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Working mums a boon for daughters’ careers: Harvard researchers

While Anne-Marie Slaughter, former US State Department director turned female equality advocate, prepares to scale the Sydney Opera House stage to trumpet her message: Why women still can’t have it all, a 2015 Harvard Business School working paper suggests they can. Well, in terms of their daughters’ professional success, anyway.

According to Mums the Word!, having a working mother is, in several ways, better for girls than a fulltime, stay-at-home mum.

Daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed. If employed, it is more probable that they will have managerial positions, work more hours, and out-earn daughters of fulltime mothers, established the paper’s authors, Kathleen L McGinn, Elizabeth Long Lingo and Mayra Ruiz Castro.

The study, which canvassed responses from 24 countries, including Australia, also found that daughters of working mothers devote less time to housework than those of stay-at-home mothers.

The authors concluded that “employed mothers provide non-traditional gender role models to their children, liberalising gender attitudes and transmitting life skills for managing competing responsibilities…” While this sounds uplifting, does it take the full, working mother picture into account?

Anne Hollonds, director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, said yes. She’s not surprised by the study’s results. “Over the years, there have been pieces of work done that have shown particularly girls do better when their mothers are working,” she said. Yet she also said the study’s result could be qualified by distinguishing “the importance of the attachment between the mother and the newborn” from the results. That is, it is unknown whether daughters of working mothers would have better professional outcomes if mothers worked during their infancy.

As for why having a working mother works for children, Hollonds said it’s uncertain, complex and likely multifactorial. She mentioned a lack of financial stress, leading to a more positive home environment and education that enables employment. Others elements might be more subtle. “It’s the things that enable an adult to get employment – personal skills, values, motivation to get up each day and go to work [that] may have an impact on the way they parent,” she said. Hollands said the parenting style these traits produce could enhance children’s social, emotional and cognitive development, “and therefore later they might be [better] able to get jobs.”

She further noted the role of mothers’ expectations in influencing their children’s professional outcomes: “Mothers who are themselves more highly educated and working outside the home tend to have higher expectations and there does seem to be an impact from those expectations in terms of the outcomes for their children.”

Yet what if, on the study’s merits, you want to work for your daughter’s sake but can’t? FlexCareers chief executive Nikki Hobin said finding employment as a mother is a real issue in Australia.

“The top reason talented mothers are not working is because they cannot find the flexibility they need to make life, motherhood and a career work,” Hobin said. The basis for her assertion was a January 2016 FlexCareers survey of working mothers, which found that only 11 per cent of respondents felt they had an effective flexible working arrangement.

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