Working mothers are rejoicing in light of a new study which shows that over the course of a career they are more productive than their childless (female) peers. After crunching the numbers on the career trajectories of academic economists, researchers working for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded that mothers outperformed women without children over a three-decade span. Nonetheless, for working women outside of the academe, the research also may highlight some of the challenges of combining career and family.
First, the good news. Most significantly, the study shows that having children need not doom career success. The researchers analyzed the amount (and quality) of research published by more than 10,000 academics as a proxy for performance, and found that parents of both genders came out on top. Both fathers and mothers of two or more children were more productive than their same-gender peers at all stages of their careers. For men, fathers of two or more children were most productive, while fathers of one child and men without children performed similarly throughout their careers. For women, the effect of having children was even more significant. The women who eventually had two or more children were the most productive throughout their careers, followed by those with one child and those without children. Within the first five or so years of their careers, women who never have children substantially underperform those who do – with mothers of two or more children performing the best.
Although the study found that women with younger children do experience a drop in their productivity – for example, a drop of up to 33%, or four years of research, was correlated with having three pre-teen children — the mothers made up for this valley by being more productive both before and after having children, and they remained more productive than women with fewer or no children at the same career tenure even during the “valley” period.
Commentators have picked up on the optimism of this long-term picture. Writing for The Washington Post, Ylan Q. Mui commented: “But as any parent knows, the days are long and the years are short. That’s the case here, too. Mothers tend to be more productive both before and long after the birth of their children.” Put another way, Maricar Santos of Working Mother wrote, “For those who (still) think women become a long-term liability in the workplace when they become moms, here’s more evidence to the contrary–and then some. A new study indicates that both women and men who have two or more children are, on average, more productive in their jobs over the long haul than their counterparts who have no children or even one child.”
Although this overall picture is a bright one, there are dark spots. First, as the authors of the study point out, they did not include women who dropped out of the tenure-track job market altogether, leaving the mothers in the study more likely to be high-achieving “survivor” types who are particularly adept at balancing careers and family.
More broadly, outside of the academe, few women have the luxury of working for single employer who follows them throughout the lifecycle of their careers. Unlike academic researchers who benefit in a very straightforward way from all their cumulative work – in the form of published research – most workers toggle between employers with varied measures of success. In comparing women workers over the long-term, the St. Louis researchers are actually comparing women who eventually have two or more children with those who eventually have one child or no children. Although the women who eventually have two or more children are indeed more productive at every career stage that the other two cohorts, they are less productive when they have small children than younger women who will eventually have two or more children but have not had them yet, or older women who have two or more older children. Put another way, they are less productive than their younger, and older, selves. This dynamic may prove tricky for women in the corporate world, where employers are eager to attract the type of high-achieving women who seek to balance careers and families, but have little patience for helping them navigate the period in which they have careers and younger kids.