If You’re Happy and You Know It
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
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