Does Thinking About Future Parenthood Influence the Career Choices of Even Childless Women and Men?

Balancing work with new parenthood is hard, anyone will tell you that. Many couples that were previously dual-earner couples handle the increase in time and energy that a new baby requires by shifting their labor strategies, with most men ramping up and most women ramping down their career involvement. Sociological research that aims to understand why this trend persists, despite women’s significant advances in education and the labor market, have looked at couples with new babies and asked why they made the decisions they made. couple

My study rewinds the clock a bit and views couples who have not yet had children as a potential window into understanding the gendered labor choices couples make in new parenthood. In it, I explore how couples without children anticipate doing their careers upon parenthood and ask whether their anticipations vary by gender. Or, put differently, do future plans to have children differentially affect the career aspirations and decisions of women and men?

In order to answer this question, I interviewed 60 middle- and upper-class women and men (30 heterosexual couples) living in the San Francisco Bay Area about their career and family aspirations. One key question that was asked early in the interview process, before the topic of children had even been discussed, honed in on individuals’ career aspirations for the near future. “Where do you see your work life going in the next five to ten years,” I asked them.

In response to this focal question, approximately 77 percent of women in my sample mentioned thinking or worrying about parenthood or childcare in their description of their imagined work paths (without interviewer probing), making clear that they viewed their imagined work paths through the lens of future motherhood. This is in stark contrast to the 10 percent of men who mentioned it. Men, for the most part, viewed their future careers through an unmuddled, career-focused lens.

What is more, women in my sample were more likely to change their career plans to fit their anticipations of future motherhood, citing the likely shift in preferences and responsibilities that comes with motherhood as the driving force of that change. Men in my sample were much less likely to consider future parenthood at all when making career-related goals and decisions; however, when they did, they more often ramped up their career paths to match traditional breadwinner expectations (e.g., that the man’s primary role should be to provide for his family). I argue that if the majority of heterosexual couples behave this way, then these individual choices, which occur relatively early in one’s career development, are likely to play a key role in reproducing patterns of gender inequality both at home and at work.

Brooke Bass is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University. Her article “Preparing for Parenthood?: Gender, Aspirations, and the Reproduction of Labor Market Inequality is published in the June 2015 issue of Gender & Society.

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