Reassuring Evidence in the Workplace Gender Equality Debate

HBS study and working mothers

Working mothers of the world should no longer feel guilty for pursuing careers away from the family home – such endeavors actually benefit their children, according to new research from Harvard Business School (HBS).

Findings that offer encouragement to an emerging generation

Much attention has been drawn to the results of a study – entitled ‘Mums the Word!’ – conducted by a trio of researchers from HBS and Mount Holyoke College. And why not, for its conclusions offer words of progress, reassurance and encouragement for an entire generation of young women (and men, for that matter) facing decisions that will affect the course of their professional lives – and indeed, the educational choices that can take them there:

“Adult daughters of employed mothers are more likely to be employed, more likely to hold supervisory responsibility if employed, work more hours, and earn marginally higher wages than women whose mothers were home full time,” reads the paper’s abstract. In addition, while no significant effect on the sons of working mothers’ professional lives was detected, these men were found to spend more time caring for family members than those who had grown up with a full-time stay-at-home mother.

Can findings such as this, which provide further ammunition (if it is needed) for those working for greater gender equality, influence student interest in degrees and subject areas that are traditionally less popular among women? It seems possible, for the trick comes in breaking the cycle of traditional – and increasingly outdated – gender models at home, the paper holds. Indeed, it seems perfectly logical that growing up in a situation where both parents pursue careers and share household responsibilities normalizes this experience in their children.

The study looked at 24 countries (defined as ‘developed’) using a methodology that hinged on respondents indicating if their mother had taken on salaried employment for a full year before they reached the age of 14. Across all these countries, the presence of working mothers in the home led to a rise of 3% in female employment (from 66% to 69%) and a 4% increase in supervisory roles held (from 18% to 22%). While a 6% rise in salaries earned was found as a total average, there was a 23% uptick in earnings when considering the US alone.

Education’s role in shifting attitudes towards gender equality

The researchers were fully aware of the role education can play in altering gender perceptions and influencing employment outcomes and subsequently, this became one of the study’s controls, so as to bring a mother’s employment into focus. However, in additional tests, it was revealed that the offspring of employed mothers were also more likely to spend more full years in education than the children of stay-at-home mothers.

The study concludes that its findings should serve to fuel support for policies designed to assist working parents, of both sexes. It’s interesting (although perhaps unsurprising) to note, as the study does, that the UK and US currently lag behind many of the other EU nations included its survey when it comes to working conditions for mothers and in ‘share-care’ options for fathers. Even so, it’s a further reason for higher education providers in any country to ensure that assistance and support is there for young parents who need to pursue their own goals. As the study concludes, it is an exposure to different life choices rather than the specifics of an individual family’s situation that matters most:

“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. Giving children opportunities to see and know people—men and women—making lots of different choices at work and at home will help children see lots of options for success in their own lives at work and at home.”

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