Do boys suffer when mothers go back to work? Not necessarily

The rise of workforce participation by mothers is regarded as an international social phenomenon.

And while studies have suggested that girls with working mums are likely to enjoy a range of advantages, provocative new research suggests that boys over time might not do as well.

This was the subject of discussion on a recent Radio National Life Matters program hosted by Natasha Mitchell featuring Professor Matt Sanders, Professor of Clinical Psychology, director of the Parenting and Family Support Centre, and founder of the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program, Professor Marian Baird, Professor of Employment Relations and Director of the Women Work Research Group in the University of Sydney Business School, and Dr Xiaodong Fan, research fellow at the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research in the University of New South Wales.

“(We’re) finding if a mother goes to work when her child is young it has a positive impact on her daughter’s education in terms of getting a college degree but a negative impact on the son in terms of the probability of getting a college degree when he grows up,” Dr Fan said during the program.

Professor Baird pointed out that the recent social shift of mothers to the workforce had also coincided with a major push for girls to be educated.

“It’s very hard when talking about major social changes in both gender roles and outcomes for genders to pinpoint exactly where the shifts are occurring and we have to take into account lots of different factors,’’ Professor Baird said.

Professor Sanders said while boys were more likely to display behavioural, emotional and conduct problems than girls, it was also important to remember from an early intervention perspective, that it’s not the quantity of time that a parent devotes to a child that’s important, it’s the quality of time.

“The developmental research shows that many of the interactions that drive development are brief and frequent, they are child-initiated interactions, it’s not just large blocks of time of being with children,” Professor Sanders said.

He said parents were also more likely to have a more stressful day at work if they had a fight with their children about breakfast or getting dressed and, conversely, if they have had a conflictual day at work, they were more likely to have conflict within the family in the one hour after the last person came home.

Go here to listen to the podcast.