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May 11, 2007

Highly educated mothers likely to stay in work force, sociologists find

By Lisa Trei

Just in time for Mother's Day, Stanford sociology Professor Paula England and two colleagues affiliated with the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families have released findings that debunk the so-called trend of highly educated mothers "opting out" of the U.S. workforce to raise their children. Contrary to conventional wisdom, she says, well-educated women are likely to remain employed, even though they may be married to husbands with high-earning jobs who can support the family.

In fact, during the last 15 years, England says, the largest group of stay-at-home mothers has been members of society's poorest two-parent families┬Świves with husbands earning in the lowest quartile of male income. Women in such families may want to work but do not have the education or skills to earn enough to cover childcare costs, England explains. Meanwhile, the second-largest group of stay-at-home mothers has been, less surprisingly, women married to men in the top 5 percent of income distribution┬Śmothers who face little economic pressure to be employed.

During the last 35 years, the sociologists found that mothers in the United States have been entering the workforce in huge numbers. In 2006, 65 percent of mothers with preschoolers and 79 percent of those with school-aged children were employed at least part of the time, up from 30 percent and 56 percent, respectively, in 1970. "This is hardly an opt-out revolution," England says.

While the trend increased dramatically until 1990, it has since leveled off, England says, with a very small downturn since 2000. Sociologists suggest that women may not be able to reach employment parity until men take on a more equal share of child-rearing responsibilities, and until employers or the state adopt policies that make it easier for parents to combine work and raising children.

England carried out the research with David Cotter, a sociologist at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and Joan Hermsen, a sociologist at University of Missouri-Columbia.

A fact sheet, titled "Moms and Jobs," with details on trends and patterns in women's paid work is available on the website of the Council on Contemporary Families.

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Contact

Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224, lisatrei@stanford.edu


Comment

Paula England, Department of Sociology: (650) 723-4912, (650) 815-9308 cell, pengland@stanford.edu

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