The News Story: In Japan, Working Mothers Battle Overwork Culture

“In Japan,” reports a recent news story, “long working hours is a serious issue for both women and men. This is a country where karōshi, or death by overwork, is regularly reported in the news. But women are still expected to do most of the child care.”

The result, not surprisingly, is that fewer women are bothering to have children in the first place, and also that far fewer women than men hold top-level positions. But with a Japanese Prime Minister aiming to get more and more women into the workforce in the name of gender equality, something has to give—some companies now have an emphasis on shorter work days, more flexibility, etc.

But what this story doesn’t mention is that in places like the U.S. and UK, where maternal leave policies, flex-time, etc. are already much more generous than in Japan, women still find themselves feeling severely and even surprisingly burned out.

(Source: Sally Herships, “In Japan, Working Mothers Battle Overwork Culture,” PRI, August 24, 2018)

The New Research: Underestimating the “Mommy Effect” In the U.S. and UK

In industrialized Western nations, more women than ever now participate in the workforce, including women who wish to be mothers one day. And yet, a new study by an international team of researchers has found that women consistently underestimate the true “costs”—both time and money—of motherhood, and many women who originally planned to continue working after the birth of their first child find themselves at home.

Titled, “The Mommy Effect: Do Women Anticipate the Employment Effects of Motherhood?”, this National Bureau of Economic Research working paper seeks to address this question using data from the U.S. and U.K. The researchers begin their study by puzzling why the entry of women into the labor force has actually stalled since the 1990s, despite vast increases in female human capital in terms of both education (more years of formal schooling) and job market experience (acquired by delaying childbirth). The researchers hypothesize that, in spite of being more likely to have observed their own mothers working and raising a family, modern women consistently and seriously underestimate “the employment costs of motherhood,” which they “loosely define as the time, effort or money required for them to raise their children in a manner they deem appropriate, while also working outside the home.”

These expectations, the researchers explain, have actually reversed in the past decades. Whereas women in 1968 were actually likely to underestimate their labor-force involvement upon the birth of children (i.e., more stayed in the workforce than expected after the birth of a first child), both British and American women today are actually more likely to overestimate their workforce involvement after the birth of their first child. Since 1985, according to one U.S. survey, roughly 2% of U.S. female high-school seniors have planned to be homemakers at age 30; but since 1990, the number of homemakers has hovered around 15-18%. This is a vast difference in intentions as compared to reality. 

The effect of the first birth

To conduct their survey, the researchers glean data from four different data panels from the U.S. and U.K., and use a “basic event-study methodology, using the first child’s year of birth as the ‘event.’” They find that in the U.K., 87% of women who will become mothers in one year are still working, “a rate only three percentage points lower than for men who will become fathers the next year.” The year of the birth, however, roughly 40% of these women leave, with very little “recovery” in the next five-to-ten year period. The results are similar for American women: Depending on the panel examined, roughly 25-40% of these women leave the labor force the year of their first child’s birth. The effect is larger for more educated women, and both delaying childbirth and having had a working mother do not seem to impact the results. 

The researchers also find that women’s attitudes become more pessimistic toward work upon the birth of their first child. In addition, the researchers report, both in the U.S. and U.K., “women adopt more traditional views about the appropriate balance between work and family responsibilities upon becoming mothers.” The researchers “interpret these results as demonstrating that, pre-motherhood, women on average underestimate the employment costs of motherhood.” How has this happened, the researchers wonder, in an age where more girls are likely to have grown up watching their own mothers work? The international team points to two likely answers: first, the rise in the popularity of breastfeeding, which puts large demands on women’s time while in a work environment; and second, rising childcare costs, when compared to other costs and salaries.

 Are women over-investing in education?

The researchers close by suggesting two routes for future research. “First,” they wonder, “if current cohorts of women indeed overestimate their future labor supply (as we claim), are they in fact over-investing in education?” To back up this rather provocative question, they cite a 2012 study of medical professionals finding that female doctors over-invest in their own education: “given that female doctors work significantly fewer hours than male doctors, these students should have instead become physicians’ assistants.”

The second research area this team proposes is “given that the employment costs of motherhood might change over time due to technological developments or changes in norms . . . future work might focus on why they change.” They reflect on the fact that women today report that they spend more time with their children than their own mothers did. “On face,” the researchers comment, “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”—norms such as the expectation of breastfeeding, or of more hours spent with children. 

Such “norms” may be puzzling, but they also seem to reflect several decades worth of research demonstrating that small children need their mothers close by.

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, forthcoming in “New Research.” Study: Ilyana Kuziemko et al., “The Mommy Effect: Do Women Anticipate the Employment Effects of Motherhood?” NBER Working Paper 24740 [June 2018], Republished with permission from The Family in America

Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Howard Center’s quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, the United States’ leading journal of family-policy research....