What do we Really Know About Working Mothers?

In the United States, a baby is born every ten seconds. This brings elation, joy, and…STRESS. Another juggling ball is tossed into the array of tasks already on a woman’s plate. Suddenly, there are more questions than answers regarding a mother’s future and her career. Where will happiness lie? Stay home? Go back to work? Part-time? Are there even options?

mom and baby with baby bottleIn October of 2013, over 60% of all women and 75% of all of the mothers in the U.S. were active participants in the labor force in some capacity (Pinarski, 2013). Statistics show that unmarried mothers are more likely to work than married mothers, and women who work outside their homes characteristically have smaller families than women not in the labor force (“Mothers In the Workforce,” 2013). This poses the million dollar question: Can a mother have her proverbial cake (family) and eat it too (career)?

Part-Time Work

Often women view their career and being a stay-at-home mom as an either/or situation. As a result, some researchers have argued, women “opt out” of the career option, and companies miss a valuable chance to diversify their ranks and recruit talent. However, many women have found solace in part-time work. Part-time or alternative work scheduling allows women to feel they have extra time for their children while still being able to mesh with a career on a less demanding level.

Pew Research conducted a fifteen year study about American work preference and found that working part-time would be the top choice for nearly half of all mothers. Almost 50% of mothers who are employed full-time would prefer to work part-time, and 80% of mothers who are employed part-time view their situation as ideal (Farley, 2013).

So why don’t more women choose part-time employment as their option? The factors are endless. Some of the blame falls on the business world itself. Many companies are not as progressive with their ideals and beliefs in regards to part-time working mothers as they would like to believe. Working mothers are very aware that there are important unwritten trade-offs to committing to the part-time world. A recent article in Today’s Parent by Jennifer Pinarski explains:

“Unfortunately, part-timers in our culture traditionally have not been viewed so positively,” says Kathie Lingle, executive director of World at Work’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress, which studies the availability of part-time and flexible work. Some supervisors will happily agree to reduce a worker mother’s hours (and pay) but forget to cut workload to the same degree. Lingle adds that too many employers still mistake a lighter load for a lack of commitment and bypass part-timers when big assignments are handed out and also think of part-timers first when layoffs loom. Part-time workers usually experience reduced employment prospects, benefits, and earnings as well.

The Motherhood Penalty

“The motherhood penalty” is a term coined by sociologists who argue that working mothers encounter disadvantages in pay and perceived competence in the workplace. Mothers may also suffer job-site evaluations that indicate that they are less committed to their jobs, less dependable, and less authoritative than other workers. Thus, mothers may experience disadvantages in terms of hiring, pay, and daily job experience.

There are different assumptions for the motherhood penalty. Lower wages for women with children may reflect the choices made by mothers, like trading more flexible hours for lower wages. Let’s not forget that many working mothers want less hours. However, it also may reflect employer bias and discrimination. Women should not have to make the choice between flexibility in the workplace or a promotion, especially if their work is of equal or greater quality.

However, it has been found that mothers may sacrifice their pay for jobs that are compatible with motherhood. For example, mothers may be willing to accept lower pay in return for desirable features, such as flexible work schedules, access to paid leave, and part-time work hours.

The motherhood penalty is significant because studies found that employed mothers account for most of the gender wage gap. Research shows that hourly wages of mothers are approximately 5% lower (per child) than the wages of non-mothers. The most frequent explanation of the motherhood wage penalty is that childbearing and childrearing disrupt formal education and on-the-job training. Therefore, when working mothers re-enter the workforce they incur a pay penalty for their lost experience.

In a laboratory experiment, participants evaluated application materials for a pair of same race, same gender job applicants who were equally qualified but differed on parental status. The results strongly support discrimination. Relative to other kinds of applicants, mothers were rated as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hire, promotion, and management training, and deserving of lower salaries. Mothers were also held to higher performance and punctuality standards. The study showed that mothers are 100% less likely to be promoted and are assumed to be less competent and committed than employees without children. In the likelihood of promotion, working mothers scored significantly lower and were also less likely than other types of applicants to be recommended for management positions. (“Mothers In The Workplace,” 2013)

For employers, these career-oriented stay-at-home moms represent an untapped or, at the very least, underused talent pool. Many can be rehired at bargain rates, salary-wise, relative to experience, because women generally pay a wage penalty when they take time off to raise children. It’s particularly severe for the most educated, qualified women. Women MBAs who take time off to be with children, for instance, see their pay drop 41 percent relative to male MBA earnings, according to work done by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin. The Center for Work-Life policy pegs the wage dip at 18 percent across a range of professional occupations. In a recent survey, about four in ten mothers currently at home say they believe their decision will carry long-term financial consequences. (Gockel, 2012)

Benefits of Working Mothers

Oh, the mythical stay-at-home mom! She bakes cookies, cleans the house, greets the school bus and doesn’t give the workplace a second thought. Guess what: Reality is a bit different. Surprisingly, more than half of all career-oriented stay-at-home moms surveyed say they’d rather be working, and there’s evidence that career-oriented moms try hard to hang on to their jobs. They return to work in slightly greater rates after having a first child than paycheck-driven workers, and they stay longer when they do, an average of three years before leaving. So, given their desire to stay in and their relative resilience, what ultimately pushes them out? The top reasons mothers cited were children’s needs and the cost of childcare. But many selected other factors, including a lack of flexibility, no part-time options and having to work more than 40 hours per week.

