People judge working mothers and their kids

  • Deborah Condon

People not only judge mothers on their work status, they also judge the children of these women, the results of a new study indicate.

US researchers set out to evaluate the perceptions people have of women and their children based on the women’s work status.

The study revealed that people value, and do not differentiate between, mothers who stay at home full-time and those who find a compromise between working and staying at home, for example, those who work part-time.

However people devalue mothers employed full-time outside of the home. Furthermore, they perceive the children of these women to be troubled and their relationships to be problematic.

"The most interesting and potentially dangerous finding is the view that if a child has a working mother, people don't like that child as much. People really devalue a mom who works full-time outside the home in comparison to a mom who doesn't. People like mothers who fulfill traditional stereotypes, like staying at home. That's just not a reality and not a preference for women as much as it used to be," explained lead researcher, Jennifer Livengood of Kansas State University.

She pointed to previous research which found that people rate stay-at-home mothers as more likeable than mothers employed outside the home. While studies have shown that many women would like more of a compromise between staying home full-time and working outside the home full-time, Ms Livengood said there is little research on the perceptions of mothers who pursue this middle ground.

The study involved college students, all of whom were single and 99% of whom had no children. Each participant first listened to one of three interviews that reflected a working mother, a stay-at-home mother and what the researchers called a middle mother.

The working mother said in the interview that she worked more than 40 hours per week. The stay-at-home mother reported having stopped working outside of the home after giving birth. The middle mother described taking 18 months away from work after giving birth and then going back to work part-time and gradually increasing her work hours.

Each participant then watched the same video of a mother and her 4-year-old son completing a puzzle and playing a game together. Because of the audiotape, the participants either thought she was a working mother, a stay-at-home mother or a middle mother.

The participants then filled out a questionnaire that evaluated their perception of the mother. They rated statements like, ‘she does a good job as a mom’. They also filled out a questionnaire about their perceptions of the child and responded to statements like, ‘this child is well-adjusted’. The last questionnaire regarded their perception of the mother-child relationship, such as if they thought the pair worked well together.

The findings showed that the participants did not differentiate between the stay-at-home mothers and middle mothers, but they did devalue the working mothers in comparison.

Ms Livengood said the similar ratings for the stay-at-home and middle mothers might indicate that individuals understand women need a compromise.

The findings also showed that not only did the participants devalue the mother who worked outside the home full time, but they also extended that negative perception to the child and their relationship.

"By just telling them the mother's work status - by just manipulating that one variable - it was strong enough for participants to discriminate between the children of working mothers and the other two mothers, as well as between their relationships," she explained.

Ms Livengood said that the findings might indicate that people perceive the child of a working mother to have a higher incidence of behavioural and adjustment problems and their relationship to be relatively cold and troubled.

She added that this perception might be specific to the sample of students who took part, but if not, it could mean that people treat children of working mothers differently and have negative expectations, which could initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy with the child.

"Women are going to continue working and they're going to continue having children. Knowing how their decisions in these arenas are perceived by others may help us understand the foundations of these potential biases and identify ways to support mothers in their work-family decisions.”

The findings were presented at a conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in the US.


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