Kids Benefit From Having a Working Mom

Women whose moms worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves, are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility at those jobs, and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full time, according to research by Kathleen McGinn and colleagues.
by Carmen Nobel

Here's some heartening news for working mothers worried about the future of their children.

Women whose moms worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves, are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility at those jobs, and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full time, according to a new study. Men raised by working mothers are more likely to contribute to household chores and spend more time caring for family members.

“There are very few things … that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother”

The findings are stark, and they hold true across 24 countries.

"There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother," says Kathleen L. McGinn, the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who conducted the study with Mayra Ruiz Castro, a researcher at HBS, and Elizabeth Long Lingo, an embedded practitioner at Mt. Holyoke College.

McGinn's previous research, with Katherine Milkman of Wharton Business School, found that female attorneys are more likely to rise through the ranks of a firm (and less likely to leave) when they have female partners as mentors and role models. McGinn, Castro, and Lingo wondered how nontraditional role models influenced gender inequality at home—both in terms of professional opportunities and household responsibilities.

"The link between home and the workplace is becoming more and more critical as we have two-wage-earning families," McGinn says. "We tend to talk more about inequality in the workplace, and yet the inequality in the home is really stuck."

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In developed countries, employed women in two-parent households report that they spend an average of 17.7 hours per week caring for family members, while employed men report devoting about 9, according to the researchers. At the same time, women report spending an average of 17.8 hours per week on housework, while men report an average of 8.8 hours.

The Global Effect Of Working Moms

To gauge the global effect of working moms, the researchers dug into data from the International Social Survey Programme, a global consortium of organizations that conduct social science research, and studied 2002 and 2012 responses to a survey called "Family and Changing Gender Roles." They supplemented these data with data on employment opportunities and gender inequality across countries.

The survey included several pages of questions related to gender attitudes, home life, and career path. The researchers were primarily interested in the answer to one key question: Did your mother ever work for pay, after you were born and before you were 14?

"It didn't matter to us if she worked for a few months one year, or worked 60 hours per week during your whole childhood," McGinn says. "We weren't interested in whether your mom was an intense professional, but rather whether you had a role model who showed you that women work both inside and outside the home. We wanted to see how that played out."

The research team aimed to find out whether growing up with a working mom influenced several factors, including employment, supervisory responsibility, earnings, allocation of household work, and care for family members.

Survey respondents included 13,326 women and 18,152 men from 24 developed nations. The researchers based their analyses on responses collected from the 2002 and 2012 surveys. They categorized the countries by their attitudes toward gender equality, both at home and in the workplace.

"Liberalizing Egalitarians" were those countries where respondents' attitudes toward gender were already egalitarian in 2002 and became even more so over the following decade (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, and Slovenia). "Stagnating Moderates" leaned slightly egalitarian in 2002 and remained stagnant in the following decade (Israel, the United States, Great Britain, Spain, Australia, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, and Taiwan). "Stagnating Conservatives" started off with conservative attitudes toward gender roles in 2002 and stayed that way (Chile, Latvia, Mexico, Philippines, and Russia.)

Men tended to report more conservative gender attitudes than women-with the exception of Mexico, where women were more conservative than men, McGinn says.

The researchers controlled for factors including: age; marital status; religion; years of education; urban versus rural dwelling; average Female Labor Force participation in the respondent's home country during the years the respondent was 0 to 14 years old; Economic Freedom Index in the respondent's home country during the survey year; Gender Inequality Index in the respondent's home country; and Gross Domestic Product in the respondent's home country. Stripping those things away, they focused on the effects of being raised by a mother who worked outside the home. "The direct effects are significant across the board," McGinn says.

The data showed that men were just as likely to hold supervisory jobs whether or not their moms had worked outside the home. But women raised by working mothers were more likely to supervise others at work.

