When working women become mothers: Literature Review | MyPaperHub

While the mother’s place traditionally was regarded to be at home with the children, this view has changed, at least in the United States. As early as the 1980s, “over one-half of all mothers with children under the age of 18 and over one-third of all mothers with children under the age of six are employed outside the home" (Farel 1982:281). These figures are from three decades ago; the percentage of mothers with children who work is much higher now and steadily increasing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 55.5% of all mothers with children under the age of three were in the labor force.

When women first entered the workforce in large numbers, people generally held traditional views. This was reflected in the fact that “many public policies seem[ed] to discourage employment of mothers outside the home" (Farel 1982:283). One such example is the “Aid to Dependent Children" (Farel/ 1982:282-283) welfare program, which financially supported families with small children so that the mother would not have to go out and work. This policy reflected the perception in society of working mothers and the extent to which the government was willing to preserve this traditional perspective and the accompanying behavior patterns.

Not only public policy but also the media has played a very important role in shaping social views of working mothers. The media image of motherhood has been divided into a “binary discourse” between the working mother and the stay-at-home mother (Zimmerman et al. 2008). These media invoked “mommy wars” pitted the two types of mothers against one another in order to determine which functioned better in the maternal role. Putting working mothers and stay at home mothers at opposing ends does not take into account the fact that most women have had both roles at different times in their lives and many others do not have a choice between the two roles (Zimmerman et.al 2008). The “mommy war” discourse judges mothers based on whether they work or stay at home and negatively impacts women in both categories by making the women doubt their abilities to be a “good mother.”

People’s judgments of women are not simply limited to motherhood.  A mother’s decision to return to work after having children also impacts how others view her competence level. Generally, working women are perceived as being more competent than mothers who stay home with their children (Coleman 2011; Cuddy et.al 2004). When a sample of undergraduate students were asked to rate their perception of parents’ employment decisions after having a baby, parents who went back to work, whether immediately or after a temporary leave, were considered to be more competent than those who remained at home. Those who chose to stay home after having a baby were seen as compassionate but lacking in competence (Coleman 2011).

Social judgments of women’s competence are not limited to their decision to work or stay home.  The fact that a woman is a mother is often regarded as making her less capable at the workforce. Women who have children are perceived to be less competent than they were before having kids or when compared to other childless women. This makes them less likely to be hired, promoted or educated (Cuddy et.al 2004:711). From the employer's perspective, they are a much less desirable employee. Therefore, they are a lot more likely to be discriminated against when it comes to career opportunities. Unsurprisingly, the findings show that women with children were rated as being "warm" while childless women were rated as being "competent," but neither woman was considered both (Cuddy et.al 2004:709).  However, this is not the case with working men; fatherhood allowed men to “maintain perceived competence and gain perceived warmth, looking equally warm and competent" (Cuddy et. al 2004:711). Limitations in career advancement opportunities for mothers and widespread negative images of mothers at the workplace thus may explain why women have not been as professionally successful as their male counterparts.

Discrimination against working mothers is widely practiced at the workplace. Currently, most states in America do not offer guaranteed paid maternity leave for women in all positions (Strickland 2006). Also, employers often discriminate against mothers when it comes to hiring or promotion practices. With such practices, it is no surprise that the wage gap between mothers and childless women is greater than the gap between men and women’s income (Strickland 2006).  Such harsh working conditions for mothers has led to the creation of “Momsrising,” a grassroots political action group to help working mothers deal with discrimination (Strickland 2006). The group pushes for legislatures for working mothers. Their goal is to enforce family friendly policies at the workplace.

While there is workplace discrimination, the difference in gender roles begins at home. As Linda Hirshman (2005) discusses, the real glass ceiling is evident in practices that take place at the home.  The traditional gendered roles still guide the division of labor for household chores among the spouses. Although both partners work outside the home, for the most part the woman continues to be  the one who is expected to come home in the evening and take on the “second shift” (Hochschild 1989) of cooking, cleaning and childcare. This leaves the woman more tired, fatigued and sleepless than her husband. Also, women have much less personal time for leisure than their male partner. As Hochschild (1989) demonstrated, all this is the result of a “stalled revolution.” The feminist movement led women to the workplace but it did not change the work or home culture to adapt to these changing gender roles. As a result, women still continue to face a constant struggle between their work and family responsibilities even decades later.

The frustration of trying to be successful both as a homemaker and a career woman has led many women to realize that it is not possible to live up to the myth of “superwoman” (Swiss and Walker 1993). As a result, many highly educated professional women are choosing to put career aside for family. This is because of the belief that one identity must be sidelined in order for there to be success in carrying out the other (Swiss and Walker 1993). Even decades after women entered the workforce; it is still a widely held belief that childrearing and housework are the woman’s primary responsibility. Therefore, many women feel guilty about going to work outside and neglecting these responsibilities (Hirshman 2005). In order to combat this guilt, those women who have the option to do so are voluntarily choosing to stay at home with their children. This phenomenon has become known as the “opt-out revolution” (Belkin 2003).

