Women's Work

Working Mothers Are the Backbone of the U.S. Economy


So why are they still treated like morally bankrupt, second-class citizens?



Say the phrase, “working mother,” and watch Lisa Keller cringe. Not because she doesn’t believe in the working mother—after all, she is one—but because the phrase is a tautology. There hasn’t been a time in history where women haven’t worked.

“One of the great, great fallacies in Western civilization is that women have come into the workforce in the last 50 years,” says Keller, a women’s history professor at Purchase College. “Women have always worked, and they have always done critical jobs in sharing the work with men, supporting the household and supporting the family’s income.”

Keller points to illustrations from illuminated medieval manuscripts that show women sitting in fields, reaping wheat and taking care of animals. Other evidence from Babylonian times indicates women were trading and running inns. Enslaved Black women—many of them mothers—worked, of course, and when slavery ended, nearly all Black mothers worked. As the Industrial Revolution dawned, they were joined by low-income women from every ethnic group who struggled to juggle factory work with childcare. And during World War II, Keller says the number of women working reached an all-time high while men were away at war.

“My students have no idea that women ever did anything but stay home and take care of children to which I say: If that were the case the world would have ended 1,000 or 2,000 years ago,” says Keller, adding that women who were solely responsible for the care of their children were members of the wealthiest income bracket, and usually white.

What’s changed in the last 200 years, Keller says, is the conversation. That’s because terminology like “working mother,” “glass ceiling,” and other language that points at the gendered division of labor is being used more frequently during a period in time where people have decided to talk about mothers who work. But the increased cognizance around the fact that mothers work––and always have––isn’t all that’s being noticed. Working mothers are a more prominent part of the conversation because they’re increasingly becoming the backbone of the American economy.

According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 70 percent of American mothers with children under 18 work. Research shows that working mothers are proving to not only make individual companies more successful but provide greater economic gains for America as a whole. In fact, a 2014 questionnaire survey showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, mothers are more productive than their child-free counterparts. One aspect of the study—published by the research division at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis—focused on a group of more than 2,400 economists, including 496 childless women, 288 mothers, 978 childless men, and 671 fathers.

“Mothers of at least two children are, on average, more productive than mothers of only one child, and mothers, in general, are more productive than childless women,” noted the study. “Fathers of at least two children are also more productive than fathers of one child and childless men.”

Despite the increased productivity they provide, working mothers often fall prey to what has been dubbed the “motherhood penalty,” or the decrease in a woman’s income as a result of becoming a mother. According to a 2014 study, women see a 4 percent decrease in income per child born or adopted. In contrast, dads see a 6 percent jump in income, dubbed the “fatherhood bonus.” One explanation for the disparity is that women more often take time away from working in order to accommodate the demands of parenthood or switch to a career with less time constraints that is often subsequently lower-paid. Fathers, on the other hand, do the opposite, staying later at work and more aggressively pursuing promotions as a way of fulfilling a perceived notion about parenthood (e.g. a good dad makes a sizable paycheck).

But Erin Beck, founder and CEO of Wana Family Network, says it doesn’t have to pan out that way. In fact, she started her childcare company because of the fact that she became a mom. When her daughter was born, she left a full-time engineering position and set out in search of a new position that allowed her to also juggle the demands of motherhood. But Beck says child care costs made it impossible to work and afford help with her daughter.

“My little girl was my top priority, and everything and everyone else came next, which really meant not at all,” Beck says. “I thought I was being the best mom I could be, but I felt so mediocre.”

The result was Wana, a company that helps match parents with neighbors who are willing to trade babysitting services. It allowed Beck to not only meet her needs as a parent, but her desire to work. And, perhaps most importantly, it gave her a chance to create a working environment where other working mothers can thrive.

“Women, and for this case, mothers, have gained public vocal support for returning to work as equals in the workplace, but how do we really support the logistics of that? For a working mother with young kids, the boundaries of her schedule are set by the start and end times of her children’s care,” Beck says. “And for a new mom, her physical responsibilities to her [breastfeeding] baby are nearly continuous throughout the day, pumping for 30 to 60 minutes every 2 to 3 hours to sustain healthy milk production.”

Because of that, Beck says her employment model is simple: “I hire as I would wish to be hired,” she says. That includes flexibility and the ability to work with a team that can takeover in the event she needs to re-prioritize. For example, in the instance her child ends up sick and she can’t work as quickly as usual (or at all). Beck says assignments at Wana are discretized and put on a timeline where any member of the team could step in if needed.

“Everyone works remotely and at whatever hours work for them,” she says. “We take great advantage of tools like Slack, GitHub, and G Suite that make building close-knit, effective teams of remote workers very realistic.”

