Thursday, November 10, 2011

Working Mothers and the Chicken-or-Egg Debate

Which comes first, a change in attitudes or a change in behavior? This chicken-or-egg debate has long raged in social science circles. Nowhere is it better showcased than in the Census Bureau's new report, Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns of First-Time Mothers: 1961-2008. The report documents the rise of working women and mothers over the past five decades--a time when work became the norm for women not only before and during pregnancy, but after having children as well. The percentage of women who worked during their first pregnancy climbed from 44 percent in 1961-65 to 66 percent in 2006-08--a gain of 22 percentage points, according to the report. The even bigger change was this: the percentage of women who were working within a year after having their first child leaped from just 17 percent in 1961-65 to the 64 percent majority by 2005-07--a 47 percentage point change.

This behavior change was accompanied by changing attitudes toward working mothers. For the past thirty years, the General Social Survey has been asking the American public the question, "A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work. Do you agree or disagree?" In 1977 (the first year the question was asked), only 49 percent of the public agreed. By 2010, the 76 percent majority of the public agreed that a working mother could have just as good a relationship with her children as a mother who did not work. So which came first--the chicken or the egg? Did the growing necessity for women to work change attitudes toward working mothers? Or did changing attitudes toward working mothers free more women to go to work after having children?

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