Effects On Income

The data also showed that while being raised by a working mother had no apparent effect on men's relative wages, women raised by working moms had higher incomes than women whose moms stayed at home full time. The one exception: women who reported conservative attitudes toward gender equality. "It's only for earnings that having conservative gender attitudes reduces the effect of a working mom," McGinn says. "For all of the rest of them, having had a non-traditional role model at home has a direct effect on the outcomes, regardless of attitudes."

As for men whose moms ever worked outside the home, they were more likely to contribute to household chores and spent more time caring for family members. "Growing up, what was being modeled for sons was the idea that you share the work at home," McGinn says.

Women spent about the same amount of time caring for family members, regardless of whether their moms worked outside the home. However, "When we segmented just for people who have children at home, we found that women who are raised by a working mom actually spend more time with their kids," McGinn says, adding that this includes women who grew up to become working moms themselves.

"There's a lot of parental guilt about having both parents working outside the home," McGinn says. "But what this research says to us is that not only are you helping your family economically—and helping yourself professionally and emotionally if you have a job you love—but you're also helping your kids. So I think for both mothers and for fathers, working both inside and outside the home gives your kids a signal that contributions at home and at work are equally valuable, for both men and women. In short, it's good for your kids."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Hillary
    • Pastor wife mother, Teaching for Life Ministries
    I think the final resolution on the outcome of the research is shallow. I understand women should not feel guilty for having to work outside the home and that's important because I had to do that for a while but we should not underestimate the value of a full-time mom or part-time mom. Part-time moms value themselves more and feel less guilty for working outside the home because they are contributing to their own self-worth through work outside the home but they are also contributing to their families in a way that comes naturally to many of us ladies. It is also important to note that men sharing the household responsibilities is just as important a result of the research, if not more important, as men and boys need to learn the value of contributing to family and to view it as more important than the position of income earner though finances are an essential part of our well-being. I guess what I'm trying to say is money, family, women,
    men, children are equally important - the balance is personal but must be established. My opinion only and thanks for the research.
    • Pamela Bailey Powers
    • writer/artist
    Your paragraph follows: ""It didn't matter to us if she worked for a few months one year, or worked 60 hours per week during your whole childhood," McGinn says. "We weren't interested in whether your mom was an intense professional, but rather whether you had a role model who showed you that women work both inside and outside the home. We wanted to see how that played out."

    The range of hours from minimal to maximal work outside the home appears to have a similar effect with regard to the work habits and attitudes of a woman's offspring.

    That said, new questions arise.

    *What proportion of women, and eventually their daughters, opt for a balance of work both inside and outside the home, that is, giving generally equal and balanced hours to child time and domestica work alongside (paid or volunteer) work outside the home?

    *What is the difference between the long term life benefits from this model of balanced commitments and the models of extremes of either full time child time and domestica work or full time intense work outside the home?

    Thanks for giving lots to consider!
    • Muriel Morisey
    • Law professor, Temple University
    This is useful research but flawed if race wasn't taken into account, at least the US. Historically, Black women of every income and educational status almost always work outside the home. I wonder how the analysis would look if there were a significant number of Blacks among the U
    S. In the study. Perhaps the researchers took race into account but I found nothing in this summary indicating that
    Blacks are at the bottom of most measures of employment and income even though it's likely the mother works outside the home. Racial bias is such a huge factor that I believe race be part of any analysis of outcomes and the presence of a role model.
    • Shirley Smith
    • I agree
    I have a mom who was a preschool teacher. There were three of us (my sister was a Stanford University graduate and marketing analysis, my brother had a 25 year career with a local international corporation, and I had a career during market development for a fortune 500 corporation). As girls we were encouraged to go to college and have careers.
    I became a single parent when my children (3 sons) were very young, so the advice to go to school and have a career worked out for me.
    • Matt Beecher
    • Contributing-to-the-Household Husband & Father, Entrepreneur
    This research certainly gives us some alternatives to consider--and isn't it great that there are a variety of such alternatives and considerations to match the values and preferences of each individual woman, man, and family?