For Andi Simon, a corporate anthropologist and author of On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, there are three main reasons why businesses should look to hire women employees, management and executives. The first, she says, is that beyond gender diversity, employers should want women to work for them in an effort to cultivate cognitive diversity. “A business will do far better with the variety of ideas that come from different perspectives, different experiences, different ways of solving problems,” Simon says.

Raising a family, caring for a home, meeting their partner’s needs and running “the business of life” also leaves women, and mothers in particular, well-equipped to meet challenges head-on, and manage complex situations. The multi-tasking and crisis management involved in running a household—whether as a single parent or as a partner who happens to be the primary caregiver to children—are translatable skills to the workforce that often don’t get the credit they deserve.

“A third reason comes from what we are beginning to realize from evolutionary research,” Simon says. “The future of your business needs people who can adapt, show flexibility and enable an organization to change to meet the new demands of customers and the technology that is coming now. Women have been able to discard the ‘way we always have done it’ mindset and learn new ways to do the tasks of daily living in the office and out.”

The double bind of American motherhood

According to a 2013 report by Pew Research Center, 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that number was just 11 percent in 1960.

“Very few families have the luxury of having a single breadwinner,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, the founder of WomenOnline and author of Hiding In The Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay Home. Like Keller, Aarons-Mele says the conversation is antiquated and, yet, “gender norms persist.”

What Aarons-Mele is referring to is the “second shift,” the term coined by sociologist Arlie Hothschild in her book of the same name to describe the household labor a woman performs in addition to the paid work she is already shouldering in the formal sector. On average, 54 percent of women do all or most of the household work, compared to 22 percent of men, according to Women in the Workplace 2017, a report produced by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. Add children to the mix and the gap grows, the study says. In fact, the report notes that women with a partner and children are 5.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to do all or most of the household work––even when they are the primary breadwinners.

Keller calls the dual role “one of the great tragedies of America.”

“While women became educated and increasingly more a part of the mainstream economy, nobody paid much attention to the upbringing of children and the role of the family,” she says. “America is the only industrialized country in the world that has no provisions for this which puts the double burden on women.”

Keller emphasizes that, for instance, all European countries have groundwork in place that requires maternity leave, child care and/or “something that augments to a greater or lesser degree what happens to those children.” Sweden, for instance, offers public child care for kids ages one through 12. The end result is women who are able to participate in the workforce equally as men, making them a critical component to the success of an economy.

But in America, the onus traditionally falls on women, when it should instead fall on society, which has happened minimally throughout history. The first statewide mother’s pension law was enacted in Illinois in 1911 and by 1934, a year after the New Deal began, there were mother’s aid laws in 48 states, and the District of Columbia. “Dependent motherhood had come to be distinctly recognized as a problem of mass poverty which could not be relegated to voluntary charity,” noted Abe Bortz in Social Welfare History Project.

There was also the mandated child care that became necessary when women were required to work during The Great Depression and World War II, “whether it was to fulfill patriotic duties or out of economic necessity,” according to The Atlantic. During that time, Congress allocated $6 million for the establishment of “emergency nursery schools,” the result of an amendment to the Lanham Act, a 1940 law that relied on war-related government grants to establish approximately 3,000 child care centers in communities where mothers worked in defense-related industries. But according to a 1989 report by the National Center for Children in Poverty, the Lanham Act child care programs “were a ‘win-the-war,’ not a ‘save-the-child,’ program.” Which is why funds were withdrawn shortly after the war ended in 1945.

In 1971, a national child care bill almost became law, but despite bipartisan support that passed it through Congress, it was ultimately vetoed by President Richard Nixon who, spurred by Pat Buchanan and a legion of religious right wingers, claimed the Comprehensive Child Development Act was “a long leap into the dark” for the American family. Yeah, that argument.

There was, of course, also the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, which provided certain employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year and required their group health benefits be maintained. But in order to qualify, employees must be employed with the company for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours during that time. And it bears repeating that we’re talking about unpaid leave here, a far cry from the paid leave every other developed country provides. Private-sector employers are not required to provide FMLA benefits if they have fewer than 50 employees. And part-time workers generally don’t qualify at all. Unsurprisingly, women are also less likely to be covered by FMLA because “they tend to work for smaller employers, have shorter tenures, and cobble together multiple part-time jobs,” according to Harvard Business Review.

It’s that emphasis on the family as the centerpiece of American culture––and leaving no room for divergence from its socially-accepted definition––that is the reason the double standard for women and men continues. The current administration hammers this home with its “pro-life” platform and resistance to marriage equality––and it’s actively holding our economy back.

