Guest post: More attacks on mums

// 6 October 2009

Amy Clare is exasberated by yet another piece of research and media reporting stigmatising mothers who work in paid employment (as well as child care)

Another day, another piece of sexist research being loudly trumpeted in the media, with the result that mothers in paid work are yet again under attack.

The BBC has been reporting a study today which suggests mothers in paid work are more likely to have unhealthy children. The researchers studied 12,500 five-year-olds, and found that those children of mothers who worked were more likely to consume sweetened drinks, spend longer on the computer or in front of the television and be driven to school as opposed to walking or cycling. Unsurprisingly, fathers’ work habits were presumed not to be important.

As usual with these kinds of studies, the information given is patchy and vague. The apparently unhealthy activities mentioned above were described as “health behaviours likely to promote excess weight gain” – but there was absolutely no mention of whether the children in the study were actually overweight or unhealthy. The study picked on a few activities and seemed to disregard other factors, such as what the children’s actual meals consisted of, whether the children played any sport, and so on. It was not what you might call a clear picture of the children’s lives and activities, and yet the BBC saw fit to report it with the subheading: “Children whose mothers work are less likely to lead healthy lives.” Healthy lives, full stop. Nice over-generalisation, BBC!

As for the non-existent fathers, it always astounds me how, when it comes to child-rearing, most people assume that men are no more than sperm donors. Professor Catherine Law, who led the study, explained their absence from the research thus: “Fathers’ employment levels had not changed whereas the numbers of working mothers had increased dramatically.”

This factor is completely irrelevant, which makes Law’s excuse a cop-out. This was not a longitudinal study looking at the effect of parental employment hours over time on children’s health, therefore the apparent unchanging level of men’s employment (Law does not specify over what time period) is meaningless. There is no reason why fathers’ working hours could not have been included in this study. What Law really means, of course is: “Fathers aren’t responsible for childcare, so how much they work doesn’t matter.” Which is the assumption made by the entire study and the ensuing media reports.

Although I’m not surprised, I’m pretty angry with the BBC for reporting this so heavily and allowing women to be once again publicly criticised and shamed for simply being human and doing what men have been doing (without criticism of course) for time immemorial. Despite the researchers’ weak protestations that “our results do not imply that mothers should not work”, the message is crystal clear: your child will end up obese if you don’t be a good girl and stay at home.

Studies like this are not helpful in any way, and the more they are reported on, the more people continue to believe the myth that only women should be responsible for child-rearing. The idea that a father could be equally responsible for his child’s health is still too radical for our times, it seems.

Comments From You

cycleboy // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:00 pm

At least Evan Davies DID ask a question on the ‘Today’ programme along the lines of, “And did you check the correlation with fathers working?”

However, as this article pointed out, that was excluded from the research. Makes me wonder who paid for the research and what were the guidelines. I suspect the answers might be rather revealing.

lucy // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:32 pm

The article itself is, of course, behind a pay wall, but the Discussion section begins: “Research has found no consistent relationships between maternal employment and children’s dietary and television viewing habits.”.. which rather sums it all up.

The NHS critique is here:

Feminist Avatar // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:36 pm

Plus this ‘women’s work has increased’ motif has NO historical perspective. Women historically have worked in large numbers; there was a short period in the mid-twentieth century where married female workers numbers declined (and we had marriage bars- a 20th century invention to prohibit married women from working) and they then rose again from the 1960s- but we just forget there was history before that.

Kath // Posted 6 October 2009 at 6:24 pm

Why not highlight this part of what Catherine Law said, rather than attacking her: “Our results do not imply that mothers should not work. Rather they highlight the need for policies and programmes to help support parents.”

It is the reporting, not the study, that is to blame. Looking at the effect of working mothers on child health is not ‘sexist research’, it is how the results are interpreted and reported that can be sexist or otherwise.

polly // Posted 6 October 2009 at 8:26 pm

Thanks for pointing that out Feminist Avatar. I love the unspoken assumption in these pieces that the mothers don’t NEED to work, they’re just selfish feminist harridans….Whereas the economic reality has always been that most of the working classes simply can’t survive on one wage alone, and working class women have always done paid work outside the home.

Has anyone also considered that the reason so many kids are driven to school is the fact that they all end up going to schools about 10 miles away from their home because of our current bonkers education system? It’s a bit unrealistic if someone has to get to work to expect them to walk their kids several miles to school first. And parents are probably scared to let their kids cycle to school, like I used to do, because there’s so much traffic on the roads.

