IWD: For the guilty working mother

20 February 2018

I am 54 and have always worked as a Lawyer. I have two grown-up sons and when one of them was visiting recently I asked, at a relaxed moment, whether he had been aware that I was working extremely hard when he was young (running a team of medical negligence lawyers, often working at the weekend and in the evenings after bedtime). His response was an unequivocal yes. With some trepidation I asked him whether he thought that was problematic for him? His even more unequivocal answer was no - I might have liked him to stop there but he went on to say, affectionately, that I would have been a terrible "stay at home" mum!

This conversation left me wondering whether any research had been done, specifically relating to sons, and the effect upon them of having a working mother. I am sure it is there somewhere, but I could not find it. I did, however, find a fascinating article published by Harvard business School in May 2015 citing research by Kathleen McGinn and others.

McGinn and her colleagues looked at research across 24 countries and were interested in the answer to one key question which was, whether the mothers of those surveyed ever worked for pay between the ages of zero and 14.  They came to some stark conclusions.

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

So what are the effects? Since this is a series of blogs around International Women's Day let's start with the good news for women: the research found that working mums are more likely to raise daughters who themselves work and those daughters are, in turn, more likely to hold supervisory responsibilities in their employment. Women raised by working mothers were more likely to have higher incomes. Interestingly the research did not distinguish whether the mother was working for a few months one year or 60 hours per week during the whole childhood. The focus of the research was whether there was a maternal role model who showed that women can work both inside and outside the home.

Obviously this was all good news for daughters, but my original concern was what about sons? The data showed that, in the workplace, in relation to the men whose mothers had worked outside the home in their childhood there was no apparent effect on wages . Also, they were just as likely to hold a supervisory jobs whether their mothers worked outside the home or not. So the position for sons was neutral for employment. However, then came the bit that I really relished reading: men whose mothers had worked outside the home when they were growing up were more likely to contribute to household chores and spend more time caring for family members. I found this heartening and reassuring to read.

I particularly like the  quote from McGinn when she says "the link between home and the workplace is becoming more and more critical as we have two-wage-earning families… we tend to talk more about inequality in the workplace, and yet the inequality in the home is really stuck."  It seems to me that the inequality in the home is something that is directly addressed by sons observing their mothers working in the workplace.

As I thought more about this ( to write this piece ) I realised that my husband is the son of a very hard-working working mother. As our sons were growing up, he participated very actively in their childhood and also in domestic chores. I have certainly benefited from living, and sharing parenting, with a son of a working mum. I hope that in the future, should my sons have families, they will benefit.

So, working mothers, feel no guilt: for your daughters you are helping them up the career ladder; for your sons, I would argue, you're helping them on the road to being more fulfilled and rounded people. Also, to state the obvious, you are playing a vital role in helping your family economically and if you enjoy your job you're also helping yourself professionally and emotionally, a win all round.

Parenting, for me anyway, never felt like anything other than an intuitive process. That said, it's good to know that the data supports my sons assurance.


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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