Focus on Money Misses Mark on Why Women Work

The Working Mother Research Institute released a report last week in which the vast majority of mothers surveyed reported that the main reason they worked (or would work) was for a paycheck.

When I conducted 80 interviews with women living in New York City about their decisions about workforce participation, I similarly found that women said that they participated in paid work because it financially benefited their families.

But my research found that even though women emphasize the importance of financial needs in their explanations of their work, money is not the driving force behind their workforce decisions. In fact, women with greater financial resources are actually the ones who are most likely to remain employed.

One respondent, Virginia, summarized the typical response: "Financially, women have to actually work for their kids to have more." But a closer look at Virginia's work-family circumstances revealed a much more complicated picture. Virginia continued working as a hairdresser after both her children were born and only left her job after new management bought the hair salon, reduced her schedule flexibility, and hired a new manager who treated the employees poorly. When she quit, Virginia's husband had recently lost his job and the family faced several years of great financial instability. When Virginia went back to work, her husband was stably employed and the family was on much better financial footing. While the explanation Virginia gave focused on her family's financial needs, her actions did not -- she left a job she disliked when her family had no regular source of income but returned to work when she found a job she loved during a period when her family's financial stability grew.

Why did Virginia (and almost all of the women that I met with) tell a story about the role of financial needs in women's workforce participation decision?

Today, women face competing obligations to work and family and neither leaving work nor remaining at work can completely satisfy these twin demands. The Working Mother Research Institute found that the majority of both working and non-working mothers report feeling guilt about the work choices they have made. If everyone feels guilty about work decisions and worries about how these decisions are viewed, framing these decisions as being made for the family, rather than for themselves, may help alleviate this guilt (and defer blame) by suggesting that women's work decisions are altruistic.

The women's explanations of financial need connect to a broader popular discussion that connects women's paid labor to their families' financial needs, i.e. women work because their families need the money. If financial needs dictate women's work, we would expect to find higher employment rates among working-class women, who have less income and lower education level than middle-class women. But, just as Virginia's account of why she worked did not match her workforce experiences, neither do national labor force trends match this stereotypical explanation of women's work.

As women's income goes up, so, too, does their labor market participation. Highly educated women are most likely to work; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85 percent of women with postgraduate degrees work, compared to 80 percent of college grads, 68 percent of high school grads, and only 48 percent of women with less than a high school education.

National trends in women's workforce participation, then, do not support what we think we know about why women work. The popular discourse surrounding women's work creates pervasive stereotypes in which middle-class women's work is understood to be a choice and, therefore, self-indulgent, and working-class women's work is understood to be a need and, therefore, unrewarding.

But I found that women worked for far more complicated reasons than just money. Of course, money played an important role and women wanted to find work that paid what they considered a fair wage for the work being done. But they also stayed employed when they found work interesting, when it provided a sense of positive accomplishment, when it allowed them to balance work and family, when their work garnered peer or employer recognition and respect, when it included the possibility for advancement, and when it led to the possibility of improving their families' social status.

Explanations of women's work that focus on financial need draw attention away from the problems that all women face in the workplace: a lack of workplace flexibility, few childcare options, few sick days, and little parental leave. Creating better work environments will mean more women will stay at work and that stability will be better for mothers, families and the economy in the long run.