Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The U.S. has a long way to go before its walk matches its talk.
According to a new national study, Americans’ attitudes towards women working outside of the home are at an all-time high.
A team of psychology researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Georgia studied two multi-decade national surveys: One of high-school seniors conducted annually between 1976 and 2013, and another of adults conducted most years between 1972 and 2012. Both surveys asked for participants’ thoughts on gender roles and domesticity, such as whether it’s “much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.’
The researchers found that, except for a brief period of anti-egalitarian backlash in the 1990s:
Attitudes toward women’s and men’s work and family roles became more egalitarian between the 1970s and the 2010s in nationally representative samples of U.S. 12th graders and adults. U.S. high school students and adults became more supportive of mothers working and became more likely to believe that children and family life will not suffer from this arrangement. They were also more likely to support fathers who choose to work half-time or not at all. Most of these trends continued in the recent years, with U.S. adults embracing more egalitarian attitudes in the 2010s compared to the late 1990s.
For example, in the 1970s, the surveys show that fully 59 percent of high school seniors and 68 percent of adults said they believed a preschool-age child would suffer with a mother who worked outside of home. That dropped to 22 percent of seniors and 35 percent of adults by the 2000s.
The shifts in attitude match demographic changes. According a 2013 analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of household income. That’s a record in American history.
But as more and more moms enter the workforce with their country’s best wishes, there’s been worryingly little progress on federal policies that support them. As John Oliver put it in his acidic Mother’s Day takedown of the U.S.’s lack of workplace protections for moms, “You can't have it both ways. You can’t go on and on about how much you love mothers and then fail to support legislation that makes life easier for them."
Take, for example, paid maternity leave. As the Huffington Post points out, there’s been scant change at the federal level since Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, which required employers to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new mothers. That makes the U.S. one of the few countries in the world without federally mandated paid leave, despite evidence from states and progressive businesses that paid leave improves retention rates and can actually bring down costs to employers—and to the federal government itself.
American mothers don’t get guaranteed paid leave, and nor do they get other kinds of crucial workplace protections. Women, and especially mothers, disproportionately face problems arising from irregular hourly work schedules: Income instability, stress, difficulty fulfilling family or educational obligations, and poor health outcomes for moms and children alike. Advocates have called for policies that would ensure stabler schedules for all part-time, hourly workers—which would in turn benefit women and mothers in particular. Ditto on an increased minimum wage.
But there is one beacon of hope. A handful of cities and counties are starting to pick up the feds’ slack when it comes to another barrier for working moms: affordable child care. As Amanda Kolson Hurley of CityLab wrote in May:
No one has staked more on the issue than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The centerpiece of his campaign in 2013 was the promise of universal, free pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds. After he took office, de Blasio had to fight Governor Andrew Cuomo to get his plan funded, but he won, and last fall, more than 50,000 children enrolled in pre-K classes across the city. De Blasio has also expanded after-school care for middle schoolers, with the goal of providing enough spaces for all of them.
Seattle has also taken steps towards universal pre-K, and so has Montgomery County, Maryland. And since 2008, Washington, D.C., has offered fully subsidized spots in its universal pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.
In his 2016 budget, President Obama proposed a handful of items that would help working parents stay afloat, including $80 billion for child-care assistance for low-income families, and a $3,000 tax cut per child per year. It might go nowhere, but at least it’s a start. When it comes to working moms, America’s got a long way to go before its walk matches its talk.