How stay-at-home moms hurt gender equality

stay at home wives back to work

When I push back against the stay-at-home mom fantasy — the myth that children fare better when mothers do not work, and that this lifestyle benefits anyone at all — I am often met with: “What do you care? We should respect all women’s choices in the spirit of sisterhood!”

Wrong.

When women chose to stay home full-time, abandon career and earning, in the name of better mothering, or commitment to family, we all lose, most especially women.

Your choices affect me, and my choices affect you.

None of us live on an island. This is community and society and we are all intertwined. Choices matter, and when you make choices that hurt gender equality, I am hurt by that. All women, children and men are hurt by that. I am responsible to you, and vice versa.

I get the challenges. I appreciate very much that childcare is prohibitively expensive. I recoil at the fact that the United States has some of the worst maternal leave, child care, and health care policies when it comes to working parents. I work very hard in both my personal and professional lives to change that. I also understand very much the incredible social pressure to stay at home full time with children. This pressure is rooted in the misconception (some of the numerous relevant studies cited below) that this is what is best for children. I meet many women who make the decision to fully abandon their earning power and become dependent on husbands with genuine belief that this is what is good for their families. Many others leave the workforce because child care costs make employment unaffordable.

The United States needs vast policy change.

But votes and calls to legislators are not enough.

Each of us is called to make choices for our lives and families that aim for the greater good — including equality for all people. The more educated you are, the more money, access, privilege you have, the more responsibility you have to others to live a life that pushes the envelope for positive change in the world.

That includes working for money.

13 ways that failing to work and earn holds back all women.

1. You perpetuate stereotypical gender roles, as that is what you model to your children, spouse, friends and neighbors.

If you, woman, are home, your children equate housekeeping, child care and other unpaid ‘women’s work’ with women. They see their father, a man, earn in the world. That informs their ideas about gender and what is expected of women and men. That is why Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn found, in her study of 34,000 people across 24 countries, that girls raised by mothers who worked outside the home for pay, achieved more academically and grew up to be women who achieved more professionally and financially than their peers who had stay-at-home moms. Boys raised by working moms were more caring for children and older people living in the home than their SAHM peers, and grew up to be men who were the same — all while achieving as much academically and professionally as those raised by SAHMs. In short: kids grow up to be what they see.

2. You inform your working husband about what women and family need.

Men — especially the white variety — still very much control corporate and government policy, and are far more likely to advocate for policy that supports working parents if they themselves share in family responsibility because their wives work, too. Researchers at Harvard, NYU and University of Utah found:

“Employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

3. The world misses out on your unique talents.

Recent headlines such as “Closing the gender gap could grow the economy by $2.1 trillion” (CNN) scream that the best way to grow the economy is to better engage women in the professional world. You consumed educational resources that were designed for the benefit of all of society. You worked hard to earn positions, raises or build a business. When you drop out for any significant period, all those collective skills and network are paused — or tossed out. That is a brain drain that we, as a society and world, cannot afford to lose.

4. Your choices discourage the hiring and promotion of other women.

Your departure from the workforce discourages managers and companies from hiring, training and promoting women since it sets the precedence that women of a certain age will just drop out indefinitely to have babies. Read: “Motherhood Penalty Affects Women Who Never Have a Child”(NBC).

5. You abandon the women who stay in the trenches fighting for equality.

My friend Maria, a divorced mom, has fought her way into an executive position at the male-dominated accounting industry where she’s worked for 22 years. She told me: “Every time a woman in my company drops out to stay home and ‘be a mom,’ I want to scream. I think, ‘I and every other woman in this big company need you to be here in these meetings and fight for them.’ I feel let down and, frankly, abandoned. They left me here to fight alone.”

6. You shame other moms.

Culturally, Americans believe children need stay-at-home moms. Pew found that 60 percent of Americans believe it is best for kids when a parent is home full-time, and a full 40 percent of Americans say that children are harmed (!) when mothers work outside the home. A full 70 percent of U.S. mothers work, and the majority of those who do not would like to work, but do not because child care is so prohibitive, studies find. The majority of moms who work do so because they need to eat, and their children need to eat — not because it is a lifestyle choice. In other words,

When women say, “I don’t want to go back to work because I love my children,” that means, “I love my children more than you do. I am a better mom.” We all love our children. Here a very important fact you need to hear right now:

The University of Maryland’s very important meta-study, “How Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children Matter?” found that for children ages 2 to 11, it makes no difference the number of hours a mother spends with her when it comes to the child’s academic or psychological success.

