Girls With Working Moms May Do Better When They Grow Up

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Mother and daughter having lunch in city
Photo: Tooga/(c) Tooga

Even though arguments that women don’t “belong” in the workplace are, thankfully, not spoken aloud in polite society all that often these days in the U.S., there’s still a lot of lingering cultural worry over the idea of households in which both parents work. Won’t it negatively affect the amount of attention kids get from their parents? A new working paper out of Harvard Business School suggests not; in fact, it’s a boon for girls when their mothers work. 

The authors, Kathleen McGinn, Elizabeth Long Lingo, and Mayra Ruiz Castro, examined a decade’s worth of data from the International Social Survey Programme, which includes representative survey samples from 24 countries on six continents, to try to suss out any differences, all else being equal, in the adult outcomes of kids with moms who work.

They found that when girls with working moms grow up, they’re more likely to be employed, more likely to have “supervisory” responsibilities at their job, tend to work more hours, and tend to spend less time on housework at home. There didn’t appear to be any significant labor-market differences for boys with working moms, but these boys, when they grew up, did spend more time “caring for family members” than men who came from households with moms who stayed home full-time.

The usual about correlation/causation apply here, of course, but the researchers have a pretty clear-sounding theory about why they’re observing these correlations: Parents serve as powerful role models and indicators of what’s “proper” or “normal” in a gender sense. If you’re a boy and you see your dad chipping in a lot at home when mom’s at work, you’ll quickly get a sense that that’s what “boys” “do.” Likewise, if you’re a girl and see your mom succeeding at work, you’ll be all the more driven to seek out that success yourself.