Every day, millions of mothers go out to work. Their children are safe and cared for while they’re gone, but many still wonder if they’re doing the ‘right thing’ and beat themselves up about it. Working mums are somehow still not appreciated and supported.
But working mums should take heart – because, according to the latest research, mothers who take paid employment outside the home have an overwhelmingly positive effect on their children’s futures.
A study published in the Work, Employment and Society journal earlier this year looked at data from two international surveys that involved more than 100,000 men and women. It found that while there were differences in the lives of those who had working mums and those whose mothers stayed at home, they were far from negative ones.
“When you’re watching your mom go to work every day, especially if you’re a girl, you’re actually learning to manage what is a really complex life.”
Kathleen McGinn, author of the study and a professor at Harvard Business School, said: “There’s a lot of talk about why women work. A lot of questions presume that, somehow, it’s detrimental to their families. There’s a whole bunch of ‘mother guilt’ based on almost no findings.”
Instead, researchers have discovered that women who grew up with working mothers are more likely to have their own careers than the ones who had stay-at-home mums. They are also more likely to have better jobs that pay more.
In fact, figures from an earlier study by the same team revealed daughters of working mums in the US earned around 23% more than those with stay-at-home mothers. Across the 25 developed countries included in that survey, researchers also found 21% of women whose mothers worked achieved supervisor-level jobs, compared to 18% of those with stay-at-home mums. While questions related to a wide range of areas including gender attitudes, home life and career path, the key one was ‘Did your mother ever work for pay, after you were born and before you were 14?’
“It didn’t matter to us if she worked a few months one year or worked 60 hours per week during your whole childhood,” explained McGinn. “We weren’t interested in whether your mom was an intense professional, but rather whether you had a role model who showed you that women worked both inside and outside the home.”
“There are very few things we know of that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother.”
The research also looked at the impact of having a working mum on sons, and found they grew up to spend more time on household chores and caring for their kids than those whose mothers stayed home. In the US, this worked out at around eight hours per week – nearly twice as much as the sons of stay-at-home mothers.
McGinn’s team found that those with working mothers believed more strongly in gender equality – bearing out the belief that children absorb the social mores and behaviours demonstrated by the adults in their lives.
“We tend to repeat the patterns that are modelled for us in childhood,” said McGinn. “Adults who grew up in a home where both parents worked and split household chores are probably going to repeat those patterns when they start their own families.
“There are very few things we know of that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother. Growing up, what was being modelled for sons was the idea that you share the work at home.”
The same also held true for those who grew up in more traditional households, with their mothers at home all the time – their children expressed less egalitarian views.
McGinn stresses this doesn’t mean stay-at-home mums are jeopardising their children’s future successes. She points out that there is no single ‘correct’ way to bring up a child, and no perfect domestic arrangement all families should try to emulate.
But with increasing numbers of mothers going out to work, and no doubt struggling internally with feelings of guilt over doing so, this study offers some vindication for their choice.
“When you’re watching your mom go to work every day, especially if you’re a girl, you’re actually learning to manage what is a really complex life,” says McGinn.
“I think for mothers and fathers, working both inside and outside the home gives your kids a signal that contributions at home and at work are equally valuable, for both men and women. In short, it’s good for your kids.”