Ruth Moss // Posted 6 October 2009 at 9:33 pm

This, and other similar mother-blaming articles can be found with a good healthy dose of snark at the new group blog I Blame the Mother.

polly // Posted 6 October 2009 at 11:30 pm

Fascinatingly if we go to the NHS report on this linked in Lucy’s comment we see that:

“Children whose mothers had worked during the study were compared with children whose mothers had not worked. Children whose mothers worked full or part-time were more likely to eat fruit or vegetables between meals than other snacks, to eat three or more portions of fruit a day, to take part in organised exercise on three or more days a week, and to be driven to school.

In addition, children whose mothers worked full or part-time were less likely to snack on crisps or sweets between meals.”

–It is only when these results were ADJUSTED, that children of working mothers were “unhealthier”.–

“However, taking into account factors that could affect the results (such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, highest maternal educational attainment, whether they were lone parents, their age at the birth of the enrolled child, and number of children in the household) reversed many of these relationships. ”

This is entirely different from what was reported. It would be interesting to see how the differences in ‘healthiness’ were clustered between different social groups for example.

All that this shows is that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics basically. Research of this type has so many variables, that it’s unlikely to come up with any useful policies as a result.

sianmarie // Posted 7 October 2009 at 10:11 am

how many women do you know can afford not to work? most families need two incomes to survive. all political parties are committed to “getting single mums back to work”. the tories want to slash benefits.

we can’t win.

Amy Clare // Posted 7 October 2009 at 11:33 am


In this case, the research *was* sexist, because the researchers completely ignored fathers’ working hours. If Law wants to make the conclusion that parents in general need more support, why was her study not about parents in general, but purely about mothers?

I agree that the reporting has been extremely sexist, but the researchers must take part of the blame for that. They could have included fathers’ working hours in this study and made it a relevant and interesting piece of research; they chose not to.

Karen // Posted 7 October 2009 at 5:59 pm

For info, this was discussed on R4 women’s hour this week (sorry can’t remember the day) taking on some of what is mentioned in the article.

Kath // Posted 7 October 2009 at 8:06 pm

@Amy Clare

Research like this will be going on all the time. Some of it will look at mother’s working hours, other father’s working hours, all sorts of different things. They’re all pieces of the jigsaw but only a fraction will get reported in the press. The researchers are not responsible for the media’s take on things.

Also I don’t agree with you that parents in general need more support. Mothers; women, who carry out most of the childcare in this country need the most support. By saying it is ‘parents’ you are hiding the inequalities that exist. Fathers’ working hours probably are much less relevant to child welfare because fathers carry out very little childcare. Sad but true.

James // Posted 8 October 2009 at 10:23 am

i agree with the above poster, it really upsets me when i see the idea put forward time and time again that fathers, in the role of child rearing, are an irrelevance.

Amy Clare // Posted 8 October 2009 at 11:45 am


“Research like this will be going on all the time. Some of it will look at mother’s working hours, other father’s working hours, all sorts of different things.”

Do you, personally, know of any research into fathers’ working hours and their effects on children? If not, then I don’t know how you can make that statement. If so, please feel free to link to it!

“Also I don’t agree with you that parents in general need more support… By saying it is ‘parents’ you are hiding the inequalities that exist.”

I didn’t say that parents in general need more support – the researcher, Catherine Law, did. You quoted her in your first comment, in fact! I merely pointed out that this was a contradictory thing for her to say, given that her research was purely about mothers.

“Fathers’ working hours probably are much less relevant to child welfare because fathers carry out very little childcare. Sad but true.”

This is the whole point of my article. You have made the same assumption that the researchers and the media reports have done – that fathers don’t engage in childcare so how much they work doesn’t matter. It may be the case that women still undertake more childcare than men in general, but there are a few points to make here:

a) many fathers do have an active role in their children’s upbringing, some actually working fewer hours or being a ‘stay-at-home’ parent;

b) as long as research and reporting continues to repeat the stereotype of women being responsible for childcare, the general pattern will never change. In order to make equal parenting a reality, many things need to happen, but one of them is that assumed gender roles must be challenged.

c) ignoring fathers’ contributions to childcare allows women to be blamed for anything that goes wrong with a child’s upbringing.