    One element I find concerning as I read this--and the pieces in other outlets that refer to this research--is that "benefit to kids" and "gender equality" and other indicators of success are measured in terms of income equality, holding supervisory responsibilities, and contribution to household chores. As a father of three, I am looking at a constellation of success metrics that includes those indicators--but many many more.

    I'm skeptical that having a working mom is going to impact all the metrics that matter most...and for me, though I care substantially about income equality and household-chore contribution, those are not in my top 10 measures that matter. I've yet to see the full study and digest all its findings--I look forward to doing so; however, I worry about the impact of outsourcing the care of my children at young ages to non-parent/non-family caregivers who are less consistent in ensuring what I care about most: a long list ranging from a grounded sense of morality and positive social-behavior norms/virtues to balancing the use of media with physical play.

    I'm not advocating that moms or dads feel guilt about circumstances not in control, but for me who gratefully has control over such circumstances--my greatest investment and highest priority (across "work" and "life") is the raising of children who are strong across a multitude of measures, which are often not addressed in this terrain of research. I'm grateful for the contribution to the ongoing dialog that, again, provides great alternatives for consideration and for individual choices. But, I think we're a very long way from saying it's a silver bullet in terms of helping reduce gender inequalities at work and at home (Professor McGinn is thus quoted in the 15 May 2015 NY Times article about this research).
    • Al White
    • Atty, Parnership
    Sounds like this ressearch is to make the writer feel good about working outside the home. It rubbish. First error is that it speaks to women who "have a job you love" most women who work have to financially. We are not talking about HBS grads but most people. I have done both and my kids are perfect but much more well adjusted when I have been home with them. Do more research because this is faulty. Ask if the majority would rather work or stay home if money was not an issue
    • Nic
    A good article and helpful when you carry guilt as a working mother.
    • NS
    • Business Intellignence Manager & working mom, larger global consumer products company
    As a working mom , I appreciate the sentiment that I can lighten some guilt because my kid was in daycare after 12 weeks and is always the latest at aftercare. But as a child of a working poor mom I agree that most women need to work and the "race" bias comment from the reader above , I would agree if we can convert that to a class bias statement in the case of this article. When a working Mom is a contributing to a middle class to upper class experience for the child, why wouldn't the kid be able to be gainfully employed? The question of class bias makes one wonder if the stats hold consistent if one were to study the outcomes of poor working moms only, as opposed to poor moms that were able to stay home and keep their kids off the streets.

    Seems there is agreement that this is non conclusive. In a spirit supporting Ms. McGinn, can we change the observation statement? My recommendation would be "Research supports that working moms do not cause detriment to child's ability to compete?:
    • Suzanne
    • retire former CIO, SAS
    I was a successful working Mother and both our kids are now successful working adults. In general I felt good about working but one day when they were around 7 and 10 and sitting in the back sit riding home from school and work with me. I asked "do you wish i would stay at home?" The look of horror on both their faces was priceless as they answered in unison "No we like are life the way it is!".
    • Lisa-Maria Domres
    • Student
    Am I the only one who misses a clear definition of "conservative gender roles"? Are conservative People defined as people who are generally prefering mothers to stay at home? Or is it about (in)equality between women and men in an even wider range?

