Women’s professional self-identity impacts on childcare balance, but not men’s

Women’s professional self-identity impacts on childcare balance, but not men’s
Woman working Woman working Research shows that a mother’s self-identity impacts on the amount of time she and her partner spends caring for their child.

The new study, by the University of Lincoln, UK, and the University of Cambridge, has found that the more a woman self-identifies with her profession, the more paid hours she works and the less time she spends with the couple’s children – although the childcare balance is more equal between a couple.

However, the more a woman identifies herself with motherhood, the less time the father spends with the children.

A father’s self-identity, however, has no bearing on a mother’s time with children. And while the more a man self-identifies as a parent and spends time with children, this had no impact on the amount of time the woman spends on childcare.

The study surveyed 148 couples with at least one child aged six years or younger to explore how individual priorities and ideologies help shape decisions about parenting. It is one of the first major studies to analyse how parental and work identities of both fathers and mothers impact on childcare, researchers say.

“Full-time employment is still the default option for men; new mothers are expected to remain available to care for their children,” said Dr Ruth Gaunt, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology, who led the study. Dr Gaunt previously worked at Cambridge, where the research was carried out.

“Women need to overcome internal and external barriers to commit to full-time employment, and our findings help reveal the ways in which their internalised identities guide their decisions.”

A series of “Who am I?”-style statements prompted participants to try and define themselves in terms of relationships and roles such as being a son, sister or spouse. Researchers then ranked these by how quickly each one was raised to determine which had higher priority e.g. a score of 10 meant the identity was mentioned first.

They found that the more a woman identified as a ‘mother’, the greater her share of childcare tasks relative to the father; the more hours she was sole carer of the child; and the greater the gap between mother’s and father’s hours of care. The women in the sample who identified most with their maternal role tended to do all childcare tasks – such as changing, bathing, playing – by themselves.

The more important a woman’s work identity, the smaller her share of childcare tasks relative to the father, and the fewer hours she was sole care provider for the child. Importantly, this meant the gap between hours of care provided by men and women was smallest in couples where women had strongest professional identities.

“We assume that women who place more importance on maternal identities have a greater need to validate their identity, and maintaining main responsibility for childcare serves this need – resulting in lower involvement of fathers. Our pattern of results is most consistent with this interpretation,” said Dr Gaunt.

“While the UK has one of the highest general employment rates in Europe for mothers of preschool children, it has one of the lowest rates of maternal full-time employment – with just one in five couples both in full-time work. We believe these patterns can partly be explained by the lack of state provision of childcare for small children, combined with social disapproval of full-time employment for mothers.”

The study, Parents’ involvement in childcare: Do parental and work identities matter?, was published by the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.

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