Law and her colleagues made huge assumptions about the fathers of the children they studied, and assumptions have no place in research. Why just say that the assumptions are ‘sad but true’ – why not actually *find out and include* how much work/childcare fathers do, then an accurate conclusion can be drawn. When research into childcare ignores men, it doesn’t just say ‘men don’t do childcare’, it also says ‘men don’t *have* to do childcare’. Neither of those things are true.

Researcher // Posted 8 October 2009 at 12:37 pm

Amy (if I may)

I agree with everything you say about the current climate only asking whether women ‘should’ work, about the difficulties of applying this study to policy, and about the potential risks in doing and publicising such research. I also share some of your reservations about the research method: self-reporting may be unreliable (it depends on information given by child carers other than mothers) and some statistics are self-fulfilling without being informative about overall health (e.g. working parents are more likely to drive kids to school, and anyone with a job to get to by 9 who wants to spend some time with their kids in the morning will tell you why). Those above who say that research into fathers’ work habits goes on are also wrong: the shocking fact is there is too little varaiation in male parental work patterns, and too small a group of those primarily repsonsible for care, to render such studies significant.

Where I struggle with your response and that of the media who reported it, is that you frame your arguments by this one survey, devoid of its context and of the aims of the group that presented it, as if the group were working on women’s work or had picked it out of the blue as an initial focus of study. The researchers already had clear information that there was a strong link between maternal obesity and childhood obesity, this was an attempt to refine that link further. To do so they needed a potential factor to focus on which (a) applied more to mothers than fathers and have some potential causal link with food and exercise and (b) in which there was variation between mothers which made it worth studying. You’re clearly right to suggest that the researchers assumed that childcare was more likely to involve women and on this rests the assumption that maternal work fits the bill for a possible criterion to isolate in further reserach. But the assumption is not crude sexism, it is valid (look for yourself at the hideously few number of men who actually responded to the survey and were discounted), and reacting to a present fact in a descriptive study does not make its designers sexist, or mean they approve of the fact.

Disagreements in method are inherent in any published study, and should be highlighted (although in partial response to yours there were measures of health included in the report, and the activities they measured have been shown to correlate closely with obesity in other controlled studies, and the survey’s sample size would have had to be much smaller to observe health and behaviours directly). So too should reporting which let this into newspapers before the journalists had read it, or even before they could get access to it.

But this isn’t one of ‘these kinds of studies’: state (EHRC)-funded research by professional academics working in univeristy environments has given us some of the best information possible on the pay gap and on the shocking prevalence of domestic abuse. So please could we avoid ad feminam attacks on its authors for sexism in choice of topic? They may or may not be sexist, or work in an institutionalist sexist field, but we have no way of knowing from this study.

cycleboy // Posted 8 October 2009 at 1:21 pm

“When research into childcare ignores men, it doesn’t just say ‘men don’t do childcare’, it also says ‘men don’t *have* to do childcare’.”

You missed another interpretation which, I think some people believe, is that men CAN’T do childcare.

Kath // Posted 8 October 2009 at 6:58 pm

@Amy Clare

A simple internet search provides many links to reports of research into fathers’ working hours but I’d be prepared to believe Researcher that it’s statistically insignificant. I’m not sure of the significance of the word ‘personally’ in your question.

Re Law’s comment, I agree it’s contradictory, that wasn’t my point. I thought you were implying that parents in general having more support was obviously a good thing and that Law was only saying so to hide the fact that her study was about bad mothers who work and put their kids’ health at risk. Sorry if I was wrong.

In reply to the rest of your points I refer you to Researcher’s comment.

thebeardedlady // Posted 9 October 2009 at 5:44 pm

Sorry to be a pedant, but I believe it should be ‘exasperated’.

Good article. It’s always the mother’s fault – especially single, working mums. Just shows how entrenched women’s roles really are.

Alex T // Posted 9 October 2009 at 9:24 pm

FFS, if I didn’t work, I couldn’t feed my son. How bloody healthy would he be then?

Amy Clare // Posted 10 October 2009 at 11:40 am


“you frame your arguments by this one survey”

I wrote a blog post critiquing this survey in particular, it was not an article about research as a whole or even about the careers of these researchers to date. I was pointing out flaws in this particular study, as well as criticising those who reported it, and I think my points are valid, regardless of ‘context’.

“The researchers already had clear information that there was a strong link between maternal obesity and childhood obesity, this was an attempt to refine that link further.”

Is there a link between paternal obesity and childhood obesity? It’s not a trick question, I’m genuinely asking – has paternal obesity been studied and found to have no effect on childhood obesity? Because only then could the researchers take maternal obesity solely as a starting point for their further study.