According to a Pew Research Center study released in 2013, a survey of more than 2,500 adults nationwide showed that only 16 percent thought the ideal situation for a young child was to have a mother who works full time. On the other hand, 42 percent said mothers who work part time was optimal, while one-third of adults said it’s best for children if mothers do not work outside the home.

“We are mesmerized by the concept of family values,” Keller says, adding that, for example, opposition to same sex marriage was based on the notion that the family would be shattered. “So, as women have entered the paid workforce and are now a very visible presence, the so-called problem is that nobody thought about the fact that women are not necessarily the ones who have to take care of children all the time.” In other words: America is ill-prepared for the present-day working mother.

“In the last 200 years, women have stopped working at or near the home, and there have been no provisions that push for the implementation of child care to fall into society’s hands,” Keller says. Child care has been designated to the private sector, or outsourced to underpaid, low-income and/or immigrant women, “which ultimately means that society doesn’t see the care of children as their problem.”

Working mothers don’t need adulation, they need to work

It goes without saying that a mandatory policy that accommodates working parents is necessary. That includes paid maternity leave, sick-child care, telecommute options and on-site daycare provisions.

“Somehow our belief in liberty and freedom of choice in this country has turned into a belief that government can’t support us in fundamental ways,” says Aarons-Mele, a mother of three.

“We have no universal paid leave, universal child care or preschool, and that really sets the tone for how we treat working parents,” she says, adding that in Boston, where she resides, child care can average $50,000 a year. “We worship hard work at the expense of all. We seem to idolize mothers and babies, but we make it really hard to be a working mother.”

In 2016, only 6 percent of the total population of employers with 50 or more employees surveyed offered full pay during maternity leave, while 39 percent offered partial pay, and 42 percent offer no compensation at all, according to a study released in 2017 by the Society for Human Resource Management.

But some companies, like 4moms, are pushing to get it right. The creators of the popular mamaRoo baby chair are leading the way with workplace policies that not only benefit the working mother, but the family as a whole. Human resources director Jacki Szymanski says the company offers 12 weeks of maternity leave at 100 percent of the team member’s earning within six months of the child’s birth and an open paid time off (PTO) policy, which allows fathers to take time off as needed. New moms are also offered an opportunity to modify their work schedules immediately following maternity leave. For example, Szymanski says many of the company’s new moms will come back on a three-day-a-week schedule for a month following their maternity leave.

Parent employees at 4moms are also given complete flexibility to work from home or modify schedules as needed, whether it’s for a doctor appointment or little league game. More than 50 percent of the company’s employees are parents.

Nellie Akalp, founder of CorpNet.com, says it’s this kind of policy that has allowed her staff—more than half of which are working mothers—to balance their career with life at home. Akalp offers flexible hours, PTO, remote working opportunities, and on-site opportunities for children to use conference rooms to do homework while their parents finish up work. And it hasn’t hurt the company, Akalp says. In fact, it has only proven beneficial.

“When you have children, you naturally develop so many skills because you have to in order to function as a successful parent,” she says, adding that there have been several hiring opportunities where she has found a mother to be a more valuable option than a candidate who has more work experience or has gone to grad school. “All of these skills that we develop as mothers translate into a stellar employee which leads your business to success.”

And the mom of four isn’t just speaking off the cuff. Akalp and her husband built their first business in 1997 and eight years later sold it to Intuit for $20 million. In 2009, they launched CorpNet.com—the same year Akalp gave birth to her fourth child.

“Being a mother has hardly been a hindrance on my ability to succeed as a business owner,” she says. “It has made me work harder and more efficiently because first and foremost, my purpose is to make sure my kids get the best life possible. I work this hard and do what I do to give them the life I could only dream of as a kid.

“As a mom, I also realize that every moment counts so I don’t waste time in anything I do. I get to work, check it off my list and move onto the next—both at work and at home.”

And Beck agrees, adding that as Wana Family Network grows, she expects to shift from part-time, non-exclusive contractors to also staffing full-time, dedicated employees. But her previously-mentioned commitment to flexibility is the same, including remote work, job-sharing, a child-friendly workplace and subsidized on-site childcare.

“This is the growing expectation of the modern worker, and a company must either adopt the policies and technology to make it happen or be surpassed for talent by the companies that do,” she says. “Because I mean, really, if I’m going to choose to spend time away from my family, it had better be for something really important. And if I’m going to be away, I’m not going to let a moment of that go in vain, so you’re getting me at 200 percent.”

Which in effect sounds like the makings of every boss’s dream employee. Working mothers just have to be given the chance to prove it.

There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. You can help by supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism. Because it matters who covers the news. And it matters who covers women’s issues in the news.  Become a supporter today.

AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.

Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.