Many working mothers are working due to family financial constraints and necessity. They want to feel that their talents are being well used which creates more optimism about their long-term prospects. Working mothers who want to stick with the careers they love and have the time needed for family obligations can often make highly motivated employees. These working moms are juggling a lot. Many have to be out nights either for work events or business travel and often are balancing elder or family care in addition to immediate family responsibilities.

While work can produce additional stress to mothers, there is also research that backs up the fact that there are significant physical and emotional benefits to working while raising a family. In 2012 Lisa Belkin wrote an article in the Huffington Post that outlined many of the findings and studies regarding the positive benefits that working can create for mothers. She explained a recent study that was presented at the America Sociological Association meeting where researchers from the University of Akron and Penn State University found that mothers who go to back to work within weeks of giving birth had more energy, mobility, and less depression by age 40 than those who spend months or years at home.

According to new research commissioned by the Council on Contemporary Families, women who want to work but don’t have a job run a greater risk of becoming depressed. On the flip side, a high-quality job seems to protect against depression. Even moms who didn’t want to work outside the house reported lower rates of depression when they secured a high-quality job. A Gallup study conducted in May of 2012 found stay-at-home mothers were more likely to experience stress, worry, anger and sadness than were those who held paying jobs.

Research shows that working mothers also experience benefits of greater physical health and well-being. The British Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reported that “housewives” were more likely to be obese (38%) than were those who juggled children, a steady relationship and a paycheck (23%). And the Journal of Family Psychology in the U.S. concluded that a 10-year-long study following new mothers found that those who held a paying job, whether full-time or part-time were in better health in general than those who did not.

Working mothers also have an opportunity to positively shape and impact their children’s thoughts and beliefs regarding women in the workplace. Career moms are a powerful influence and role model in preparing their children to view work as meaningful. In fact, a majority of career moms say that showing their children that women can succeed professionally is one of the most important parts of being a good mother.

Success At Home and At Work

Successful working mothers require a variety of factors and support systems in today’s world to help balance life and family. Companies that make efforts to provide family-friendly working environments often reap the benefits of what working mothers have to offer with greater job stability and retention:

  1. Child care -A critical support for working families is access to child care facilities and regular child care arrangements.
  2. Flexible work hours – Many companies have been able to establish alternative schedules, flex hours, telecommute, and/or work from home flexibility to employees.
  3. Predictable work hours – In order to establish a school and childcare routine, employees also need their hours to be regular, and predictable.
  4. Paid sick leave to care for a sick child – Often schools and childcare facilities have strict rules that require children to be fever-free for 24 hours before they may return.
  5. Establish a culture of trust – People feel safe and valuable in an environment that treats them well.

Working mothers around the United States continue to battle the issues of family-life balance. Often they report that the most difficult issue of all to overcome is not an external factor at all, but rather the internal feeling of guilt they suffer from when making the decision to be a working mother. Many times it can feel like mothers are constantly having to make a choice between work or family as a priority. However, as modern companies continue to strive at embracing the realities and the needs of the 21st century worker, this issue quickly comes front and center and options are being offered.

For women, there is no magic potion or secret to the balancing act of family and career. It is evident that a strong support system in the work place and at home helps combat many of the stressors and worries that continually creep up whether mothers are choosing to work full or part-time. Many studies also show that making the choice to be a working mother has powerful mental and physical benefits as well. So release yourselves from the guilt ladies! See that you are an active participant in the well-being of your family by providing stability, income, and a positive work-family modeling structure to the precious little lives you go home to each night.


Belkin, Lisa. “(Yet Another) Study Finds Working Moms Are Happier And Healthier.” The Huffington Post. August 22, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/working-mothers-happier_b_1823347.html.

Farley, Jessica. “Workplace Flexibility is Top Consideration for Nearly Three-Fourths of U.S. Working Adults.” August 2013. http://momcorps.com/Libraries/News_PDFs/Mom_Corps_2013_workplace_survey_release.sflb.ashx.

Gockel, Maryella. “What Moms Choose: The Working Mother Report.” Working Mother. 2012. http://www.workingmother.com/research-institute/what-moms-choose-working-mother-report.

“Mothers In The Workforce.” The National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies 2012. http://www.naccrra.org/sites/default/files/default_site_pages/2012/ccgb_mothers_workforce_jan2012.pdf.

Peterson, Barbara. “What Do Working Moms Really Want? The Part-Time Questions.” Working Mother. August 2013. http://www.workingmother.com/content/what-do-working-moms-really-want-part-time-question.

Pinarski, Jennifer. “Do Most Moms Prefer Part-Time Work?” Today’s Parent. August 2013. http://www.todaysparent.com/blogs/run-at-home-mom/moms-prefer-part-time-work/.

Wikipedia. “Motherhood Penalty” October 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motherhood_penalty