Earnings and Yearnings: The Real Reasons Women Work

Over tea in my office one day, Helena, a mother with a prestigious, well-paying job, bemoaned the fact that when it comes to work, mothers have few options these days. "You have to juggle or you have to make a choice: career or family," she said. Choosing to juggle it all, she noted, is "really, really tough." But, like many women I've met through my research, Helena explained that she went that route because it's the best thing for her family.

Women's decisions regarding work and motherhood have been at the center of a media maelstrom over the past year. From political pundit Hilary Rosen's quip that Ann Romney "has never actually worked a day in her life," to Anne-Marie Slaughter's argument in The Atlantic that women still can't have it all, American mothers' job-life trajectories continue to be highly scrutinized. But the choices they are making—and why they make them—are often misunderstood.

Last year, the Working Mother Research Institute reported that the vast majority of mothers say the main reason they work (or would work) is for a paycheck. When I conducted interviews for my book on female employment, I similarly found that most women say they work because it benefits their families.

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But my research revealed something else: Even though women emphasize monetary needs, money is not the driving force behind their workforce decisions. Yes, money plays an important role, and women want to find work that pays what they consider a fair wage for their efforts. But I found that they also stay employed when they find work interesting, when it provides a sense of accomplishment, when it allows a good job-family balance, when it garners recognition and respect, when it includes the possibility for advancement, and when it can improve their family's social position.

Take Virginia, who summarizes the typical response: "Financially, women have to work for their kids to have more." Yet a closer look at her work-family circumstances uncovers a more complicated picture. Virginia continued working as a hairdresser after both her children were born, but left her job when new management reduced the flexibility of her hours (making childcare an issue) and hired a boss who treated the employees poorly.

"I hated working there at that time," Virginia admitted. In fact, when she made the decision to quit, her husband had recently lost his job, and the family faced several years of financial difficulty. By the time she returned to the workforce, her husband was stably employed. So while the explanation Virginia gave for working focused on finances, her actions did not—she left a job she disliked when her family had no regular source of income, and returned to work after finding a great job during a period of increased financial stability.

Why did Virginia and Helena (and almost all the women I met) tell a story about the role of financial needs in their workforce decisions? First, even when they know they've made the best work decisions for themselves, they feel guilty. One woman, Donatella, said that struggling with what to do about the work-family conflict "kept me up at nights. I couldn't deal with the guilt of giving up the career, or of not being a good mother."

Women also feel there's no way to escape criticism. "People look down on you if you do work, people look down on you if you don't work. Everybody has a very strong opinion," noted another mother, Paula. Saying that the choices they make are for their family, rather than for themselves, may help mothers alleviate guilt (and defer blame) by suggesting their motives are altruistic.

Such explanations also tap into a broader popular discussion that connects women's paid labor to the financial needs of their family. The idea that women work because they need to—and that only wealthy women can choose not to work—has deep roots in our country. At the start of the 20th century, most females who took jobs were working-class; this trend was fairly stable until recent years.

Yet today it's a myth—one that continues to be perpetuated, even in Rosen's response to critiques of her comment about Romney: "I admire women who can stay home and raise their kids full time. I even envy them sometimes. It is a wonderful luxury to have the choice. But let's stipulate that it is not a choice that most women have in America today."

If financial needs truly continue to dictate women's work, we would expect to find higher employment rates among working-class women, who earn less than middle-class women. But research finds the opposite: Middle-class women are more likely to work. Meanwhile, highly educated women are most likely to work (education is highly connected to income levels); according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85 percent of women with postgraduate degrees work, compared to 80 percent of college grads, 68 percent of high school grads, and just 48 percent of women with no high school diploma.

National trends do not support what we think we know about why women work. Despite what even mothers themselves say (and perhaps believe), women work for far more complicated reasons than money alone. Stories like Virginia's illustrate that it's not just a paycheck that matters; work environment matters too. A lack of workplace flexibility, too little recognition and respect from managers and employers, and few childcare options are examples of problems all mothers face in the workplace and that factor into their career choices. Particularly among working-class women, addressing these issues could make "juggling it all" that much easier—and mean that more mothers choose to work in the long run.

Portions of this article are reprinted from For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women's Work with the permission of Oxford University Press.

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