7. You perpetuate the myth that motherhood is enough to fulfill us.

Instead, here are studies that show that mothers who work are happier and healthier, and less sad and angry, than their peers who work for pay. This is old news. Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique established this five decades ago. We are having the exact emotion vs fact debate today. Let’s move this conversation forward.

8. You are more prone to poverty.

Whether you stay married for the rest of your life, divorce, or your spouse passes away before you do (statistically likely), you are more likely to be poor. A financial plan in which an entire family is dependent on one income is simply bad planning. After all, you know you should buy life insurance in the unlikely event that you or your partner dies. The chances of that happening are far, far lower than divorce, disability, illness or unemployment — all situations in which a second career could mean the difference between staying in your home or living out of your car. The fewer women living in poverty means good things for all women — and members of the world.

9. You are less likely to be involved in your family finances.

Knowing everything about your household finances is critical in the event that you divorce, or otherwise are forced to manage the money in the absence of your spouse (he becomes disabled, unemployed, dies, is incarcerated or any other horrible things that happen every single day). One study found that women’s involvement in household finances is directly proportionate to their contribution to family income. In other words, the more a woman contributes to the family finances, the more involved she is with managing them.

The more involved a woman is with managing money, the more security she and her whole family have. this contributes to making wiser, empowered decisions, and being safe in every sense of the word.

10. You are more likely to suffer abuse.

A full THIRD of U.S. women will be domestic violence victims at the hands of an intimate partner, and in 99 percent of those cases, financial abuse is part of the equation. You are in physical, emotional and sexual danger when you do not have your own money.

11. When you divorce, you are screwed.

You have the same ~50 percent chance as the rest of us (though some studies suggest the divorce rate is higher in marriages when one spouse is financially dependent on the other) . Alimony reform is underway in every state, and while you may get short-term maintenance (think about that term: a man who you are no longer involved with is forced to maintain you), you are now expected to earn a living. Statistically women wind up poorer after divorce than men — typically because we have less earning power to start with. Take away any recent work experience, you are s-c-r-e-w-e-d. Read: Why you should never depend on alimony

The challenges for divorced women with no recent work history run deep. Want to keep your house in your name? Without two years work history, you can’t get a mortgage. You also likely can’t get a car loan or credit card with a decent interest rate. In short: the pay gap, wealth gap and women’s choices overall plummet without earning power.

12. When women stop working, you have far fewer choices, and when women don’t have choice, we all lose.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a woman’s earnings drop 30 percent after being out of the workforce for two to three years. This calculator created by the Center for American Progress projects the potential impact to a woman’s lifetime earnings when she takes a break mid-career. A 26-year-old woman earning $50,000 per year stands to lose more than $800,000 in wages, raises and retirement benefits over her lifetime when she steps off the career path for just five years. You also can’t get a decent car loan or credit card or mortgage.

13. SAHMs’ post-divorce / separation life is tumultuous.

When you are in financial straits post-divorce/separation, you are understandably afraid, and acting in fear leads to bad decisions and poor behavior. Any family attorney or divorce court judge will tell you that terrified women and angry men then spend a lot of very contentious time and lots of money with lawyers and judges arguing over money. This conflict bleeds deeply into your co-parenting. It is impossible to share parenting time and decisions in a healthy way if you are duking it out in court. Your children suffer the most. These are the same children who were supposed to benefit from the countless hours you spent with them at home. Related: How to divorce like a feminist

As a citizen, I am affected because courts are jammed up with petty arguing over custody and alimony, while actual abuse and neglect cases are marginalized. As a society, we all suffer, because statistically, when men are marginalized in custody cases — and they are in 80 percent of cases that go to court, in favor of giving mothers primary custody, despite 55 reviewed studies that prove that equally shared time with kids is best for children, once again following in those gender-stereotype  — they tend to drop out of kids’ lives all together. This is good for no one. Not you, not me, not the kids, dads or penal systems, which are full of kids who did not grow up with involved dads. Ladies, be part of the solution.