    Despite of that fact the article is well-written and has chosen a quite interesting topic. Thank you.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    We cannot say with certainty that the children only of working mothers will be better - in all resects - than those of the non-working house-keepers. The results vary from case to case depending upon the situational factors. There are many examples of households where not only were the mothers not working, they were even barely educated. Nontheless, they had high qualities of head and heart thereby being able to impart good values in their children. They sowed traits such as honesty, hard work, helping (the needy), self-less service, care for own and others' health, environment, high standard of general behavior, etc., which one needs so as to develop properly as a complete man or woman. Ultimately, one cannot be really happy only with material possessions such as a big position,status, wealth and the like. These are necessary if devoid of true human values, the result can never be complete happiness something which must not to be due onl
    y to exterior considerations.
    That said, if a working woman can educate her children to evolve them as worthy human beings, it would be fine. Usually however, and we do not blame her for that, she is so much engrossed in her own career issues that she does not get time to attend to her children optimally.
    Yes, the children of working women develop independence which can lead them to grow without fear but, if not watched, has an in-built risk of their getting astray.
    Finally, my view is that growth of the children be kept under close watch particularly when they are young so that they move forward in life without any inhibitions due to unbecoming habits acquired by them.
    • Buks
    • Proud husband and dad, Private
    The title should read "Kids benefit ECONOMICALLY from having a working mom" since the research does not factor in the social effects of raising kids with a mom working. Ask me, I grew up that way. I'm a hard working go-getter, but I seriously lack(ed) emotional skills (unselfishness, affection, showing emotion, being vulnerable). But it seems as if these things are not the things counting now-a-days. Depends where you stand: my kids would also say "no way, we like life the way it is" with my wife being at home.
    • Barry Braun
    • Professor and department Head, Colorado State University
    This is an excellent summary of an important study. But it is a summary and can't be expected to provide all the rich detail necessary to make an informed decision regarding the quality of the methods or the interpretation of the results. To make those judgements, it would be necessary to read the actual study and not rely on the summary to comment on whether the study was flawed or incomplete. You woukd not say you hated the jambalaya at a new restaurant after reading a review; you would need to actually taste the food, yes?
    • John Oxley
    • Accountant, Self
    My wife thinks that unsupervised children at home (after school) leads to drug abuse and anti-social behaviour. I tend to agree. How about some research to look into this aspect of stay-at-home moms?
    • W Webb
    • independent board director & advisor
    Delighted with the findings of these studies, and the conclusions re: the outcome on both male and female children. Even if we unquestionably adore our children, not all of us would be fulfilled and most productive (or even patient enough and good at!) making lunches and driving carpool everyday (but bravo to those who find that meaningful - honestly.) It is powerful to "model" engagement with and contribution to the outside world, and at the same time one still can demonstrate being a loving and inspirational parent, too.
    • JM
    • Partner, Law Firm
    Interesting to read this article and everyone's comments. Suzanne's comment brought a smile to my face, as that was exactly the reaction of my kids too - they want me to work, as well as their dad, because it gives them a lifestyle they enjoy. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, both my parents were working professionals. My mother never worked full time, though much of the time she worked 4-5 1/2 days per week. Work in the home was divided on gender lines, however (even for my sister and me versus our brother), which I always thought was unfair. My parents made sure my sister, brother and I had good educations, and in particular raised my sister and me to be professionals - have a good job so "you don't need to rely on a man". A good education and a good job - pretty solid advice. I struggled with how to raise a family and do my work (which was not work that was easily done on anything but a full time basis). And I faced a pretty thic
