How Our View Of Working Mothers Has Evolved

A decades-long study reveals that while more mothers are working, an increasing number of young adults have traditional views of gender roles.

How Our View Of Working Mothers Has Evolved
[Photo: Flickr user David D]

Globally, women make up about 55% of the workforce, according to the most recent data from the World Bank. Here in the U.S., women of working age account for 57.2% participation in the labor force. Many of those working women were moms, primarily of children between 6 and 17 years old, according to the Department of Labor.


Women making up such a large part of the labor force may also influence the fact that they also account for 85% of all consumer purchases from homes and cars to food and pharmaceuticals. Which is why it is no surprise that American adolescents and adults are more accepting of mothers who work full time.

But there is another attitude shift afoot that seems out of step with the changing times. New research just published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly found that a growing minority of young adults is in favor of more traditional gender roles.

“Students are more accepting of mothers working, but a growing minority believes that men should be the rulers of the household or more believe that women should work, but still have less power at home,” wrote the researchers. “This trend is particularly surprising given the legitimization of same-sex marriage over this time period, which challenges traditional gender-based views of marriage.”

But it may in part be informed by the rise of women opting out of careers to stay home with their families instead. A Pew survey found that after three decades of decline, the share of mothers who work outside the home rose to 29%. As incomes stagnated in the wake of the recession, many women weighed the cost of child care against their take-home pay and decided that it made more sense to stay home.

Among the highly educated and affluent (graduate degree and an income in excess of $75,000), one in ten mothers choose to stay home with their children, according to the same survey. Though not a question of economics as it would be for lower-wage earners, the higher up the career ladder, the harder it is to not get “mommy tracked” when a child is sick or has a game or recital during business hours. Or, as one CEO told us about trying to balance work and family, “[Managers] get ‘concerned’ that you can’t do your job.”


To determine their findings amid conflicting trends and influences, the researchers analyzed two nationally representative surveys of approximately 600,000 respondents. One study polled 12th-grade students each year between 1976 and 2013.

The 12th-grade survey asked whether or not the respondents’ mothers worked while they were growing up as well as other questions on gender roles, ranging from attitudes toward family and workplace roles to opinions on specific work–family arrangements for couples with and without children.

The other was a survey of U.S. adults over 18 collected between 1972 and 2012 that asked similar questions as those posed to the high school respondents.

Among the more notable findings:

  • In the 2010s, 68% of students reported that their mother worked the majority or all of the time while they grew up, compared to 33% in the 1970s and 61% in the late 1990s.
  • In the 2010s, 22% of 12th graders believed that a preschool-age child would suffer if his or her mother worked, down from 34% in the late 1990s and 59% in the 1970s.
  • In the 2010s, 32% of 12th graders agreed that it is best for men to work and women to take care of the family, up from 27% from 1995 to 1996.
  • In the 2010s, 17% of students agreed that the husband should make the important decisions in the family, up from 14% from 1995 to 1996.
  • Support for stay-at-home dads doubled from the 1970s to 2010s, yet the increase slowed significantly after the 1990s, suggesting that the current generation of men do not expect to become stay-at-home dads any more than the men of the previous generation.

Overall, though, the findings pointed to a majority of U.S. adults and high school students accepting the idea that women will work even when they have young children. “This suggests a continued, urgent need for programs to help working families,” the researchers wrote.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.