Some highly educated working mothers do have ’em

IN A finding that will reignite the debate about working mothers, Australian researchers have discovered that some children’s education suffers as a result of their mothers’ careers. But the disadvantage applies only to one group: children whose mothers have a university education.

Among such women, the children of those who work average four months less education than the children of housewives. Another way to understand it, the researchers say, is that “one out of three of the children of (educated) working mothers will complete a year less education than they would have done had their mother not worked”. This is enough to reduce the children’s chances of completing secondary school.

The researchers say that, statistically, the loss is not huge and could easily be compensated by other positive influences, such as sending the children to a private school, “but it is not negligible either. It implies an educational risk or challenge equivalent to the difference between a two-child family and a five-child family”.

The findings are reported by Dr Mariah Evans and Dr Jonathan Kelley in the latest issue of Australian Social Monitor, a publication of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. Their research is based on pooled data from 24,350 respondents to national surveys by International Social Science Surveys Australia between 1984 and 1995. Respondents were asked about their mothers’ working patterns during their childhood and about their own educational attainments.

Only a minor negative effect was shown for the children of working mothers who had completed secondary school and no negative effect was found for the children of the least-educated mothers.

Evans says long working hours could not be blamed for the problem because few of the tertiary-educated mothers in the survey had had continuous full-time jobs. Most had “mommy-tracked”, working part-time or converting to full-time only when their children were older.

The researchers believe the disadvantage is due to the fact that highly educated mothers talk to, read to and stimulate their children much more than other mothers, behaviors that are linked to higher academic development in children. But when cared for outside the family, these children receive less input from the less-educated adults around them.

“If you come from a modest home where people don’t use the language very much and don’t read very much, then going to a day-care centre will be no great loss to your ability to gain language skills,” Kelley says. “It may even mean a gain. But if you come from a home where both parents are PhDs, where what you get is incessant chatter between parents and children on quite complex topics, and go to a centre where you spend your time with other three and four-year-olds and adults who are
not as articulate, that’s a great loss.”

Evans says the level of training for people who work in preschool child care is low.

“They’re not university graduates. If you’re looking at the relative benefits of children spending time with these women versus their university-educated mothers – who’s going to have the vocabulary? Who’s going to have the cognitive resources to give children the best start?”

These were not findings Evans expected or is pleased by, but she is convinced they are accurate, in part because they confirm a similar discovery she and Kelley made with a different set of Australian data several years ago.

She warns: “The finding is not a policy prescription. There are many possibilities regarding how you might deal with it as an issue.”

She says one answer would be for tertiary-educated women to spend more time at home, but an alternative would be to invest more in child care so that better-qualified staff looked after children.

The evidence relates to the childhoods of people who are now adults but Evans believes child-care standards have not improved since. “There’s probably been a small decline. More capable women now go off to law school or medical school instead of doing education in early childhood work, so you find entry scores declining in many child-related fields.”

But there was no evidence in the results that working mothers damage children’s emotional development. “Because the finding is just for educated women and not for other mothers, it is not evidence that everybody needs their mother at home, or that this is about an emotional bonding sort of issue.”

Consequently, the report suggests it would be possible to reduce public support for single mothers and encourage them to work a limited amount without noticeable harm to their children.

“One strategy that would meet this goal would be to: (1) provide enough income to allow for full-time homemaking while the children are preschoolers and during the transition to school; then (2) from the time when the youngest child is in year one, to make part-time maternal employment a condition of continued income support,” the report says.

But it warns that the costs and benefits to children in terms of delinquency and teenage pregnancy should first be carefully assessed.

First published in The Age.