    k glass ceiling, especially as far as earnings were concerned, when my children were young. One of the biggest factors to me was the example I was setting to my children - to my daughter, that she would most likely need to work too, and to my sons, that they would most likely have working partners. So I stuck with full-time work. My husband, also a professional, is a tremendous contributor around the house, and our children have seen his example, how we both assume responsibilities around the house and how we manage conflicting schedules and demands, around the house, from work, from the kids' schools, and as parents generally. I do think that each person/family has to decide for him/her/itself what works and constitutes "balance" (which, a la Sheryl Sandberg, is measured over the long term, not necessarily on a day to day basis). I am lucky that my parents were able, and my husband and I have been able, to achieve a level of financial stability that gave them, and gives u
    s, a good lifestyle and a somewhat balanced homelife. At the end of the day, a good education is extremely important to gender equality at home and in the workplace, and the example at home certainly helps.
    • Elise
    • Ceo, At home
    So there is an economic benefit to children. But the conclusion here shows the bias of the author - mothers have to work out and in the home to show that both are equally valued?! If we could value both equally then wouldn't those at home contributions of stay at home parents be as good as going to a job for a few months one year. I teach my children that they need to respect, and contribute themselves, at home and that outside work is not more or less important than my spouse who earns a paycheck (I think a lot of that comes from what respect the working spouse models toward the at home spouse), I'm all for people working of it makes you happy and is fulfilling, but we don't need to try to transfer guilt from one set of moms to another for damaging their daughters either. I bet happy parents in either situation are the best for well-adjusted children. And I think it is possible for moms to have intellectual and emotional balance at
    home without a paycheck too, and even model active community participation and volunteerism at the same time.
    • Latrice
    • meteorologist, National Weather Service
    As a working mother, I carry plenty of guilt about being away from my son. However, as someone else pointed out, Black women have always worked outside the home, so I never considered being a full time mom. I think we should also note that countries like Denmark and Switzerland also have policies that allow mothers to take a year or more of maternity leave or something similar. Where you have fewer choices in the US, with most places only allowing 6 to 8 weeks of maternity leave. That early time with your children benefits everyone. While women make up at least 50% of the workforce in the US, they are often treated as inferior and still expected to maintain the traditional role. It would have been great to see the results from the US only. I think they would have seen more conservative results. After reading several comments, I think some are missing the point of the study. I think the idea was to show that women raised by working mothers
    still had the confidence and drive to pursue a career and move up the ladder, regardless of the professional path. I always knew I would go to college and have a career, if I had a daughter I would encourage her to do the same. My mother worked outside the home, but we were often qualified as poor. It was also great to see that men were more likely to participate in home life when raised by a working mother, which is awesome. I am not married, but I believe having a partner to share the responsibility at home would make a huge difference. I don't think this study was designed to put any less value on full time or part- time mothers. This study supports the idea that children model what they see, so whether we choose to work in or out of the home, we should be the best at it. Either way, being our best helps our children.
    • Ellen
    • Social Media
    How in the world can someone be a "full time mom" or even a "part time mom"? I have a c-section that pretty much says I'm a mom 24/7. I may work outside the home, but that doesn't mean I'm ever not a mom.
    • Deborah Nixon
    • Founder, Trust Learning Solutions
    At what price? So they benefit economically. But what about emotionally? A benefit that comes at a price is a net loss. I would like the research to measure the emotional benefits (or not) and then determine if they really benefit.
    • Proud Dad
    • Dad
    The most important role we will ever have as individuals on this earth is that of mother and father. Sorry Harvard, but that job is entirely too important to outsource.

