Past Research

The “Work like a Mother” Survey Project (2018-2019)


If you’re new to the project and wanting to learn what this is all about, here’s the elevator speech: As a master’s student at the University of Idaho, I launched an online survey in fall 2018 aimed at exploring the impact of motherhood on women’s paid work. I particularly wanted to dig beneath the already-available statistics and hear from mothers in their own words. It turned out mothers had a lot to say about the subtle and significant ways their work paths were influenced by the arrival of children–1,776 women responded! For the purposes of writing a thesis I focused on just a sliver of the survey responses, but I am now moving the project into a PhD program, allowing me to dig deeper into the survey data and conduct complementary in-depth interviews.

The original into to the project:  The often-cited fact that women earn $0.80 on the dollar compared to their male counterparts obscures a crucial caveat—the gap expands dramatically upon the arrival of a woman’s first child. The Push and The Pull project aims to more holistically explore this “motherhood penalty” by asking women about their post-child plans, their decision-making, their supports and constraints, and their successes and regrets.

Existing research is replete with discussions of how mothers work differently than non-mothers. They are more likely to quit for family-related reasons than fathers, and when they remain employed they are more likely to seek flexible employment, scale back their hours, or otherwise adjust their paid work to accommodate the (unpaid) practical and emotional requirements of raising children. Research has largely failed to examine, however, the reasoning behind these work adjustments mothers so often make. In the absence of certain constraints might they have chosen differently? How do mothers feel about the way their paid work bends to the unpaid demands of their families? Which mothers avoid the “penalty” and what supports enable their success?

The Push and The Pull aims to broaden and deepen social science’s understanding of how mothers chart their various paid work paths in 2018. We hope that by asking mothers themselves about the subtle and significant, the expected and unexpected ways they altered (or didn’t) their work lives to accommodate family responsibilities we might shed light on as-yet unrecognized mechanisms that contribute to their differential pay. When 86% of 40-44 year-old women in the United States have given birth, the motherhood penalty is, at its core, a gender issue. If we want to reduce the financial ramifications of motherhood and thereby move the needle on gender equity, we must let the experiences of mothers themselves tell us both what is and what could be.

“We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want – to hear you erupting… If we don’t tell our truth, who will?” – Ursula Le Guin


Working under the assumption that no one wants to read my 100+ page thesis in its entirety, I distilled the findings to a more palatable PDF based on my defense presentation.  Bear in mind that 1) this is more of an outline than a comprehensive report and 2) because of the sheer volume of responses I received, the thesis focused on only a fraction of what the survey explored. I am eager to continue this research as a PhD student at Washington State University beginning this fall, conducting additional interviews and further analyzing the rich data the survey yielded.

The Push and the Pull preliminary report

For those of you who want to go a step further and geek out with the actual thesis document itself, I have merged the Introduction, the “Results” section, and the Conclusion into one (slightly shorter) file: Thesis Intro + Results + Conclusion

Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Deming. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.

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