Skip to main content

Statistics on Mothers and Work: Setting the Record Straight

Editor's Note: The following information is adapted from What's A Smart Woman Like You Doing At Home?Chapter 6: Setting the Record Straight) by Mothers At Home founders Linda Burton, Janet Dittmer, and Cheri Loveless (c. 1992, 1996 Mothers At Home). Mothers At Home was the original name of the nonprofit organization Family and Home Network.

For almost a generation now, the media has been pointing to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and telling us that mothers are leaving home. As "working" mothers became a larger and larger group, reporters began to dramatize the apparent shift from a nation of "traditional families."  So well-known and widely accepted have the DOL statistics become that hardly a reference to motherhood escapes mention of them -- whether in news coverage, at community meetings, or in testimony before Congress.

The assumptions many of us make when we hear the DOL figures quoted seem reasonable enough. At a glance, the actual numbers give indisputable evidence that combining a job with motherhood is a fact of life here to stay for most women.  The percentage of married women who hold a job and whose youngest child is between ages six and eighteen rose from 49.2% in 1970 to 74.7% in 1990. For mothers of younger children (under six years old), the increase was even more dramatic, rising from 30.3% in 1970 to 58.4% in 1990.

While there appears to be no need to argue with the validity of these statistics, there are, however, grossly inaccurate perceptions about mothers and working -- not because the DOL statistics are incorrect, but rather because of the carelessness in the way they have been presented to the public. Comparing what the DOL statistics actually measure to what we have been led to believe they measure, yields a surprising conclusion: Many mothers called "working mothers" by the DOL and the media consider themselves "at home."

The Department of Labor Definition of "Work"

The DOL statistics on working mothers are extrapolated from the results of a survey conducted by the Bureau of Census called the Current Population Survey. Once a month, trained interviewers are dispatched with this survey to a national sampling of about 59,500 "scientifically selected" households throughout all fifty states and the District of Columbia. These interviewers ask standardized questions about the work status of all persons sixteen years of age or older who are living in the targeted homes.

Although survey information is gathered each month, figures on working mothers are only officially tabulated once a year, based on responses given during the month of March. The Bureau of Labor Statistics then estimates how many mothers are working in the entire U.S. labor force by tallying the numbers obtained from those sample households. (The survey is judged to have a relatively small margin of error.)

Because the objective of the survey is to identify trends by comparing labor force participation from year to year, the DOL has had to devise a standard definition of "employment."  This definition, as printed in an "Explanatory Notes" section of the annual DOL news release on mothers and employment reads:

"Employed persons are those who, during the survey week: (a) did any work at all as paid civilians; (b) worked in their own business or profession or on their own farms; or (c) worked fifteen hours or more as an unpaid worker in a family-operated enterprise. Also included are those who were temporarily absent from their jobs for such reasons as illness, vacation, bad weather, or labor-management disputes."

This definition clearly encompasses more than the full-time working mothers most people have imagined. According to the DOL*, the 62.7% of all mothers who are usually described as "working outside the home" also includes:

·  mothers who work part-time, including as little as one hour per week,

·  mothers who work seasonally, as little as one week out of the year,

·  mothers who work from their homes either part-time or full-time, (including those mothers who provide child care for others),

·  mothers who work without pay for a "family-operated enterprise" at least fifteen hours per week,

·  mothers who work full-time but have flexible hours, and

·  mothers who are on maternity leave, whether or not they return to their jobs.

DOL definition of employment allows for the fact that some labor force participants will be home for one reason or another during the week they are interviewed. Therefore, persons home on vacation, on sick leave, or even on strike, whether or not they are being paid during their absence from work, are instructed to base their survey response on their "normal" work week. Women who are home on maternity leave are, according to these guidelines, counted among the working population.

The Media Version of the DOL Statistics

Once we understand that the purpose of the DOL statistics is to measure total labor force participation, it seems obvious that part-time workers, those who work from home, and those on leave should indeed be included in the figures. Yet, the general public mistakenly believes these annual statistics represent only mothers who work full-time away from their homes.

To avoid counting mothers in the survey more than once, the DOL lists each mother only by the age of her youngest child. Unless this fact is explained to the public, however, most people believe that "mothers with children under the age of eighteen" means mothers whose children are all under the age of eighteen. In fact, many of the DOL's working mothers are women whose oldest children are grown, who have, perhaps, one teenager still living at home.

Some news stories, in place of the percentage of mothers who are actually employed (62.7% for 1990), quote a slightly higher figure (66.7% for 1990). This higher figure includes both mothers currently participating in the labor force and those who are unemployed but who are looking for jobs. Again, it is the rare news writer who takes the time to explain that 4% of the women in this statistic report that they are seeking employment but are presently at home.

Many articles on latch-key children and the debate over child care begin with a statement such as, "According to the Department of Labor more than half of today's mothers now work outside the home." This  conjures up visions of half the nation's mothers leaving their children alone or in institutional care for most of each workday.

The Impact of This Statistical Misunderstanding

Unfortunately, misunderstandings rooted in the misuse of the DOL statistics have been far-reaching. First of all, the media itself has not been inclined to speak for, to, or about a population they believe to be a dwindling minority. Even today, a publication oriented to the daytime homemaker and mother -- or one who acknowledges her existence -- is difficult to find. Secondly, advertisers and businesses, conscious of the "bottom line," have not wanted to risk selling to or manufacturing for a population they believe isn't there.

However, the most frightening result of misunderstanding the DOL statistics has been in the area of public policy, especially regarding child care. Although "working mothers" include women who participate in the labor force in a variety of ways, the notion persists that every working mother needs and desires substitute care for her children. This mistaken assumption has led many well-intentioned people to routinely misuse the DOL statistics as "proof" of the need for more institutional child care.

The message widely reported from the DOL statistics is largely a true one. Mothers today are indeed participating in the work force in record numbers. There are more mothers than ever solely responsible for the economic well-being of their families or jointly responsible where a single income will not make ends meet. Mothers today have had more choices of careers, and more opportunities to continue pursuing them through their child-rearing years.

But there is another message hidden in these statistics that is not widely reported, and which the prevailing reports sometimes mistakenly deny. It is that mothers continue to make great efforts to spend as much time with their children as possible. Not only do millions of mothers resist economic and social pressure and remain outside the paid workforce, but millions of DOL "working mothers" participate in the labor force in  creative and non-traditional ways just so they will be available to their children a majority of the time.

The Department of Labor statistics, as misinterpreted by the general public, daily influence decisions in millions of home, in thousands of business establishments, and even in local, state, and federal government policy. Since these decisions are shaping the future of the country, it is imperative that the statistics be properly understood.

*Note: The DOL statistics reported here are for 1990. However, more recent DOL reports show no substantive change.

* * * * * * * * *

For more information, please see FAHN's Statistics page.