Very few employers have figured out how to make work -- and life -- manageable for working mothers, but what if it's not just our work-life policies that are flawed? What if even the language we use to discuss working motherhood is problematic and making it more difficult for women to navigate office and family life? That's the argument made by Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, based on research she conducted from April to November 2010.
Stephens studies what she calls "choice rhetoric" -- language used to describe women interrupting or ending their careers for motherhood as a choice made solely based on preference, often failing to take into account the financial and other reasons women have for electing to stay at home.
Consider the 2003 New York Times Magazine article entitled "The Opt Out Revolution," in which Lisa Belkin famously and controversially asserted that women are less likely to get to the top of the office echelon than men "because they choose not to."
Or recall the 2001 episode of "Sex and the City" in which Charlotte -- still on her first marriage -- got flack from Carrie and crew for quitting her (ever-ambiguous) job at the art gallery in order to become the perfect homemaker/wife/mother-in-training. She emphatically defended herself in almost a parody of the language Stephens is talking about, saying, "I choose my choice! I choose my choice!"
Stephens' research indicates that choice rhetoric is not just inaccurate but harmful to working women.
The results of her new study, "Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality," suggest the assumption that behavior is based on personal choice can lead to a frequently mistaken belief that gender barriers no longer exist in the modern workplace.
"The idea that 'behavior is a choice' is a cherished ideal in America," Stephens told The Huffington Post. "When we see people behaving a certain way, we assume that it reflects their choice as opposed to barriers that are in their way."
Stephens co-authored the study with Cynthia S. Levine, a doctoral student in the psychology department at Stanford University.
The study, which will be published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Science was broken into two phases.
In April 2010, Stephens and Levine surveyed 117 stay-at-home moms about their "experiences out of the workforce." The mothers -- who included both women who planned to stay at home and women who still planned to return to the workforce -- were asked to rate on a "choice framework" scale of 1 (disagree strongly) to 7 (agree strongly) how they reacted to the statements: "I made the choice to take time off from my career" and "I did not have a choice about whether to take time off from my career."
The participants were then provided with real statistics about gender inequality in the workplace and asked whether or not they thought that discrimination or structural barriers within the workplace -- which can include mommy-tracking or stereotyping working mothers, failing to provide an appropriate flexibility or creating difficulties for women who are attempting to re-enter the workforce after taking time off -- contributed to these occurrences.
Stephens and Levine found that while the women were more content when they scored higher on the choice framework scale explaining why they left their jobs, they were also less likely to recognize discrimination against women in the workplace.
The second part of the study took place in November 2010 when 46 U.S.-born undergraduates were told that they were being recruited for a study about "social issues." The control group was polled in a cubicle with a poster that read "Women at Home: Experiences Away from the Workforce" and the test group was polled in a cubicle with a poster that read "Choosing to Leave: Women's Experiences Away from the Workforce."
The researchers found that those who were exposed to choice rhetoric were more likely to believe that discrimination no longer exists than those in the test group.
These findings mirror a larger shift in how equal women are perceived to be. A 2005 Gallup poll indicated that for the first time in history, a majority of Americans believe that men and women hold equal opportunities in the workforce, even though women remain underrepresented in senior posts in law, business and politics, and are still paid less than men.
"The important finding was that choice functioned as a double-edged sword," Stephens said. While women who use choice framework are better off in the short run because they feel happier and empowered, the long-term implications are more ominous. If structural factors within the workplace that can limit a mother's ability to integrate her work and family lives are ignored, the problems will persist.