For months I've had a hunch that having a baby has been better for my husband's image than mine. I don't mean his looks. Neither of us has had much time to sleep and shower and pay attention to clothing and hair. What I mean is that I think first impressions favor fathers more than mothers. Pushing our baby along in the stroller, holding a coffee cup and singing, I fall into an easy stereotype, but my husband doesn't. Yes, in terms of public image, I believe a man benefits more from being a father than a woman benefits from being a mother.
Am I right?
A couple years ago, Ariane Kemkes, a researcher at the Tholius Institute for Research in Applied Demography in Scottsdale, Arizona, asked the same question. Kemkes wondered what would happen if you took a picture of a parent sitting next to his or child, and impartial judges rate that parent in terms of attractiveness, smarts, success, and so on. Then, she wondered, what would happen if you crop the child out of the photo and ask a different set of judges to rate them on the same criteria?
Are men and women judged differently when they're with kids than without? And if so, do fathers benefit from a bigger boost in their social image than do mothers?
The results are intriguing to us new parents.
Men perceive mothers and fathers differently than women do. Looking at a photo of mother and child, male judges are 2.4 times more likely than female judges to believe that the woman is committed to family. Female judges were more cynical and critical of other women's maternal commitment (but more interested in meeting them). Surprisingly - and to my relief - both sexes are marginally (1.1 times for men, 1.2 for women) more likely to think a woman looked more attractive with a child than when she was alone. Men, however, were more ambivalent abot meeting women if they were mothers. A mother was also perceived by judges of both genders as slightly, but not significantly, more faithful, honest, and mature.
But what about her mind? Here comes the crux of my argument about the drawbacks of motherhood. If a woman was paired with her child, both male and female judges perceived that woman to be less ambitious than if she was alone. The presence of a child around a woman reduced the woman's likelihood of being regarded as ambitious by as much as 30 percent. The assumption by men is unsurprising, but that the stereotype is held by other women is startling. The results may make one pause on bring-your-child-to-work day.
And now, what about men -- what does fatherhood do to their image?
Only good things, as I presumed.
Men with children were perceived by all as being committed to family. Interestingly, fatherhood was good for a man's social life. Men were 1.2 times more interested in meeting fellow a man with a child than the same man without a child. And here's another perk of fatherhood: A man with a child is perceived to be of a higher social status. This comes from judges of both genders. Fathers are also believed to be more faithful, mature, honest. They're also thought to be more generous - a perception not transferred to women with children.
Kemkes sums up the stereotype: females most often associate maternity as conflicting with career and leisured activities, while males emphasize financial sacrifices. A childless woman is perceived as ambitious and a childless male is perceived as cash-strapped, immature, or having a lower social status. For men, there is a strong association, explainable in evolutionary terms, between reproductive and financial status that does not exist for women.
Moreover, as Kemkes points out, men who are fathers are perceived as more generous than their childless counterparts because emotionally unstable men are more possessive and monopolize resources - traits not associated with fatherhood. Being a dad makes a man appear more "prosocial"; that is, generous and willing to cooperate. Men are likelier to want to meet dads than childless men because fatherhood lowers expectations of inter-male competition. It's now established that fatherhood is linked to lower testosterone levels, especially in the first months after a baby's birth.
There's a lesson in research of this kind. While parenthood generally boosts the social image of both genders, it still cripples career women more than men. Although more fathers are taking care of the their kids while the mother goes to work, the stereotype that mothers aren't as ambitious still hasn't budged - in part, perhaps, because many workplaces continue to make it difficult to excel in both. So the disappointing fact remains: A man who prominently features a photo of himself with his children on his desk at work is doing more for his career than a woman who does the same.
*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts. If you wish, check out my new book -- hot off the press! -- Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy.