Public Release: 

Study explores how nations' policies affect mothers' ability to balance work-family life

American Sociological Association

CHICAGO -- When it comes to supporting working mothers, the United States' work-family welfare policies leave much to be desired, according to a comparative study of working mothers in multiple countries by the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.

"Work-family policies reflect and reinforce ideologies about gender: what men and women 'should' and 'shouldn't' do," said study author Caitlyn Collins, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UT Austin. "Through policies, countries say something about their citizens and shape the opportunities available to them."

In her research, Collins interviewed 135 middle-income working mothers in the U.S., Germany, Italy, and Sweden to understand their experiences balancing motherhood and employment given each country's social policies and cultural attitudes. Each country represented one of the four recognized work-family welfare models Western countries implemented as more women began entering the workforce: liberal (U.S.), conservative (Germany), Mediterranean (Italy), and social-democratic (Sweden). Liberal states privatize the provision of social support, conservative states split welfare responsibilities between public and private sectors, Mediterranean states' social welfare systems are highly fragmented, and social-democratic states take full responsibility for citizen welfare.

Collins found that outside of Sweden, where most working mothers felt supported as both mothers and employees, the majority of working mothers experienced uncertainty and tension between being a mother and a paid worker. Swedish working mothers felt supported by gender equality and labor market policies that grant the same rights and obligations to both men and women.

"Our understanding of whose job it is to raise and support a family really depends on the cultural and political context," said Collins, who will present her research at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA). "Paid work is valued in contemporary societies, and the unpaid work of maintaining a home is often culturally invisible and undervalued."

In their interviews, most U.S. working mothers felt supported as workers, but not as mothers. With no federally mandated paid maternity leave and only need-based entitlements available, America treats childrearing as a private responsibility.

German working mothers felt supported as mothers or caregivers, but not as workers. Mothers with young children who returned to the workforce were often criticized as "raven mothers" -- women who fled the nest and deserted their offspring to pursue a career, Collins said.

Italian working mothers did not feel supported as workers or as mothers and expressed the need for more reliable resources to protect and aid working mothers. Many struggled with job security and childcare resources, forcing them to depend on family members to assist in childcare.

"The conversation is no longer about whether women should work, because today it is often economically necessary for families to have two incomes to stay afloat," Collins said. "The conversation today is about the conditions in which families are best able to manage earning an income while caring for their members that does not place this burden unduly on women's shoulders."

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About the American Sociological Association

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

The paper, "Work-Family Policies and Working Mothers: A Comparative Study of Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the United States," will be presented on Sunday, Aug. 23, at 2:30 p.m. CDT in Chicago at the American Sociological Association's 110th Annual Meeting.

To obtain a copy of the paper; for assistance reaching the study's author(s); or for more information on other ASA presentations, members of the media can contact Daniel Fowler, ASA Media Relations Manager, at (202) 527-7885 or pubinfo@asanet.org. During the Annual Meeting (Aug. 22-25), ASA Public Information Office staff can be reached in the on-site press office, located in the Hilton Chicago's Boulevard Room B, at (312) 294-6616 or (914) 450-4557 (cell).

This press release was written by Rachel Griess, Public Affairs Specialist, College of Liberal Arts, The University of Texas at Austin. For more information about the study, members of the media can also contact Griess at (512) 471 2689 or rachelgriess@austin.utexas.edu.

Papers presented at the ASA Annual Meeting are typically working papers that have not yet been published in peer reviewed journals.

Contact: Daniel Fowler, (202) 527-7885, (914) 450-4557 (cell), pubinfo@asanet.org

On-site Press Office (Aug. 22-25): Hilton Chicago, Boulevard Room B, (312) 294-6616

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