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Sex and gender, Work and occupational

Working mothers feel higher levels of guilt due to internalised gender stereotypes compared to fathers, reveals new study

Internalised gender stereotypes can lead to higher guilt in working mothers, yet lower guilt in working fathers, a new study has revealed.

10 November 2022

Published in the British Psychological Society’s British Journal of Social Psychology, the Netherlands-based study found that implicit gender stereotypes can predict the levels of guilt that working parents feel, with working mothers feeling higher levels of guilt compared to working fathers.

The findings also support the idea that the stronger parents implicitly associate women with family, and men with work, the more guilt mothers experience, and the less guilt fathers experience when their work interferes with their family time.

In the study, 105 mothers with at least one child aged 13 years or younger completed a daily diary assessing their work hours, work-family-conflict and work-family guilt throughout the day. It found on the days that mothers worked longer hours, they reported feeling guiltier.

Mothers also reported experiencing more work-family conflict on days that they worked longer hours. The study also found that when working a full-time day or more than eight hours, mothers who held more traditional stereotypes of a women’s role viewed this as experiencing work-family conflict and experienced more guilt than those who held less-traditional stereotypes.

In addition, 135 mothers and 116 fathers had to consider an imaginary work-family-conflict situation, in which they could not stay home from work to take care of their sick child because they had to go to work, while their partner was able to stay home with the child. They then had to indicate how guilty they expected they would feel in that situation.

Mothers on average reported higher guilt than fathers during this task, while the stronger fathers' implicit gender stereotypes, the less guilt fathers reported when the work interfered with family, suggesting that traditional implicit gender stereotypes that tie mothers to family and fathers to work, protect fathers from feeling guilty.

Lianne Aarntzen from the University of Twente Enschede, and lead author of the study, said:

We were interested in further understanding why mothers are more prone to experience work-family guilt than fathers, especially in relation to their implicit views on parenthood themselves.

Our research highlights that these gender stereotypes do not only shape evaluations of others but also shape how parents themselves feel about their work–family choices.

Stronger internalization of gender stereotypes, tying mothers to family and fathers to work, predicted high work–family guilt among working mothers and low work–family guilt among working fathers.

It is important also to note that current studies were conducted in the Netherlands, a country that ranks high on explicit forms of gender equality.

To reach gender equality in work and family roles, taking away the gendered aspect of feeling guilty when parents' work interferes with their parenting tasks is an important first step.

Read the full study

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