Should Mothers Work? How Perceptions of the Social Norm Affect Individual Attitudes Toward Work in the US

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen via Unsplash.

The converging roles of women and men in the labor market is one of the most significant economic and social developments of the past century. Nevertheless, gender equality in labor market outcomes has remained elusive, even for the most developed economies in the world. A growing literature documents a sharp divergence in labor market trajectories with the addition of children, driven by women’s universally dominant role in childcare and non-market work. Why is it that women remain the main providers of childcare even as their economic roles have converged to that of men’s?

In a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, Patricia Cortés and coauthors examine the role of misperceptions and information gaps in contributing to gender norms in the US. They study opinions regarding the labor supply decisions of mothers using hypothetical scenarios presented to a representative sample of respondents drawn from the New York Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Expectations (SCE). The scenarios specifically ask respondents about (1) their own recommendation and their perceptions of the recommendations of those living in the same part of the country as them about whether a mother with a young child should accept a job offer to return to work (and send the child to a free, high-quality preschool), as well as (2) whether a wife, as opposed to the husband, should take time off from work to care for her young child (for a specified relative earnings differential between the husband and the wife) if a child care option is not available. 

Main findings:
  • The average percent chance that a respondent recommends that a stay-at-home mother reject a job offer, even when the child can attend a high-quality public preschool for free, is 31 percent.
  • As expected, the average percent chance that a respondent recommends that the mother (instead of the father) take time off to take care of their four-year-old child decreases as the relative earnings of the mother (with respect to the father) increase.
  • Most respondents think that others around them have less progressive gender attitudes than themselves. The only case in which the majority of respondents underestimate the conservatism of peers is when the mother earns 50 percent more than her husband.
  • Men, on average, hold less progressive gender attitudes than women. Relative to women, men are also more likely to consider themselves less conservative than their peers and are more likely to overestimate how gender-conservative their peers are.

The authors also gave a randomly selected half of the sample information about the average recommendations to each of the hypothetical scenarios of individuals of the same gender and residing in the same state. They found that respondents who received information about peers’ recommendations were slightly less likely to recommend that the mother reject the job offer. In situations where the wife earns the same or less than her husband, those receiving the information were significantly more likely to recommend that the mother take time off than the control group. This pattern was reversed in situations where the wife earns more than her husband.

The findings suggest that the simple act of providing information can shift individual attitudes and behavior in an important way, although whether the light-touch intervention results in a sustained change in individual attitudes in the longer-run remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the results highlight the promising role that policy interventions targeted at information provision can play in helping to speed up the evolution of norms.

Read the Working Paper