Related post on gender equality and divorce

The one thing you can do today to close the pay gap
Close the pay gap? Get dads involved? Shared visitation, no child support

emma johnson family
Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list. Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

38 Comments

  1. Steveark on February 20, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    I am a regular reader and I like your work, it stretches my boomer, conservative, white mind in some productive ways. I struggle with this one though. The idea that my wife did a lot of damage by retiring at 32 to raise three kids and manage our house and investments and to volunteer and to run her unofficial care taking of people who need a human touch now and then doesn’t ring true with the reality I’ve observed. One of our millennial daughters has a BS and an MS in two separate engineering fields and is gainfully employed reducing industry’s impact on the planet with our state’s environmental regulatory department. Her sister has a BS and MS in business and education and mentors division one athletes of all genders at a major university and she loves her job. They are both feminists as well but respect their mom highly and value her judgment. Our daughter in law is a PhD CRNA who seems to be doing pretty well making now about what I made after thirty years in corporate management even though she is still in her 30’s. These three women are all outearning their significant others. My spouse can out run, out hike, out shoot and out fish me and we make our financial decisions together. I prize her judgement above mine in anything that isn’t related to thermodynamics. She is a multimillionaire by the way and has always lived her life exactly as she chose. Every cent I’ve made is due in equal part to her support of our family operation. I never have nor ever will tell her to do anything, nor has she done so to me. The world, I would opine, has benefited greatly from her talents as a volunteer and someone who nurtures and helps some dozen older or marginalized people because she cares for them as unofficial family. Her kids are also productive contributors to society. The idea that you can assign fault to her life choice because she prefers to fight a different battle, one against lonlieness and neglect, instead of the gender war, seems wrong to me. The idea that she should have worked when we had way more money than we needed from one high earner income also seems silly. There are many great fights, third world poverty, religious persecution, gender bias, crime, drugs, abuse and nobody can fight all of them. In my mind she picks her battles and has accomplished a great deal in spite of not following a path you approve of.

    • Emma on February 20, 2018 at 2:01 pm

      You are arguing fact with emotion. Per many studies, several cited in this post, both boys and girls fare better when they are raised by mothers who work. You, like most Americans, tie children’s professional success to mothers’ hours with them, and that simply does not hold up. I do not suggest your wife or family are not worthwhile humans, simply that that model of the stay-at-home wife/mother hurts gender equality, and your comment does not refute that point.

      • Waylon on February 20, 2018 at 4:38 pm

        I don’t see what part of Steveark’s comments seem unreasonable or untrue in disproving your anti-nuclear family diatribe. Much of what you wrote in your own blog post are ad-hominems and emotional outbursts. On second thought, all of what you wrote is an emotional outburst. You should do everyone a favor and petition your local US Representative and ask them to pass a law making it harder for women to stay at home or have forced labor rules so women are forced to work so your fantasy world can become reality. Because everything you wrote here is truly a Marxist Fantasy.

        • Ellen on February 21, 2018 at 10:28 am

          Waylon this post cites legitimate research. I’m interested in your perspective relating to the untruths. Which things are lies? And what parts of the posts are unreasonable to you? I’m genuinely interested not doing a devils advocate thing to condescend.

          • Waylon on February 21, 2018 at 4:29 pm

            Legitimate is only an opinion. Read all of the blue numbered items in her post, they are all ad-hominems. Because she links to some study or other does not validate their existence or make the numbered statements true in any way.

            • Ellen on February 22, 2018 at 9:00 am

              ad-hominem: directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining

              legitimate: conforming to the law or to rules:

              Thanks Waylon!



  2. Alinda Toro on February 20, 2018 at 10:13 pm

    I’m sorry but I laugh at the fact that you take a few angles and statistics about how stay at home moms do not help but actually hinder society. How they negatively or moreso don’t help positively in children’s upbringing yet avoid to discuss the fact that so many more statistics/research exists to contradict your statements. You are a mess and I am so sad women like you have a platform to use in which to belittle other women. Real women don’t do that…they pull other women from the trenches. Shame on you for trying to shame SAHMs because you are bitter for whatever you have been thru and clearly you have some other emotional agenda. I hope that isn’t your intent but that is how it reads to both men and women. It’s sad that even men have to come to SAHMs defense to explain how in fact they are making a difference. You say his response is emotional….?! Yet yours isn’t?! Lol This blog is demeaning to stay at home Mother’s and you are creating a you versus them situation. So sad….why don’t you try and look at the world off the pedestal you sat on while writing this!

