BYLINE: By Julie Flaherty, Tufts Now
Newswise — Every parent knows the requests: The call from the school nurse that Jimmy has a stomach ache and needs to come home. The urgent message from the soccer coach that Katie forgot her cleats for the game. PTO reminder to bring cupcakes to the bake sale. Their importance varies, but even small distractions can take working parents away from their day and leave them torn between home life and career.
Laura Gee, an associate professor of economics at Tufts, and her colleagues recently completed a study which examined how these calls and messages are distributed along gender lines. One of their findings surprised no one: mothers experience the lion’s share of interruptions. Even when schools are told that both parents work full time, mothers are 1.4 times more likely than fathers to be contacted by school officials.
But the researchers also looked at whether parents who make their availability clear could break this cycle. Posing as parents looking to enroll their child in a school, the researchers sent emails to 80,000 school principals requesting a callback and providing the phone numbers of a parent. About 60 percent of the time, principals called mothers. Even when emails clarified that mom was less available and dad was happy to answer calls, 26% of principals called mom.
According to Gee, this implies that even when mothers and fathers try to share childcare responsibilities equally, society’s gender biases work against them.
Tufts now spoke with Gee about the study and why these phone calls reveal how pervasive societal expectations can restrict women’s ability to fully participate in the workforce.
What motivated this study?
My co-author Olga Stoddard (Brigham Young University) and I are both parents. This document was born out of constant requests from our children’s schools, parents, swimming instructors, grandparents, everyone, right? We would send each other screenshots from our phones: “I’m currently in Sweden giving a lecture, but who is receiving this call from the school? Just stupid things like that. Both of our partners are men and also incredibly capable human beings who could meet these demands. They were often listed as primary contacts.
We wondered if this phenomenon was universal. And that made us think, “We could try this.” »
It seems that the main conclusion corresponds to your own experience. Are there any other discoveries that surprised you?
I was pleasantly surprised by the responsiveness of school decision-makers to our messages about those who are more or less available. Often the media narrative revolves around outliers where the mother is a surgeon and the father is a stay-at-home parent, and no one ever asks him even though he has been asked thousands of times.
I expected the man to be called this often, even though we had made it clear that he wanted to receive these calls. But that wasn’t the case. When we say that the man is more available, more calls come to him. This comforted me.
But it’s asymmetrical. When the mother says she is no longer available, she receives 90% of calls. When you say that the male parent is more available, the mother still receives about a quarter of the calls. So you can never really narrow it down to all the calls to it. This is unfortunate for male parents who want to be the primary caregiver in their household.
How do parents feel about being called?
At the start of this research, we conducted a survey of parents to find out how they felt about answering these calls. Women generally indicated that they would like to be called less often. Men said they were mostly happy with the number of times they were called or that they wished they were called more often.
Why do you think gender bias is at work here, rather than just the perception that mothers are more available?
If a decision maker doesn’t know much about a household and is presented with a male first name and a female first name, they might think: In the United States, women are more likely than men to be stay-at-home parents. . So I’m going to call the mother because I’ll have a better chance of reaching her.
But when we reported that the father was no longer available, about a quarter of the calls still went to the mother. So if it’s not just about perception of availability, is there another deterrent? And that led us to gender norms.
We brought in Kristy Buzard from Syracuse University to design the mathematical model to help us unravel this problem. Because we wrote to many types of schools in many locations, we were able to compare: religious and non-religious schools, schools in Republican-friendly areas and those that support Democrats, schools located in areas where the gender pay gap is larger and smaller. We found that the calling inequalities we documented are greater in places where gender norms are more traditional. Religious schools, for example, are more likely to call moms than non-parochial schools.
You argue that these calls aren’t just inconveniences: They ultimately affect the workforce. You write that women anticipate and respond to these external demands by changing the type of work they do and the careers they choose, which ultimately hinders their progress in those careers. Can you expand?
We have long known that gender inequality exists in the labor market, and we have documented many reasons why this could be the case. Traditionally, women were less educated than men and women were more likely to work part-time. But even as these elements converge over time, we still see gender inequalities in wages and treatment. So we really want to think about what’s left that’s still widening a gap between how women and men are treated in the labor market.
Other people have done a great job showing that women expect to be treated differently simply because they are women in the workforce, and therefore tend to gravitate towards more flexible jobs . More flexible jobs tend to pay less, lead to less career advancement, etc., making these women more likely to be able to take on more caregiving duties. It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation – it’s hard to say what triggers this cycle. But I think it’s important to document and understand all the different parts of this cycle to understand how to break this cycle if that’s something a person or a household wants to do.
What can families do?
First, to relieve families of responsibility, I would like to see the systems that parents interact with become more friendly to this process, so that they can request that schools alternate which parents they call, or that they can ask one parent or the other. be called on certain days.
But one thing a household can do is get a home phone number. Before cell phones, you had a home phone number, and whoever was at home was the one who answered the call. So you can get a third phone number for your household and route that phone number to the cell phone of the relative you want to handle calls with at certain times or on certain days.
This story was originally published on Tufts Now: https://now.tufts.edu/2023/11/15/ring-ring-its-you-mom