Wednesday, May 8, 2002, 9:00 a.m.

CONTACT: Nancy Coleman or Karen Conner (202) 775-8810



Although three-quarters of the mothers of school-age children are now in the workforce, most workplaces are doing a poor job when it comes to enabling those mothers to meet the often competing needs of work and family.

This is the message of a new report by University of Vermont economist Elaine McCrate, Working Mothers in a Double Bind , that was issued today by the Economic Policy Institute at a special Working Mothers’ Day roundtable at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. McCrate’s study of work schedule flexibility and wage differentials dispels two common assumptions about the workplace today.

“Two things that working mothers need most of all from the workplace are flexible enough hours to handle family needs that arise and high enough earnings to pay for the added costs of going to work, especially childcare,” said McCrate. “Unfortunately, it looks like today’s workplace is failing working mothers in both areas.”

With more employers offering more flexible working hours than in the past, many economists have theorized that these new arrangements are making it possible for the growing number of working mothers to better balance work and childcare responsibilities. Yet McCrate’s research finds that the new workplace flexibility is not a boon to most working mothers because it is not available to them. Rather, it has become a perk for higher paid, higher ranking employees who are mostly white men. The disparity is most acute between white males and minority workers.

A second long-held belief among economists is so well established that it has a name: the theory of “compensating wage differentials.” It holds that less desirable jobs are compensated at a higher rate. This theory has been regularly invoked as a partial explanation of the gender pay gap, in the belief that working mothers were, in effect, trading away the higher pay associated with more demanding and rigid work schedules in order to gain greater flexibility.

McCrate’s study punctures both theories. Working mothers’ jobs are not only more likely to be those with the most rigid schedules, they are also lower paid despite that rigidity.

For her study, McCrate analyzed data from employees about how much control they have over their own hours that was collected in 1991 for a study published in 1996. (Some aspects of flexibility were also part of data collected in 1998; McCrate’s examination of these data yielded similar overall results to those obtained from the 1991 data.)

McCrate examined two specific aspects of flexibility – how much control does the worker have over setting starting and ending hours, and how much ability does he/she have to take a day off without losing pay or using vacation, sick leave, or compensatory time. She also examined the correlation between pay and relative flexibility of schedules. Among her findings are these:

  • Single mothers were least able to set their work hours on their own.
  • White men had the most job flexibility; they were most likely to decide on their own and least likely to have someone else decide their hours and when they could take a day off.
  • Men with children were the most likely to be able to decide when to come to and leave work, while women with children were least likely to have this flexibility.
  • Childless workers of both sexes had more control than mothers over arrival and departure times.
  • Workers who can usually decide on their own when to arrive at or leave work earn 16.6% more than workers with no control over this decision.
  • Those who can decide on their own to take a day off earn 9.3% more than those without such flexibility.

McCrate’s paper notes that her findings also correlate with other researchers’ findings. For example:

  • A study of 1995-96 data published in 2000 found that women were less likely than men to be able to decide when to take breaks, change starting and quitting times, and take days off for sick children.
  • A study published in 1998 found that mothers who had left Aid to Families with Dependent Children were less likely to have paid sick leave, paid vacation time, and flexible schedules than other mothers who had never been on welfare.

McCrate’s paper suggests a number of public and private employer policy alternatives for increasing the number of flexible jobs and raising compensation for the most rigid jobs. These include a statutory minimum number of sick days, personal days, and vacation time; voluntary implementation of more flexible scheduling; cafeteria benefit plans that would allow employees greater choice; and greater unionization.

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“Working Mothers in a Double Bind”
is available at this address on Wednesday, May 8 at 9:00 a.m.

The Economic Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan economic thank tank founded in 1986. The Institute is located on the web at

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