A study conducted by sociologists from Cambridge University seems to suggest that the support for working mothers is weakening. The researchers compared survey results from the 1980s till recently, and found “growing sympathy for the old-fashioned view that a woman’s place is in the home, rather than in the office”, caused by “mounting concern that women who play a full and equal role in the workforce do so at the expense of family life.”
This type of quantitative research examines the answers which people give to statements such as “A husband’s job is to earn income; a wife’s to take care of the children,” or “Family life suffers if a woman works full time.” Typically respondents can choose between the options ‘agree, disagree, agree strongly, disagree strongly, or don’t know/neutral’. I don’t think one has to be a specialist in survey design to see some problems with such statements. They are incredibly blunt and can be interpreted in many different ways. What does it mean, that ‘family life suffers’? It can mean anything from children undoubtedly not getting enough attention from their parents, or always eating prefab meals (both which I’d consider significant harms to children), to children sometimes not having a healthy evening meal with one or both of their parents but rather with a loving relative (which I’d consider no harm at all). Similarly, we don’t have other information apart from the information given by the statement. What kind of full-time job does the mother have? A job which makes her come home totally stressed out, or a job which gives her ample opportunity for self-development and which is a source of satisfaction? A job for 36 or 44 hours a week? A job which has flexible hours allowing her to do some of the work in the evenings when the children sleep, or one which has no flexibility at all? And what about the partners/fathers? Is there a caring father around, and how many hours does he work? Is there another caring family member or friend around? What age are the children? Do they have any special psychological or health needs? All these things matter hugely if one wants to answer the questions whether full-time maternal (and paternal !) employment harm children. We don’t know how respondents interpret and contextualise these blunt statements, and hence we don’t know what they agree or disagree with.
No doubt the scholars who did the study are aware of these limitations; and since they compare the responses over time, they can draw some conclusions related to change over time, assuming that the ‘contextualisation’ or ‘interpretation’ of these blunt statements has remained the same over time (which I’d doubt, though). What I would find really interesting are the results from qualitative research (like in-depth interviews) with the same people who have stated their opinions on these blunt statements, so that we get a little bit of a grasp of how to ‘decode’ the results of such survey research.
And of course one should add the obvious: opinions should not be confused with facts. Certainly not when it concerns such ideology-sensitive issues as gender inequality.