Working moms multitask more, feel worse about it

MSU News, Dec 1 2011

Not only are working mothers multitasking more frequently than working fathers, but their multitasking experience is more negative as well, according to a new study co-authored by Michigan State University researcher Barbara Schneider.

The study, published in the December issue of American Sociological Review, found that working mothers spend nearly 10 more hours per week multitasking than do working fathers -- 48.3 hours per week for moms compared to 38.9 for dads.

“This suggests that working mothers are doing two activities at once more than two-fifths of the time they are awake, while working fathers are multitasking more than a third of their waking hours,” said Schneider, the John A. Hannah Chair and University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education and Department of Sociology.

But the authors said an even bigger issue than the time discrepancy is the difference in the way multitasking makes working mothers and fathers feel.  “For mothers, multitasking is -- on the whole -- a negative experience, whereas it is not for fathers,” said Shira Offer, the lead author and an assistant professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “Only mothers report negative emotions and feeling stressed and conflicted when they multitask at home and in public settings. By contrast, multitasking in these contexts is a positive experience for fathers.”

The study relies on data from the 500 Family Study, a multi-method investigation of how middle-class families balance family and work experiences. The 500 Family Study collected comprehensive information from 1999 to 2000 on families living in eight urban and suburban communities across the United States. The Offer-Schneider study uses a subsample of 368 mothers and 241 fathers in dual-earner families

The study found that among working mothers, 52.7 percent of all multitasking episodes at home involve housework, compared to 42.2 percent among working fathers. Additionally, 35.5 percent of all multitasking episodes at home involve childcare for mothers versus 27.9 for fathers. 

The authors also believe that multitasking – particularly at home and in public – is a more negative experience for working mothers than for fathers because mothers’ activities are more susceptible to outside scrutiny. 

“At home and in public are the environments in which most household- and childcare-related tasks take place, and mothers’ activities in these settings are highly visible to other people,” Schneider said. “Therefore, their ability to fulfill their role as good mothers can be easily judged and criticized when they multitask in these contexts, making it a more stressful and negative experience for them than for fathers.”

Working fathers don’t typically face these types of pressures, the authors said.

So, what can be done to improve the situation for mothers? It’s pretty simple – fathers need to step up, the authors said. Policymakers and employers can help facilitate this, they added.

“Policymakers and employers should think about how to alter current workplace cultures, which constitute serious obstacles when it comes to getting fathers more involved in their families and homes,” Offer said.

“For example, I think that fathers should have more opportunities to leave work early or start work late, so they can participate in important family routines; to take time off for family events; and to limit the amount of work they bring home, so they can pay undivided attention to their children and spouse during the evening hours and on weekends. The goal is to initiate a process that will alter fathers’ personal preferences and priorities and eventually lead to more egalitarian norms regarding mothers’ and fathers’ parenting roles.”