    Any study produced that says otherwise can be easily countered with psychological impact studies that quantify the value of parents raising their own kids.
    • Jennifer
    • Sanfacon, Teacher from CA
    Yay! Confirmation of what we working mom's have always believed.
    • Denise
    • Retired
    Children resemble their mothers behaviorally for genetic reasons. With all the factors controlled for in the study, the most important one was omitted. It makes all conclusions invalid.
    • Lynn
    • HR Supervisor
    I think a lot of the comments here are not taking in the whole picture.

    Parenting to valuable to be outsourced? Working parents are not outsourcing their roles as a mom and dad. Quality childcare can be a wonderful tool in your parent toolbox. The saying, "it takes a village to raise a child" is true and I think a lot parents in this time are selfish with raising their children. There has been multiple studies that show children benefit from quality childcare and having strong adults in their life besides their parents.

    I am not saying that every child should have a stay at home parent or both parents should work. But as a mom who has done both (stay at home and work) I find stay at home parent families are incredibly short sighted and don't understand something they have never participated in.
    • K. Kulberg
    • designer, Urban Tribal Gems
    Yes there are benefits If the working mother has a job she likes and recieves positive benefits form that job. Please do not allow this study to be a n arguement against maternity benefits.
    • A-Aron
    • Theorist
    I would say that the article tends to share a little too much opinion though the video of the lady who did the research sort of opened up some interesting ideas. My son is lazy as all get out and his stay at home mom (my wife) does everything for him. I've been wanting her to go back to work for years. This will force my son to help out more. Make sure to watch the video.
    • Clmorris
    • Principal GPM, Microsoft
    why are we creating another us vs them with moms who work and those that don't -- or chose not to. Happy Mom's = happy kids... stop the conversation right there.
    • Jane Fought
    • Realtor, Windermere Real Estate
    I totally agree. I am still working and loving it at age 84. I have two children; one is a teacher and one a doctor
    I think the premise is inherently gender-biased and that concerns me. What if girls with working moms don't do better? What if they do the same as girls whose moms don't work outside the home? What if the girls do worse? The implication is that it's only really ok for mothers to work if it means their daughters do the same or better. And implicit is also that it is ok to question whether moms should work. There's the underlying idea that if it doesn't benefit their kids, the mothers should feel guilty. Does that mean it is their prime directive to raise children? What if girls (or boys) with working dads don't do better? You don't hear that parallel being drawn. This working paper seems quite unfortunate in the 21st century. Those moms were once girls. Maybe it doesn't matter if the girls don't do better if their most important role as adults is to make sure they're there at home so their kids "do better," resulting in a vicious
    cycle. I don't think women should have to look for data to support the concept of working mothers in the 21st century. Like men, we are not *just* parents; we are people with our own needs to balance. Thanks
    • MA
    As some comments have raised, I'm intrigued by the measure of 'benefits'. Going on to earn a good income like your mom is probably a good thing, but what of the social costs? My mom worked when I was a kid and I have distinct memories of wishing she would spend more time with me. Sure I went on to get my HBS degree but I wouldn't say I have the closest relationship with my mother. I worked full time while my daughter was in preschool. It was ok but the expectations of my role meant I was increasingly asked to stay back at work till 6 pm. When you couple that with getting home by 7 pm and having kids who need to be in bed by 8.30--well, we know the trade offs right? So much for family dinners. We ended up getting takeaway food most nights (there goes healthy eating). When we had a live in nanny/housekeeper we wondered why
    we bothered to have kids if we were going to outsource all
    child rearing. The last straw was losing my temper all the time because I was so stressed trying to juggle it all. How do you constantly explain to your kid it's not their fault but Mom just had a hard day at the office? At my last HBS reunion the amount of people who spoke of kids with mental health/anxiety issues was eye-opening. I quit my full time job two years ago and am happier and healthier for it. So is my child. Now I'm on a quest to find meaningful part time work that isn't going to bankrupt me or damage my self-esteem but I suspect that will take a while. I'd love to get back to work sometime and would love to see more of a dialogue on how to restore balance back in the workplace. For starters, a better quality of part time job roles.
    • L
    • Woman
    Research like this creates the unfortunate impression that the school's female professors are incapable of thought leadership that's objective, intellectually rigorous, and consistent with a business school's academic mission (i.e., finance, strategy, marketing).

    For the past several years HBS is determined to weigh in on alumnae's marriages and parenting, waving dubious research like this as proof of what constitutes correct choices. I for one am tired of this overreach in to our private lives. We've already graduated, so please stop grading women according to the school's forced curve.
    • Rachel
    • Adivsor, Greencap
    Thanks, very interesting. What is missing now, is the angle on the father. What impact has a father on a child's life who has been present at home, who has shared household chores and child education responsibilities with his (part-time) working wife?
    • Jan
    • Stay at home mom, Loving caring mom
    I respect all Mothers who have to work outside the home! I don't really believe that statistic is true. Being home with my two girls was my life's biggest blessing. It was and still is my life goal. The destruction of the family is what has caused all the dysfunction in our world today. I have come from a long line of stay at home mothers who have actively been the most hard working women that I know. By example they have lived their lives of volunteering and home life that takes it far above those who have chose to work.