Feminist economics posts

If You’re Happy and You Know It

Photo courtesy of Flickr user capttaco, Rob Rhyne. CC BY 2.0

Photo courtesy of Flickr user capttaco, Rob Rhyne. CC BY 2.0

The political debate over the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act of 2014 and a flurry of recent popular culture pieces in the “Can Women Have it All?” debate (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Deborah Spar’s Wonder Women, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”) remind us that the feminist ideal of gender equity in both the workplace and at home remains elusive despite the substantial progress made on both fronts.  Included in this debate is the ongoing effort to explain the persistence in gender pay gaps, with a popular explanation grounded in “choice.”  According to proponents of the “choice” theory, women and men differ in some fundamental way, be it biologically or socially constructed, in their preferences for children and for time spent with children.  The result of these gendered preferences is that when efforts to balance paid work and family seem insurmountable, mothers are the ones who make the workplace adjustment.

Do mothers really like taking care of children more than fathers as a New York Times article claimed in March 2012? The subjective well-being (SWB) questions first incorporated into the American Time Use Survey in 2010 allow us to consider this claim directly.  In our 2010 monograph, The Time Use of Mothers in the United States at the Turn of the Twenty First Century, Jean Kimmel and I show that mothers in the U.S. continue to perform most of the family’s child caregiving tasks.  The newly-released SWB data allow us to consider how mothers feel about those tasks in comparison to fathers.

Our analysis of these SWB questions has just been published online by Feminist Economics and will appear in the January 2015 print copy of the journal.  In “If You’re Happy and You Know It: How Do Mothers and Fathers in the U.S. Really Feel about Caring for Their Children?” we find strong evidence to discount the “choice” hypothesis.  Instead, we find that, while both mothers and fathers report very high levels of happiness while engaged  in caregiving activities (with no statistically significant difference), mothers report higher levels of stress and tiredness than fathers during these same (happy) activities.  The higher levels of stress and tiredness lead caregiving to be categorized as unpleasant 18 percent of the time by mothers but only 10 percent of the time by fathers. We also compare caregiving emotions with emotions reported during other common activities.  Mothers and father feel equally happy about time spent engaged in paid work (substantially less happy than when caring for children), as well as during most of the 19 specific activities we consider.

The essence of our paper’s findings is that we need to exorcize  this “choice” theory from the list of proposed explanations for the continuing elusiveness of gender equality. We hope our research will help to shift the focus back to more likely sources of workplace gender differences in the US (some of which are described in the December 12, 2014 NYT article by Claire Cain Miller and Liz Alderman):  employer demands for high work hours, gender bias in the workplace, persistent gendering of parenting into “mothering” and “fathering” (with the implied corollary that “mothering” is more highly valued than “fathering”), and the lack of public institutional support of the high costs (money and time) of child-raising.  In the end, Jean and I believe our work shows that while we can reject the hypothesis (worded in the spirit of the children’s board game Clue) that it was Mrs. Peacock in the kitchen with a knife, many other, possibly multiple, suspects remain.

Written with article co-author Jean Kimmel

Access and download the Connelly and Kimmel article here.

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1 comment
  1. Steven Rhoads says: March 30, 20152:19 pm

    The new study that Rachel Connelly and Jean Kimmel describe in this post, “If You’re Happy and You Know It: How Do Mothers and Fathers in the US Really Feel about Caring for Their Children?,” is a useful contribution to the discussion of possible sources of gender gaps in wages and in the distribution of childcare responsibilities among heterosexual married couples. The study cites our earlier article on a similar topic (“Gender roles and infant/toddler care: Male and female professors on the tenure track”), and could be interpreted as a refutation of certain of the conclusions of our paper. We believe that such an interpretation would be incorrect. We are posting here to clarify the differences between the two articles and re-assert some of the conclusions of our original paper.

    As they explain in this blog post, Connelly and Kimmel interpret the results of their study to mean that mothers do not enjoy childcare more than fathers and thus the reason mothers do more child care than fathers cannot be that they like it more. Significantly, results in Connelly and Kimmel’s analysis are aggregated across all respondents living with a child under the age of 18. Our 2012 study, in contrast, was restricted to data for tenure track assistant professors with a child under the age of two. We found that the mothers in this data set liked performing a wide variety of baby and toddler care tasks more than the fathers.

    Our article briefly discusses our finding that fathers of children between ages two and five like child care more than fathers of children between zero and two—though still less than mothers do. Fathers may well like child care still more when kids are seven or seventeen. But the demands of child care are especially intensive when children are under two. Our literature review (pp. 14-16) cited research finding that testosterone inhibits nurturing inclinations in both men and women. Oxytocin, on the other hand, promotes bonding and is released in women in large quantities during pregnancy and breastfeeding. These hormones are particularly relevant when children are very young and need almost constant nurturing—not just help with homework or a ride to soccer practice. High levels of oxytocin prime women to enjoy providing the care that infants and toddlers need; men’s high levels of testosterone do the opposite.

    While Connelly and Kimmel state here that “we need to exorcize this ‘choice’ theory from the list of proposed explanations for the continuing elusiveness of gender equality,” other data on the subject indicate that choice remains relevant. For example, a 2013 Pew survey finds that married mothers say their ideal situation would be working part-time (53%), rather than full-time (23%) or not at all (23%). Three-quarters of fathers (married and unmarried combined), in contrast, report working full-time is ideal for them. Catherine Hakim’s research consistently finds similar gendered work preferences in Europe and the United States (for example, see Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century, published by Oxford University Press in 2000, and her 2009 Prospect article “The Mother of All Paradoxes”).

    Moreover, gender differences in work/family choices are prevalent not just in the general public but even among the most talented, best-educated men and women, as the work of David Lubinski and Camilla P. Benbow shows. For decades Lubinski and Benbow have been following a pool of intellectually talented people who as 13-year-olds in the 1970s placed in the top 1% of mathematical reasoning ability. Since that time, data on their careers, accomplishments, psychological well-being, families, and life preferences and priorities have been collected periodically. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their accomplishments have been extremely impressive: As of 2014, many were tenured professors at major universities, executives at large companies, or lawyers at prominent firms or organizations.

    In 2006 Lubinski and Benbow reported how much these men and women, when in their early to mid-thirties, said they would like to work each week if they could work at their ideal job. The men were more likely to report being willing to work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week at their ideal job than the women, and the women were more than five times as likely as the men to want to work less than 40 hours a week. These findings were observed in highly talented men and women who were “similarly able, similarly aware of their abilities, and similarly satisfied with their current careers and life in general.”

    In 2014 Lubinski and Benbow reported further findings showing that talented men as a group valued full-time work, making an impact, and earning a high income more than women, whereas women as a group valued part-time work more often, as well as community and family involvement and time for close relationships.

    When surveys of both the general public and of a subset of extremely talented men and women suggest that the sexes have different preferences in work/family balance, it seems premature to discount choice as an explanation of enduring gender gaps in the workplace and the home.

    Steven E. Rhoads
    Professor of Politics Emeritus, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

    Christopher H. Rhoads
    Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Connecticut

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