Harvard study finds daughters of mothers in paid employment have better careers and more equal relationships
Negative perceptions around women who combine paid work with parenthood have been comprehensively demolished in a major study by Harvard University, which shows the daughters of working mothers enjoy better careers, higher pay and more equal relationships than those raised by stay-at-home mothers.
Using data from 24 countries including the UK and US, the Harvard study says that while working mothers “often internalise social messages of impending doom for their children”, the reality is that their sons and daughters appear to thrive, with daughters benefiting most from the positive role model of a mother with a career.
Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn, lead author of the study, noted that the effect on daughters’ careers of mothers working was particularly marked in the UK and US, where public attitudes to career equality could be more of a barrier than in some European countries such as Finland and Denmark.
“We hope the findings from our research will promote respect for the spectrum of choices women and men make at home and at work,” the researchers concluded. “Whether moms or dads stay at home or are employed, part-time or full-time, children benefit from exposure to role models offering a wide set of alternatives for leading rich and rewarding lives.
The authors said that the research should reinforce calls for policies designed to help working parents. “Our findings suggest that policy should focus on supporting mothers who work – part-time or full-time. Providing quality and reasonably priced childcare is an important factor but policy makers should also address workplace policies.”
The researchers found that, on average, the daughters of working mothers were paid around 4% more than their peers, even adjusting for their greater levels of education and prevailing social attitudes, and were much more likely to have been promoted into managerial positions.
One in three daughters of working mothers were in managerial posts, compared with only one in four of those with non-working mothers.
“These findings suggest that in addition to transmitting gender attitudes across generations, mothers’ employment teaches daughters a set of skills that enable greater participation in the workforce and in leadership positions,” the study argues.
Rebecca Allen, a working mother of two children and herself the daughter of a mother who worked, said the research suggested today’s women had benefited from their mothers’ struggles against discrimination and prevailing social attitudes.
“There’s not overt discrimination against women and working mothers in the way that there had been in the previous generation,” said Allen, a senior academic at UCL’s Institute of Education and the director of an education data research thinktank.
“In some ways [the study’s findings are] a comfort to women who do go out to work – and a signal to women who don’t that they have to think hard about how the role they have within the household is going to impact their children’s perceptions of what it means to be a woman and to be a mother,” she said.
While earlier research has also shown no negative consequences for the children of working mothers, the new study reveals that the children of working mothers have more liberal attitudes towards women in the workplace, and that sons of working mothers take a greater share of parenting and other household care roles.
“Our analyses find that sons raised by an employed mother are more involved at home as adults, spending more time caring for family members than men whose mothers stayed home full-time,” the study reported.
“Daughters raised by an employed mother spend less time on housework than women whose mothers stayed home full-time, but maternal employment has no effect on adult daughters’ involvement in caring for family members.”
Belinda Phipps, chair of the Fawcett Society for women’s equality, said: “Although we have known for a long time that there are lots of benefits to children to have working mothers, it is great to see more research confirming this.”
But Phipps said it was disappointing to see that progress on sharing domestic housework other than childcare was proving slow to change. “Women are still ‘doing it all, not having it all’ and we must shift cultural attitudes to achieve full gender equality,” she said.
“What is clear is that making the workplace more family-friendly, improving the availability and quality of part-time and flexible working, and investing in childcare are vital to helping individuals achieve a full work-life balance,” she said.
Allen said that schools also need to adjust their demands on parents. “We’ve got to stop primary schools from having a day every week where parents are expected to dress up their children in some complicated outfit, or make something, or bring something in, or turn up to help with something or have an assembly,” she said.