For decades, there has been an economic mystery about why there haven’t been more women joining the workforce. Despite a major increase in females receiving their college degrees — in fact, more than men at this point — and an increase in accessibility for women who want to attain higher positions, the number of women actually joining the workforce has plateaued since the early ’90s.
Research suggests that there is, however, a reason for this phenomenon; it is the rising costs of childcare and of being a mother that has been documented since the ’90s. It is a fact that mothers are now spending more time and money on their children than ever before, and new mothers rarely see the rising cost coming.
Women, despite being better educated and positioned in the work world than ever before, are finding that more and more of their time and efforts have to go to taking care of their children. Despite their investing in an education and their desire to maintain a career, women are often caught off-guard about the financial and time demands of motherhood. A recent, as-of-yet unpublished, study has been trying to quantify the stress that many parents feel trying to balance long, inflexible hours of work and the unique but equally demanding tasks of parenthood. The research shows “a sharp decline in employment for women after their first child was born.” This is the case even though 90 percent had worked before the birth of their child.
The study focused mainly on women born between the years of 1965 and 1975 (who were in their 30s in the 2000s). Despite the statistics showing that most female high school seniors planned to be working by age 30, and there was no decline in overall job satisfaction post-baby, “between 15 percent and 18 percent of women have stayed home.”
Changing gender-role beliefs
One of the main reasons for the phenomenon, posited by the researchers, is that there has often been a major change in beliefs about gender-roles after a mother has her first baby. In response to questions such as “does work inhibit a woman’s ability to be a good mother” and “should women contribute financially to a family,” women, after their first baby, tended to answer the questions more traditionally.
Researchers were surprised that those who expressed the most satisfaction with the high level of responsibility in motherhood were the most-educated: — women with college degrees and those who assumed they would have careers. Although these women were more likely to continue working post-baby than their less-educated counterparts, they were more likely to express anti-work beliefs, “and to say that being a parent was harder than they expected.” As for men, researchers found that their beliefs changed very little before and after having a baby. And they were much less likely to say that the job was harder than they expected.
A change has occurred
It has become much harder to both work and have children, researchers say. And this is why there has been such a wide chasm between women’s expectations for motherhood and the actual realities. “The cost of childcare has increased by 65 percent since the early 1980s” and “80 percent of women breastfeed up from about half.” Additionally, for college-educated parents, the cost of childcare has doubled. And still, “It is deeply puzzling that at a moment when women are more prepared than ever for long careers in the labor market, norms would change in a manner that encourages them to spend more time at home,” the researchers wrote.
Other (potential) reasons why
Researchers have surmised other possible reasons for why so many women today are staying at home despite their, overall, having had great success in entering the workforce in the past decade or so. One potential reason is that, increasingly, people who work long, inflexible hours are paid disproportionately more. Women that can fill these positions in the workforce are having more children and they are more likely to be married to men with similarly high-paying jobs. A result may be that parents are deciding that one parent should work and maximize family earnings while the other, usually the mother, steps back from the labor force.
In order to give their children the best possible chance in the increasingly competitive world, mothers are doing more and more, and investing significantly more time, to ensure that their children can keep up and thrive. Valerie Ramey and Garey Ramey, economists at the University of California, San Diego, described the new levels of competition and intensified childcare costs as “the rug rat race” (especially to get into top colleges).
A dearth of family-friendly policies in the United States has most likely played a role as well in the stepping-back of mothers from the labor force. Paid family leave and subsidized child care is extremely low on both accounts, and although policies have improved since the ’90s, they have not kept pace with the much more generous policies of other nations.
Although women have taken on an increasing amount of paid work in recent decades, it is not the case that men have taken on a commensurate amount of childcare and housekeeping tasks. Research has shown that this, too, has been a surprise to new mothers who expected more egalitarian partnerships. Generations of women have been told that they can aspire to both motherhood and career simultaneously — and many have done just that. But at the same time, work and parenting have both become more demanding fields, independently of one another. The attempts at combining the intensified arenas have engendered an economy wherein, according to The New York Times, “women’s expectations seem to be outpacing the realities of public policy, workplace culture and family life.”
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