New Zealand Women’s Ministry Discovers Mothers’ Desire to Care for Their Kids

May 30, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

New Zealand’s Ministry for Women has produced a study of the work habits of mothers and fathers. I’ve seen no indication of what it cost to do the study and the write-up, but if it was a dollar, it was a dollar too much. Its 44 pages can be summed up with a simple “duh.” A more articulate response might be “Yes, we already knew this.”

The study’s authors, by contrast, appear a bit mystified about their findings. The study has throughout a tone of subdued bafflement. I suspect that’s because the ideology that holds that women are systematically deprived of what they really want to do – work for a living – is dominant at the Ministry and reflected by the study’s authors. More on that later.

By any stretch of the imagination, the study’s findings are non-controversial. They’re so unsurprising that, I suspect, people 50 years ago would wonder that the study was done at all. It takes a lot of “progress” to be that regressive, but that’s what happened. Truly, we’re learning anew what we’ve known for eons.

The researchers used large datasets to examine how men and women behave, particularly regarding paid work, before and after becoming parents for the first time. Guess what. Prior to having a child, men work somewhat more than do women – about 42-43 hours per week versus about 37-38 for women. Once little Andy or Jenny comes along, men’s hours remain the same and women’s hours drop to 27 per week on average. Men’s earnings increase post-birth and women’s decline.

As I said, “duh.” Similar information is available in countless different countries throughout the English-speaking world and elsewhere.

The study goes on to find that, when women return to work, they tend to earn less than they did before, even on an hourly basis. That’s likely because most take almost a year to return to work and 31% haven’t returned to paid work at all 24 months after the birth. Those mothers of course have less seniority and less recent work experience than do non-mothers and may be perceived by employers to be less connected to paid work.

Interestingly, in no quintile of female employees do those who become mothers ever return to their pre-child earnings. Nor do women’s employment rates ever return to their pre-birth levels. Fathers’ earnings and employment rates, by contrast, remain little changed. And of course the longer a woman is out of work, the lower her earnings after the birth of her child.

The average monthly earnings of employed women fall dramatically when they become parents, driven by the combination of fewer hours and lower hourly wages. Their monthly earnings do not return to their pre-parenthood trends within ten years, meaning their lifetime earnings are substantially reduced.

Again, there’s nothing new or unexpected here. For those who know the data in, for example, the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the New Zealand figures are just more of the same. For those with a clue about the natural tendencies of men and women, the facts that women prioritize motherhood over paid work and fathers prioritize providing for their families comes as no surprise.

And yet the tone of the study’s write up is, well, pouty. It’s pervaded by notions like the “parenthood penalty” suffered by mothers. The idea is absurd of course. If there were a “penalty” to be paid simply for becoming a parent, then fathers and mothers would both pay it. But they don’t. They don’t because their responses to parenthood are different. With the arrival of the first child, women tend strongly to opt for motherhood, while men tend to work harder to support both the new arrival and to take up the slack produced by Mom’s fewer hours and lower pay.

If John works 40 hours a week and Jim only 30, would anyone say that Jim is assessed a “penalty?” No, we’d all agree that he earns less because of his choice to work fewer hours. But for the true believers at the NZ Ministry for Women, mothers who work less are made to pay a penalty. That’s because, you see, what they really want to do is paid work, but somehow are prevented from doing so.

That of course brings me to that ideology at the Ministry.

“It could make a difference to women’s careers if fathers dropped 3 hours a week and women worked 30 hours. It could build a family’s economic resilience and allow more shared parenting,” the Ministry of Women’s policy director Margaret Retter said.

Hmm. Yes, it could make a difference. It would mean families earning less, men being dissatisfied that they weren’t doing more to take care of their families and women being dissatisfied that they weren’t doing more for their children. Meanwhile, employers would see their male employees going from full-time to part-time work along with their part-time-working wives. In short, everyone involved, including the baby, would be unhappy. And for what? The idea that working 30 hours instead of 27 would make any substantial difference in a woman’s career is pure nonsense. And besides, as Jordan Peterson points out, the huge majority of people have jobs, not careers.

As for shared parenting, needless to say, I’m all for that. But the idea that shifting three hours per week between spouses will make a particle of difference in parenting is dubious at best. The fact is that people work out their work-family balance to suit themselves and children always manage to attach to both parents quite nicely, as long as both do some hands-on care.

It’s a study that never should have been conducted because we already know what it tells us. We’ve known for ages that women tend to prefer motherhood to paid work and men tend to up their earnings when little Andy or Jenny comes along. Only in the minds of those at the Ministry for Women is that controversial and in need of change. For the umpteenth time, the rest of us know better.

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