This may also explain why despite the increase in the number of women with graduate degrees, their percentage in top positions is still remarkably low.  While women are seeking graduate and professional degrees from top institutions in large numbers, not all of these women are committing as much time to advancing their careers as their male counterparts. This is because of the perceived importance of the woman’s role as a homemaker and mother. Women may start their career on the “fast track” but they are very likely to “drop out or drop down to a less demanding track" (Mason 2007:49) in order to balance their family and career responsibilities. As Mason (2007) discussed, women oftentimes decide to or are forced to stay within the “second tier” of their profession so that they may have the flexibility they need to manage their career with a family.

In earlier time periods, it was widely believed that women must choose between motherhood and career and they cannot be successful in both areas. However, as more and more mothers enter the workforce, this has changed. Mason (2007) argues for requisite institutional changes that will take women's needs into account and create more family-friendly environments at work so that women can take the time they need to be successful mothers and still remain on the fast track of their career. Caroline Gatrell (2005) also describes the possibility for women to successfully manage home and career responsibilities. She points out the importance for the couple to put aside traditional gender roles and for each spouse to contribute equally to child rearing and household chores. Changes in work policies and family division of labor are thus viewed as essential for women to successfully manage both family and career responsibilities.

            While it is becoming more possible to balance successfully motherhood and a career, the individual mother’s personal views about the role of women is a key factor in determining whether or not she can balance juggling the dual responsibility. Hock, as cited by Schuster, (1980) suggests that a close match between a woman's employment status and her beliefs about maternal care may lead to greater satisfaction in the mothering role for some women, thereby enhancing the mother-infant relationship (1993:14).  Using this model, it was clearly evident that women who believed that children should be looked after by the mother alone and stayed home with their child as well as women who thought it was good to leave children with others and worked were happier with their lives and satisfied with their parenting. However, mothers who worked but thought that women should stay home with children felt a struggle between parenthood and employment. They felt guilty for leaving the child behind with someone else. The mothers in this category were distressed and had to deal with “their unresolved conflicts in integrating parenthood and employment" (Shuster 1993:13). This inadvertently had an adverse impact on their relationship with their children.

            The concept of maternal employment has always resulted in a lot of scrutiny in society. Mothers who have careers outside the home are among the majority in the contemporary world. As the studies show, people have always had strong views of mothers in the workplace. This has been reflected in media, public policy and even the way mothers see themselves and their parenting abilities.

            Kristin Luker (1984) divided women into two opposing groups, “feminists” and “housewives,” based on the empirical results of her research. Not only did these two groups of women differ on their stance on abortion but in other attitudinal and demographic characteristics as well. The pro-life housewives were less educated and less likely to work; even those who worked had low incomes. These women got married earlier, had several children and had strong religious affiliations. The pro-choice women on the contrary were described as “feminists.” They were well educated working professionals with high incomes. These women were either unmarried or got married later in their lives and had fewer children. Also, most did not consider themselves religious; many had not attended a place of worship in years. The striking difference in their demographic background was clearly reflected in their belief and values.

            The differences in these women’s lifestyles also predict which side and the stated rationale for why they chose to be on their respective sides of the abortion debate.  The homemaker has already made a conscious decision to stay home and dedicate her life to her family. An unplanned pregnancy or another child would not be a big deal for her. However, an unplanned birth can have severe detrimental consequences for a feminist working professional lifestyle. Traditionally, motherhood is seen to be the woman’s most important role. The housewives agree with this notion because it elevated their status. For these women, having children is a desirable resource. However, the feminists disagree with this because it takes away their “male resources” (Luker 1984). May feminists may view having children as hampering their career ambitions. According to Luker (1984), homemakers are less interested in working and establishing a career because they are less educated and would only qualify for low wage labor jobs. Therefore, staying at home and looking after the family is a better option for them. However, this is not the case for the highly educated professional “feminist” women. These demographic differences between people continue to guide their perceptions of working mothers.


This paper builds upon prior studies examining people’s perception of working mothers by analyzing whether demographic categorizations such as age, gender, socioeconomic status and level of education impact how people view working mothers. Additional hypotheses emerged from Kristen Luker’s theory of dividing women into “feminists” and “housewives” and the demographic clustering, which defines each group. The following hypotheses will be tested using data from the 2008 General Social Survey.

Hypothesis 1: Older people will look more favorably upon women staying at home with their children while younger people will be more supportive of working mothers.

Hypothesis 2: Women will be more supportive of working mothers than men.

Hypothesis 3: People with higher level of education will be more supportive of working mothers than people with lower levels of education.

Hypothesis 4: People with higher socioeconomic status will be more supportive of working mothers than people of lower socioeconomic status.

Hypothesis 5: People, especially women, who support abortion for any reason also support working mothers

Hypothesis 6: People, especially women, who have a stronger religious affiliation are less likely to support working mothers than those who are less religious.

Hypothesis 7: Women who work are more supportive of working mothers than women who are homemakers.





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