Friday, July 13, 2007

That Pew Survey on Mothers And Work

The Pew Research Center did a survey in 1997 about the desirability of mothers working full-time, part-time or not working at all outside the home. A similar survey was just repeated. The title chosen for this piece is "Fewer Mothers Prefer Full-Time Work."

The word "prefer" is a tricky one. The study asked women with children under 18 which one of those working situations would be ideal for them. Now, what "ideal" means here makes an enormous difference, yet we are never told if the question refers to some ideal world where working part-time (the most preferred option) has no negatives, such as less income in the future and smaller retirement benefits and fewer promotions. Or perhaps "ideal" means the best the woman can conceive given the realities of the American labor market and the cultural values prevailing in this country and her partner's preferences and so on. Or perhaps "ideal" really is interpreted as the best possible circumstances.

In any case, the survey shows:

In the span of the past decade, full-time work outside the home has lost some of its appeal to mothers. This trend holds both for mothers who have such jobs and those who don't.

Among working mothers with minor children (ages 17 and under), just one-in-five (21%) say full-time work is the ideal situation for them, down from the 32% who said this back in 1997, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Fully six-in-ten (up from 48% in 1997) of today's working mothers say part-time work would be their ideal, and another one-in-five (19%) say she would prefer not working at all outside the home.

There's been a similar shift in preferences among at-home mothers with minor children. Today just 16% of these mothers say their ideal situation would be to work full time outside the home, down from the 24% who felt that way in 1997. Nearly half (48%) of all at-home moms now say that not working at all outside the home is the ideal situation for them, up from the 39% who felt that way in 1997.

The lack of enthusiasm that mothers of all stripes have for full-time work outside the home isn't shared by fathers – more than seven-in-ten (72%) fathers say the ideal situation for them is a full-time job.

I'm uncomfortable with the descriptions "lost some of its appeal" and "lack of enthusiasm", because these disguise the reasons why attitudes may have changed by sort of answering that in a fairly vacuous way. For an example of societal trends that just may have affected these answers, the labor market has become increasingly rigid in terms of the hours expected from full-time workers and I can't remember the last time when I have read a mainstream article or watched a program where working mothers are viewed as a good thing. Just does not happen.

The sample sizes in this study are quite small. For example, the survey only has 75 mothers of children under 18 who work part-time, 153 SAHMs and 184 women working full-time. The total number of fathers of children under 18 in the survey is 343. The small sample sizes mean that the margins for sampling error are quite large. For instance, the margin for sampling error for the SAHM sample is plus/minus 11%. In other words, one must be careful about applying the sample percentages directly to wider populations.

Now to the fun part. Why would most women think that part-time work would be the ideal solution for them? Could it be something to do with this finding, also from the same study:

On questions related to work and motherhood, the views of the full adult population are not much different from the views of mothers themselves. The public is broadly ambivalent – but tilts more negative than positive –about the phenomenon of mothers working outside the home.

The Impact on Society of Working Mothers. A plurality of the general population (41%) says the trend toward more mothers working outside the home is a bad thing for society, while 22% say it is a good thing and 32% say this trend hasn't made much difference.


There is virtually no difference of opinion between men and women in assessments about the social impact of more mothers of young children working outside the home. Younger adults (especially those under age 30) are more positive, on average, than older adults about the impact of this trend. These age differences are more pronounced among women than among men, however.

Respondents who grew up with a working mom are less negative about the impact of working mothers on society than are respondents whose own mother was not employed at the time they were growing up.

African-Americans and Hispanics are a bit more positive than whites about the impact of working mothers on society. Republicans, political conservatives and white evangelical Protestants are more negative than their respective counterparts about the impact of working mothers on society. There are no or minimal differences in opinion on this question by education or income.

Working Mothers and Children. About four-in-ten (42%) adults say an at-home mother is the ideal situation for children; a nearly identical proportion (41%) say a mother working part-time is ideal and just 9% say a mother working full-time is ideal for children.

Men are more likely than women to consider an at-home mother the ideal situation for children. The same gender difference is found between moms and dads with children under age 18; fathers of minor age children are more likely than mothers to consider an at-home mom the ideal situation for children.

What is quite fascinating about this study is that it asked a question about what might be best for children: mothers working various amounts outside the home or not; and it asked a question about what might be best for the mothers themselves in that respect. But it DID NOT ask a question about what might be best for children: fathers working various amounts outside the home or not, or the companion question about what might be best for fathers themselves. Such a question would probably have gotten the expected answers, but including it would have tilted the framework towards a little less bias.

For biased the framework is. The way the choices are framed is based on the assumption that it is mothers who are responsible for primary parenting. But of course the society also holds that opinion. It is a very brave woman in such a survey who answers that a mother working full-time is best for the children, and it is a fairly brave man who says that he would prefer to work less in order to spend more time with his children.

To place that last sentence into some perspective, the survey also asked all women and men in it, including those who didn't have children under 18, to answer the question about what would be the ideal working arrangement for them. Remember that 72% of fathers with children under 18 chose full-time job as the ideal for them. Well, when all other men are included, the percentage finding full-time work ideal drops to 56%, and whereas only 16% of men with children under 18 thought that staying at home would be the ideal for them, 23% of all men thought so. It's the men without young children who express desires similar to those women express. Very odd.

You want to see how these sorts of things are popularized? You can start with the pdf file. Then you can read the summary which omits some things in the original file. Then you can read the Washington Post article about the survey. And last, you can see how the stuff gets popularized on yahoo.

It could be fun to have a competition on spotting the omissions, errors and biases in that last piece. Note, for example, that it decided not to report on fathers' evaluations of their own parenting. Fathers give themselves worse evaluations than mothers who work full-time, actually. Note also that the sample size reported applies to the whole study, not the part the summary discusses. Note also the "not surprisingly" addition.