    • Ellen on February 21, 2018 at 10:30 am

      Alinda, Would you mind sharing the research in favor of stay-at-home parents? I am a working Mom and take a lot of comfort in the earnings research for my kids. But I would love a more balanced view if there is one. Maybe you can copy some links for me to read? Thank you :) Ellen

  3. Samantha Moutrey on February 21, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    You mention that some mothers stay home because childcare is expensive. Ok. You did not once discuss that some women *want* to raise their children full time. No woman should be told what her role in her home or society is. That’s what women have been fighting for for decades. They right to do what *they* want to do.

    Also, it is very strange that you repeatedly state *when* you get a divorce not *if* you get a divorce.

    What about stay at home fathers?

    Most alarmingly, you seem to be placing blame for women’s inequality in the workplace on WOMEN, instead of their employers. That’s sexism at its finest.

    You also fail to understand the overall picture behind these statistics. Yes, studies show children of working mothers have slightly better outcomes. Obviously this does not mean that children of stay at home parents are inherently worse of because there are hundreds of thousands of examples of successful happy children whose mothers stayed home, but more importantly, this is a correlation not a causation. More mothers in poverty stay home because of limitations that you mentioned. Children in poverty are more likely to have negative outcomes. The elements that actually impact childhood outcomes are poverty, abuse,and parental involvement. Trying to make the case that a loving family who chooses (because women should have choices, remember that part?) to have a parent stay home and is financially stable and involved in their children’s lives is inherently putting them at risk for lower quality lives is flawed research. The biggest rule if research is correlation does not equal causation.

    I know some mothers who must work want comfort in thinking their way is better and that their children will thrive. They probably will, because you care. But not specifically because you work. That is presumptuous and honestly pretty vile.

    I have an advanced degree and my family has gone through periods where my husband was the stay at home parent and periods where I was. I would never spew the hate and misinformation towards working mothers that you just did for mothers staying home. I’m really sorry you feel like you have to prove your love like this. We are all doing what we decided was best for our families.

    • Emma on February 22, 2018 at 11:28 am

      What is the “misinformation”? This is all fact-based opinions, research cited. Yes, you are doing what you believe is best for your family, at the expense of gender equality. I don’t see any room to argue here, except that you have not thought about the points I make and research I cite and your feelings are hurt. Discomfort is the root of change.

      • Samantha Moutrey on February 22, 2018 at 2:01 pm

        Gee, I guess some sanctimommy who is out to prove that she is the best by tearing others down thinks I should live my life differently. You convinced me, I’ll go back to my career now. Riiiiight. You are arguing That ALL stay at home mothers are causing poverty and setting women back, which is indeed misinformation and a gross generalization. You completely dismiss that plenty of women want to do this, and place the blame for workplace inequality on the victims. You also failed to see how your compilation of other people’s research only shows correlation, not causation, a fact that you ignored once again in your response. Perhaps you need to be a good role model for your children and obtain some more education on how exactly research works. Anyone can find any research to support their own opinions on the internet to support their opinions. Here is some research that refutes your position. But unlike you, I would never claim that you should stay home or that you were a bad woman and mother for not doing so. Because that kind of shaming, not working mothers or stay at home mothers, is what is further degrading the lives of women.

  4. Ellen on February 22, 2018 at 9:02 am

    Emma you are a badass! I am so glad that you have the courage to write things (backed up by science) that inevitably bring on so much hate. These commenters are angry AF. My girls call work like yours MamaDiva work – because only Moms are brave enough and hard-working enough to do it. <3

    • Emma on February 22, 2018 at 11:28 am

      Thank you Ellen :)

    • Danielle on February 22, 2018 at 4:05 pm

      Eyeroll.

  5. Danielle Nelsen on February 22, 2018 at 10:05 am

    Am I a feminist because I’m a 39 year old single mother who has never been married? If I got married tomorrow and happily threw a quiche in the oven to bake while knitting some massive doily for the couch, would I be abandoning that identity and “perpetuating stereotypical gender roles?” What if I like to fucking knit (I do)?

    I am a feminist *who just happens to be* a 39 year old single mother who has never been married, not BECAUSE of it. I am presently not be perpetuating a stereotypical gender role but I reserve my right to move to Stepford if I want to. Or I can bake in the city.

    Feminism – the movement, the revolution, the idea (or what have you) – has provided us (women) with the powerful and apparently controversial thing in life called choice. The choice of whether or not we want to be barefoot housewives and mothers, as well as the right to happily be both, one, none, or more. It has widened our opportunities to be all that we dream, but most importantly, it insists that women not be confined to certain identities only.

