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Why working moms fall behind

Published on Psychology Today

I majored in psychology in college—one of the most popular majors at my university—and while my friends who majored in engineering or computer science were mostly surrounded by men, I was always surrounded by other women. After college I went on to a graduate program in psychology, where I was again surrounded by mostly female graduate students. So naturally when I got a job as a psychology professor, I thought I’d have a lot of female colleagues. I didn’t. In fact, when I was hired, of the 16 professors in my department, only 4 of them were women. Two of them left to take administrative positions at the university about a year after I arrived, and when my only remaining female colleague went on maternity leave, I sat in faculty meetings as a lone wolf, in a room full of much older men. It was a weird feeling: Where were all the women?

It turns out that my experience isn’t unique, and while 76% of people who get their PhD’s in psychology are women (Willyard, 2011), only 33% of the professors at PhD-granting universities are women (Williams & Ceci, 2012). One of the potential reasons for this imbalance is that male candidates are more likely to get hired than females; men are judged as more competent than women, even if their resumes are identical, and in fact, they are typically offered more money for doing the very same job (Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, & Handelsman, 2013).

But, one of the biggest reasons women fall behind—particularly in academic and other high demand jobs—comes with the choice to have children. Women, like me, who are professors or lecturers are 38% less likely to be promoted once than have children when compared to men (Mason, Stacy, & Goulden, 2002). Similarly, women with their MBA’s are much less likely to stay in the workforce after having children than are men (Bertrand, Goldin, & Katz, 2010).

Why does starting a family have a bigger negative impact at work on women than on men? One of the biggest reasons is the obvious one: Women usually take on most of the burden of childcare. Even for heterosexual couples that are generally pretty egalitarian in their gender roles, the birth of a baby often leads to a switch to a more gender-stereotyped division of labor, with the woman taking on most of the childcare responsibilities (Rehel, 2014). The same is true even when both the father and the mother have similar jobs and workloads—after having children, women begin to shoulder more of the burden at home (Yavorsky, Kamp Dush, & Schoppe‐Sullivan, 2015). This shouldn’t be surprising, given that in the United States, most family leave policies only offer time off for the mother. Policies that only give mothers parental leave enable the traditional idea that women are the ones that should be caring for the children, and fathers should be the ones working. In fact, research has shown that when fathers take extended leave after the birth of a child (i.e., more than three weeks), men become more comfortable caring for the baby, which subsequently leads to their greater involvement in sharing the parenting responsibilities (Rehel, 2014).

Another reason for the dip in productivity at work after starting a family is that many women underestimate the financial burden and time commitment that is involved in child rearing (Kuziemko, Pan, Shen, & Washington, 2018). First of all, having a child is expensive if you’re going to keep working, as the average price tag for childcare can be upwards of $15,000 per child per year in the United States. If your salary is close to or less than what you’re paying for child care, it sometimes makes more financial sense to quit and stay home if you have a partner who makes more money than you do. Second, taking care of a new baby is stressful and time consuming. For example, with renewed pressure for mothers to breastfeed, many find themselves in a situation where they have the sole responsibility of feeding unless they decide to pump. Unfortunately, pumping doesn’t necessarily save time; I recently checked my breast pump to see how many hours I’ve clocked since I had my first son. The meter read 160 hours. That is equivalent to one month of full time work. Breastmilk doesn’t cost money, and it carries a variety of health benefits for the mother and the baby; but for a working woman, breastmilk is not free. I do not regret a single one of those 160 hours, or the hours and hours I spent nursing both of my sons, but those hours cost me, and they mostly came at the expense of work.

The answer to this problem may be that working mothers need more support. Interestingly, birth rates in the United States are now at a record low in 2017 according to the National Center for Health Statistics, with the average woman having less than 2 children. There has been wide speculation for why the birth rate has plummeted—abortion rates, fewer teen pregnancies, fear of divorce. But among the most convincing of these theories is that since women are working more, they need more support if they decide to have children, and they aren’t necessarily getting it (Goldberg, 2018). Other western industrialized countries have been experiencing a similar dip in average birth rate. To counteract this dip, Germany, for example, has spent the past ten years creating more family friendly policies to encourage child-bearing, including parental leave policies that apply to both women and men, and to part-time workers. Since 2016, Germany is now seeing an unexpected rise in birth rates. It’s hard to say whether the rise is directly related to these the new family friendly policies, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Theoretically, modern women have more choices about how to live their lives than their mothers and grandmothers had. They are repeatedly encouraged to embrace those choices—they are told to “lean in,” that they can “have it all”, and that they can do anything they put their minds to. Unfortunately, as some researchers have pointed out, the stereotypes we still carry about gender roles when raising children and the limitations women face when it comes to family leave and child care costs don’t always make those new choices all that feasible (Yoong, 2018). In order for working mothers to be more successful, lip service about “leaning in” may not be enough without the structural support from policies that give men and women equal opportunity to parent. Policies that provide new mothers with more support—at work and at home—might one day help make these new choices a reality for more women.

Source: Ran Zwigenberg/Flickr


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Yoong, M. (2018). No more ‘leaning in’ – the neoliberal myth of the superhero businesswoman holds us all back. The Conversation, September 5, 2018.

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