained by really tight gender stereotypes.”
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