04/14/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mindsets About Women and Work Need a Reboot

The headlines last week were that the number of stay-at-home moms is rising. A new Pew Research Center analysis of government data finds that after decades of remaining flat, the percentage of mothers who do not have jobs have jumped up from 23 percent to 29 percent.

The real story, however, is the one behind the headlines. The mindsets we have are out of synch with reality. We need to reboot our mindsets about women and work!

Mindsets are more critical than you may think. They are the implicit theories we hold about the way the world works. Furthermore, they govern our attitudes and our behavior. When expectations are out of sync with reality you get anger, disappointment, depression and guilt, just to name a few.

Here are four mindsets that we need to reboot.

Old Mindset: Stay-at-Home Mothers Are June Cleavers.
New Mindset: Stay-at-Home Mothers Are Diverse.

For those of us who might not remember, June Cleaver was the archetype stay-at-home suburban mother of the 1950s in Leave It to Beaver. Dressed in pearls and high heels, she always peacefully and succinctly solved the problems of her two children and her husband, dispensing moral advice within each television episode. She became the symbol of at-home mothers. A radio interviewer last week questioned whether she really ever existed, echoing the scholarship of Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College and the Council of Contemporary Families.

Today's stay-at-home mothers are diverse. While 68 percent of them are married to an employed husband, 20 percent are single, 5 percent are cohabitating and 7 percent are married to husbands who are not employed. Beneath those statistics, the new stay-at-home mother is even more diverse (as is the labor force), as shown in the Pew figures below:

Old Mindset: Stay-At-Home Mothers Remain Stay-At-Home Mothers.
New Mindset: Stay-At-Home Mothers and Employed Mothers Are Ever Shifting Identities.

There has been a view that once a stay-at-home mother, always a stay-at-home mother. It has been seen as a fixed identity -- something that defines you, just as being an employed mother has been seen as a fixed identity.

Today and in the past, women move back and forth across these roles for many reasons. They may stay home for a time, but then go back to work if their husband loses his job or as the kids grow up and then return again, as Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling reveal in their book, The Career Mystique. It's important to additionally recognize that one in three (34%) of stay-at-home mothers today are living in poverty. They are women, as Maria Shriver puts it in her wonderful new report, living on the brink. Women's earnings are critical to supporting their families -- employed women contribute 45 percent to family income in dual-earner families.

Old Mindset: It Is All About Choice.
New Mindset: It's About Tradeoffs.

Whenever the public discussion turns to at-home mothers or employed mothers, the word "choice" follows. For as long as I have been doing research on this subject, the debate about whether women work because they "want to" or "have to" has prevailed, though the research itself has shown that there are always a mix of reasons that families take the paths they take.

It is no longer adequate or even useful to dwell on the idea of "choice." It's much better to frame this as an issue of "tradeoffs." For example, the Pew report notes that many women do want jobs, but they are staying at home for many reasons, including the cost of child care.

Old Mindset: Staying at Home Is Best for the Children.
New Mindset: Typically, what's good for the family is good for the children.

The Pew report notes a survey they conducted that asked, "What's best for the children?" Fully 60 percent of their respondents said that "children are better off when a parent stays at home to focus on the family" versus 35 percent who said that "children are just as well off when their parents work outside the home."
In Families and Work Institute's research on the U.S. labor force, we use a traditional question that has been asked since the 1970s. We find that the percentage of all employees of all ages who agree strongly or somewhat that it's better for all involved if "the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children" has dropped significantly and substantially over the past three decades -- from 64 percent in 1977 to 39 percent in 2008, a decline of 25 percentage points. Nevertheless, it is important to note that two in five employees still endorse traditional gender roles.

And who wouldn't want someone at home? It sounds wonderful! But these questions are wrong today. We need to ask what's best for the family, not just the children -- because what's best for the family is often best for the children. In one study we conducted of children, we asked children if they could make one wish to change the way their mother's or father's work affected their lives, what would that wish be? The majority of children, including those with employed and at-home mothers, didn't wish the way most adults thought they would - -for having a parent at home. They wished that their parents would be less tired and stressed. So, we need to move away from the "should she" or "shouldn't she" (or he) debates to think about how we are living and working in today's time-famine, 24/7, technology world. Workplaces and individuals need to find ways to deal with stress.