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A new study gives us another reason to celebrate working mothers

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Society constantly tells working mothers to feel bad about the fact that they're spending less time with their kids to bring in additional income. In polls, only 21 percent of US adults told pollsters they think the trend toward mothers of young kids having paid jobs is good. But new research shows that a working mother isn't just a necessary evil, it's a positive good.

A new working paper from Kathleen McGinn, Elizabeth Long Lingo, and Mayra Ruiz Castro at Harvard Business School finds that having a mother with a job does make a difference to kids when they grow up, and that it's largely change for the better.

What are the findings?

The researchers find statistically significant differences in outcomes for both boys and girls, though the outcomes are different.

  • Daughters of working moms grow up to earn more money, in part because daughters of working moms are more likely to be employed and more likely to be employed in a supervisory role.
  • Sons of working moms don't have significantly different economic outcomes, but do grow up to be more likely to spend time taking care of family members or doing household chores.

In other words, the adult children of mothers who held jobs when they were little kids are likely to grow up as adults who are somewhat less gender-conforming. Their daughters "lean in" more in the labor market, and their sons "lean in" more at home.

What is the evidence?

The statistical findings are based on a large cross-national data sample provided by the International Social Survey Programme, supplemented with specific country-level data from a variety of sources. In the end, the researchers were able to aggregate data from more than two dozen countries on a range of continents.

They then applied statistical controls for basic demographic variables such as age, education, marital status, and the presence of other children in the house.

What conclusions do the researchers draw?

The study posits two separate channels through which maternal work influences children's adult outcomes:

  1. The example of a working mother changes attitudes about gender roles.
  2. Working mothers directly teach daughters useful job skills.

To support the first hypothesis, researchers show that "adult children of employed mothers have significantly more egalitarian gender attitudes" than adult children of full-time homemakers. This, they think, helps explain why the sons of such mothers do more household work, and partially explains why the daughters of such mothers have more success.

At the same time, the relationship between mothers' employment and daughters' odds of holding supervisory jobs "remains strongly significant when gender attitudes are included in the regression." This leads them to speculate that in addition to shaping gender roles, working moms directly transit "a set of skills that enable greater participation in the workforce and in leadership positions."

What are the grounds for skepticism?

Efforts to study the impact of parenting choices on children's life outcomes tend to founder on the fact that the vast majority of children are close genetic relatives of their mothers.

The daughters of blue-eyed mothers are significantly more likely to grow up to have blue eyes because blue-eyed mothers pass down genes for blue eyes. By the same token, it is possible that gender attitudes and workplace skills are partially heritable traits, and that accounts for the correlation between maternal behaviors and children's outcomes. To explore the authors' hypothesis in more detail and make them more fully convincing would require studies specifically focusing on adopted children or on the labor market outcomes of identical vs. non-identical twins.

If I want to keep guilting working moms, what should I do?

The genetic issue is a good reason to doubt the conclusion of the study, but not a good reason to doubt the basic conclusion that working moms shouldn't feel guilty.

But if you believe strongly in traditional gender roles, this study doesn't actually provide much reason to change your mind. The conclusion that working mothers help raise patriarchy-subverting children is great news if you want to subvert the patriarchy. But if you don't, it's not great news at all. If your goal in life is to raise kids who conform to traditional gender roles, all this study is saying is that you, personally, should try to conform to traditional gender roles.