Mothers of an only son do more paid work than mothers of a daughter

A German study has found that compared to parents of an only daughter, parents of an only son did more paid work. The difference was particularly great for mothers, meaning that parents of an only son divided labour along less traditional lines.

These findings are relevant to policies promoting gender equality in the labour market and also to those concerned with the gender influences that boys and girls are exposed to.

The researchers also found that the parents’ age made a difference. Mothers born before 1960 with a son 3-5 years old did on average 4.97 hours more paid work per week than mothers of daughters; fathers did 2.83 hours more. But for mothers born after 1960, the average difference for mothers was smaller, 3.79 hours, and the difference for fathers disappeared.

Overall, the differences disappear as the child gets older and goes to school; they appear only before the child goes to school.

Other differences between parents who have a boy or a girl were considerably smaller. The amount of childcare done by the parents wasn’t different on average. or was mothers’ rate of participation in the workforce different – only the number of hours they worked.

Fathers of a son did slightly more housework on average than fathers of a daughter, and mothers of a daughter did slightly more housework than mothers of a son. This finding could be driven by a phenomenon observed in other research: parents tend to spend more time with a child of their own gender.

The researcher, Matthias Pollmann-Schult, looked at data from 7,572 German mothers and fathers living together with a single child from 1985 to 2011. He extracted the data from a larger study, the German Socio-Economic Panel.

Previous research has found that fathers work more when they have a son, and this has been interpreted to show that having a son drives more traditional roles. But in this study, mothers of sons were even more likely than fathers to do additional paid work. So the division of labour was less traditional for parents of boys than for parents of girls.

What explains this difference? Pollmann-Schult offers some suggestions. We know from other research that fathers, on average, prefer sons. So if the father is happier, then perhaps the mother feels more able to make choices about her own role and so chooses to work more. This could be specific to the German context where, during most of the study period, family policy promoted a traditional division of labour, thus restricting women’s choices.

Header photo: Rebecca Peplinski. Creative Commons.


Matthias Pollmann-Schult (2017), Sons, daughters, and the parental division of paid work and housework, Journal of Family Issues 38.1