So what's the deal? Are Americans supportive or not of mothers in the workforce? Looking at the recently released survey of 2,511 adults by Pew Research Center, I'd say we're deeply confused.
First, the reassuring news: We are not going backwards. Despite our nostalgia for June Cleaver, there has been progress since the 1960s, reports Pew:
Married mothers with young children are the major driving force for the rise of women’s employment rate. In 1968, about 37 percent of working-age married women with young children were employed; in 2011, it was about 65 percent.
Even in the last few years, there's been a significant shift in attitudes:
Fully 37 percent of today’s working mothers say their ideal situation would be to work full-time, up from 21 percent of working mothers in 2007. . . .
Only 11 percent of working mothers say their ideal situation would be not to work at all, down from 19 percent in 2007. Part-time work remains the most appealing option for working mothers; 50 percent now say working part-time would be ideal for them, down marginally from 60 percent in 2007.
(Frankly, I would have assumed that everyone—men too—would prefer to work part-time. Alas, that's not the case: "For their part, fathers prefer full-time work. Fully 75 percent of fathers with children under age 18 say working full-time is ideal for them.")
So if almost 40 percent of working moms now want to work full-time outside of the home—what's to stop them? Well, societal disapproval might be one factor:
Only 16 percent of all adults say having a mother who works full-time is ideal for a young child. A plurality of adults (42 percent) say having a mother who works part-time is ideal for a young child, and one-third say having a mother who doesn’t work at all is ideal.
In case you missed it: A third believe the stay-at-home mom is still the best model! That's seriously reactionary. That said, men's views are changing rapidly:
In 2009, 54 percent of fathers with children under age 17 said the ideal situation for young children was to have a mother who did not work at all. Today only 37 percent of fathers with children under age 18 say this—a drop of 17 percentage points.
For women, though, the issue of what they regard as best for children depends on their working status: "Mothers who are employed full-time are much more likely than mothers who do not work to say having a working mother is ideal for a young child (75 percent vs. 44 percent)."
Okay, so far. But now comes the confusion:
Even most full-time working mothers don’t endorse their own situation. Only 22 percent say having a mother who works full-time is best for a young child, while 53 percent say having a mother who works part-time is ideal. About one-in-five (19 percent) mothers who work full-time say having a mother who doesn’t work at all is best for a child.
Is your head spinning yet? Rising numbers of moms want to work full-time, but most women also believe part-time work is the better situation. So if you're plugging away at a full-time job, you're probably a lousy mom. No wonder women are confused and ambivalent about their careers!
What gives? According to KJ Dell'Antonia of The New York Times's Motherlode blog, one problem is that Pew framed the question in an inherently sexist fashion. Pew asked participants:
What is the ideal situation for young children: mothers working full-time, mothers working part-time, or mothers not working at all outside the home?
What Pew should have asked, says the NYT, is:
What is the ideal situation for young children in two-parent homes: both parents working full-time, one parent working part-time, or one parent not working at all outside the home?
Would tweaking the question change the tenor of this discussion? Or is it so ingrained that moms should be the primary caretaker that the phrasing would have no impact? Frankly, I'm not sure I want to know the answer.
What do you think?
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected]
Follow The Careerist on Twitter: twitter.com/lawcareerist