    There are plenty of people who believe we should still be confined to certain identities, and this author seems to be one of them. It’s up to all of us to continue to assure that we are not, and I think perhaps we start with explaining what feminism actually means to those who claim to be a feminist. (Spoiler Alert: No where in the definition does it include, “hating men.”)

    • Emma on February 22, 2018 at 10:56 am

      All this choice is worthless if it is made under false assumptions, primarily that full-time at-home mothers are good for anyone, when in fact that myth creates dangerous dependency.

      • Megan Plumley on February 22, 2018 at 8:44 pm

        How is it not good for a child to have constant access to their caregiver?

        Especially if that caregiver doubles as their food source?

        I really didn’t think this level of ignorance was possible.

        • Emma on February 23, 2018 at 8:40 am

          I am referencing the science. With the exception of the past century, women have always worked outside the home, typically in fields, with a village of caregivers looked after young children – and older children often worked.

    • Megan Plumley on February 22, 2018 at 8:48 pm

      I’ve been the full time working single mom and I am now the SAHM. Working was the easier job as raising my kids is way more work. But I’m way happier to be able to raise them instead of only seeing them a few hours a week. So the person it benefits is ME. My life is happier.

  6. Steveark on February 22, 2018 at 10:45 am

    Yikes Emma, sorry, I didn’t mean to start a war here. As I said I appreciate your body of work and learn from it regularly. I’ll have to think about your reply in spite of my natural tendency to argue.

    • Emma on February 22, 2018 at 11:28 am

      Debate welcome.

  7. Steph on February 22, 2018 at 11:19 am

    “You can grow up to be anything you want, dear daughter, because you are strong and smart and talented…except be a stay at home mommy.”

    • Emma on February 22, 2018 at 11:29 am

      I think we would all agree on a long list of things we would not want our daughters to be: dependent, abused, depressed, poor, just to name a few.

      • Ellie on February 22, 2018 at 1:44 pm

        ALL stay at home moms are “dependent, abused, depressed, poor”? Can you site that statistic, Emma? Or are you just speaking from your experience?

        • Emma on February 23, 2018 at 8:43 am

          No research finds absolutes.

  8. Bobbi Mercer on February 22, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    Emma- is it ok for fathers to stay home with their children?

    • Emma on February 23, 2018 at 8:22 am

      The goal is for autonomy and independence for both genders. The goal is gender equality. That is impossible when anyone give up their earning power.

  9. Beth on February 22, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    This is the most one sided anti-woman thing I have ever read. Clearly clickbait because no one could be this ignorant.

  10. Andy on February 22, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    The title of this article should be “How Having a narrow view of success hurts gender equality”

  11. Holly S on February 22, 2018 at 6:02 pm

    What a load of horse sh*t. I suppose anyone can cherry pick information to prove a point, eh? I’m glad you’re happy working outside the home. I’m happy as a stay-at-home mom. True feminism means that we both have the option to do what makes us feel fulfilled. ;)

  12. Megan Plumley on February 22, 2018 at 8:40 pm

    I’m sorry but your are deeply misguided. What hurts society is telling any parent what they can and can not do as a parent. Some dads make great SAHDs. Some moms make great SAHMs. And sometimes both parents work. Their choices on how to run their family aren’t holding anyone back.

    • Emma on February 23, 2018 at 8:41 am

      If I wrote an article that said: “10 ways your car destroys the environment” you likely would not argue, and continue driving your car (I would). Just because this research makes you uncomfortable does not render it incorrect.

  13. anonymous on February 22, 2018 at 9:18 pm

    Ironic that Emma rails against staying home, yet she has links for jobs that let you *gasp* work from home!!! As for the chick in #5 (whining about women leaving her to fight the battle alone while they choose to stay home), these women have an obligation to their family, not you. If Maria really cared about these women fighting along side her why not offer them a work at home position?

    • Emma on February 23, 2018 at 8:23 am

      Working at home is not a stay at home mom. I have run a business out of my home for 12 years.

  14. Amber on February 22, 2018 at 9:31 pm

    As a working mother I am embarrassed by this article. SAHMs please know that the majority of working mothers absolutely do not blame you for workplace inequality and think you are doing just fine with your kids. Sheesh.

  15. Anon on February 22, 2018 at 10:41 pm

    Here is an unbiased article on the topic.

    https://www.thespruce.com/research-stay-at-home-moms-4047911

  16. Nik on February 23, 2018 at 8:07 am

    Amen!!!

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