Monday, September 03, 2007

Working Moms Really Good for Daughters, Less So for Sons?

I had to take a break from blogging after last week's blow out. But, I am back today with something worth debating or, better yet, speculating about. First some background about how I came to discover an interesting study on the effect of working mothers on the the socioeconomic attainment of daughters and sons. Alessia called me up Friday to let me know that she rediscovered an old friend from graduate school. She read to me a passage that he had written about her--discussing the complicated relationship between race, ethnicity and class. The author's name was Dalton Conley. I thought I recognized that name--maybe I taught one of his articles in Intro. to WS?--and so Alessia and I googled him. This led me to his very impressive home page at NYU.

Here is where I discovered one of his working papers, co-authored with Karen Albright from UC Berkeley, entitled "The Effect of Maternal Labor Market Participation on Adult Sibling's Outcomes: Does Having a Working Mother Lead to Increased Gender Equality in the Family." You can access the paper here (I don't know how to link a Pdf file to a blog post, anyone?) I couldn't resist talking about this paper here since of course I am not only intellectually interested in the effect of working mothers on their children's socioeconomic outcomes, but I am personally interested.

The abstract reads as follows:

This paper contributes to the literature on the effects of maternal labor market participation by examining the impact of having a working mother on sons’ and daughters’ educational and occupational attainment as adults. Our data suggest that brothers and sisters are more likely to experience equal educational and occupational attainment if they come from families with mothers who were employed outside the home, rather than mothers who were homemakers. Further, daughters of working mothers are more likely to achieve greater educational and occupational success than are daughters of homemakers. However, the pattern is more complex for sons of working mothers, who are less likely than sons of homemakers to achieve certain measures of educational and occupational attainment. These results are discussed in light of the effects of differential gender investment and of differential gender role expectations. (my emphasis).

I read through the paper--I won't admit to having studied it thoroughly--but enough to get a sense of why sons are less likely to achieve "certain measures of educational and occupational attainment." When the authors discuss their findings they explain:

While approximately the same percentage of sons in both types of families failed to earn a bachelors degree (45.2 percent in families with working mothers, compared to 47.8 percent in families with homemaker mothers), the college attainment of sons of working mothers was almost double that of sons of homemakers (35.5 percent to 17.4 percent). However, this pattern was reversed for postgraduate27 education: the attainment of a postgraduate degree of working mothers’ sons was 19.3 percent, compared to 34.8 percent of homemaker mothers’ sons . . .Similar to the patterns observed in siblings’ educational attainment, sons of working mothers in our sample experienced less occupational success than did the male offspring of homemaker mothers, according to the measure we employ here. (my emphasis)

Daughters of working mothers, however, were often the most educated sibling in the family. So, what's going on here? Earlier in their paper, the authors mention many studies that show a preference for sons, that fathers spend more time with sons, that families spend more money if they have sons, so you would think that sons might have greater professional and educational success than daughters even in families where mothers work.

One of the explanations put forward was that while resources (financial, educational and emotional) were distributed evenly between siblings, nonetheless, the mother encouraged their daughters' success even more than their sons. The idea is that mothers wanted to prepare their daughters for the unfair gender biases in favor of men once they enter the workforce.

Secondly, the authors find that while both children are expected to carry out chores in families with working mothers, that the division of labor was gendered so women did "inside" chores, while men did "outside" chores.

"Dividing the spheres of boys’ and girls’ expertise in this way sometimes had the unintended result of encouraging behavior in girls that was less rambunctious, and more easily translatable to scholarly pursuits (e.g., reading, etc.), while boys’ physical responsibility sometimes placed them in a sphere far removed from activities that might encourage educational achievement."

Thirdly, in families where the mother stayed at home, resources were lavished more on sons at the expense of daughters. This differential investment might be explained as follows: the sons will have to be the sole breadwinner in their families when they grow up. Hence, what you have here is the transmission of very traditional gender roles in families with a stay-at-home mother.

The second explanation for the findings seems the most interesting and perhaps controversial. I can imagine that this paper, if it makes it into the public debates about why boys are falling behind educationally, will (a) lead to greater outcries against women working outside the home, i.e. feminist bashing and (b) lead to more condemnations of the institutional expectations of education, i.e. quiet and less rambunctious behavior.

What I am curious about then is whether or not boys in families with stay-at-home mothers are expected to do any chores? If not, how does that help them develop more scholarly habits?

In any case, this paper is quite interesting and much of it confirms my unscientific intuitions that working outside the home will have positive benefits for my daughter. What do you think?