“You’re clearly right to suggest that the researchers assumed that childcare was more likely to involve women… But the assumption is not crude sexism, it is valid, and reacting to a present fact in a descriptive study does not make its designers sexist”

Sorry, but I beg to differ on several counts. Mothers may still perform more child caring duties than fathers on average, but that does not mean that fathers do *no childcare at all*, and this study, by discounting fathers completely, makes that assumption. An assumption which is clearly *not* valid.

They disregarded an entire variable for no good reason other than some paltry excuse about how men’s employment hasn’t changed. Did Law or did she not say that was the reason fathers were discounted? Like I said in the OP, this is a cop out. If that was not the true reason then she should have been honest about it. As it stands, as they weren’t studying the effects of parental work over time, the constancy or otherwise of men’s average working hours is irrelevant (as I said in the OP). What they were doing was comparing children with each other, and fathers’ working hours would have been useful for that comparison. We are in a recession at the moment – how many of those children’s fathers are unemployed? We don’t know, because the question wasn’t asked.

Essentially, declaring women’s responsibility for childcare to be a ‘fact’ is part of the problem in itself. The more we say ‘oh this is just a fact’, the less it gets questioned and challenged, thus perpetuating said ‘fact’. It’s a vicious circle which has to be broken. Taking such a ‘fact’ at face value and not questioning it – when the research leader is a professor for crying out loud, so no-one can accuse her of being stupid – *is* sexist. And it leads to conclusions that are not a true picture of what’s going on in these children’s lives. Law concludes that perhaps ‘parents’ don’t have enough time to spend with their children and encourage them to be healthy etc – but she cannot make this conclusion because she didn’t study all the childrens’ parents! I’m not sure how much clearer this can be.

“state (EHRC)-funded research by professional academics working in univeristy environments has given us some of the best information possible on the pay gap and on the shocking prevalence of domestic abuse. So please could we avoid ad feminam attacks on its authors for sexism in choice of topic?”

I do not have a problem with state-funded research per se, and I don’t know why you think that I have, to be honest. I applaud any research that is done rigorously, especially that which helps to bring to light issues that affect women. You seem to be saying though that if I approve of research into DV and the pay gap, I should shut up and accept without criticism any other publicly funded research. Sorry, but no. Just because a study is publicly funded, doesn’t mean it can’t be sexist, or that it is beyond criticism, and for the reasons I’ve stated above and in the OP, I believe this study *is* sexist, therefore I have criticised it.

Amy Clare // Posted 10 October 2009 at 11:58 am

Oh and P.S:

Your use of ‘ad feminam’ is mistaken. ‘Ad hominem’ is a gender-neutral term because ‘homo’ in Latin means ‘human’, it doesn’t mean ‘man’.

Secondly, I did not make any ad hom attacks on Law. I criticised her research, said her assumptions were sexist, and that her excuse for why men were not included was a cop-out. I did not say she was sexist *as a person* or make any other comments about her personally. Hope that clears things up.

Researcher // Posted 12 October 2009 at 7:32 pm


Sorry about responding to what should be a dead thread. Before I respond, I hope you will indulge me if I state why, beyond natural cussedness, I’ve become so bothered by responses to it. First, it’s irritatingly started to affect the way I treat my kids (no chocolate, have fruit instead, increased park visits in rain to feed ducks), which means I’ve tacitly accepted my parenting was rubbish beforehand (which it wasn’t, both in terms of the report-I don’t have obese kids- and generally, since having happy, clever, world-challenging obese kids seems to me better than having slim dull ones). Second, I’m a professional academic and am worried about how research might be publicised, and what that might mean for conducting it. In the next assessment of UK research 25% of the importance given to research will be measured by its ‘impact’. That creates yet more pressures for research reporting to conform to the broadly conservative agenda it might ‘impact’ upon, and an institutional sexism to social science work despite the aims of those doing it. Hence it is especially important, I feel, to examine comments on research such as this to see where the sexist bias came from, especially since it is clear that this work was publicised before the paper itself was readable, and as such naturally came to take on the conservative agenda of newspapers responding to it (including those who adopted its conservatism only to provoke) or to the PA report of it. And I still feel that comments on it have failed to understand what it was and what it was intended for, and that this is worrying not because the researchers need ‘defending’, but because it hides the bigger problem which, is finding out where reporting on ‘research’ (often nebulous rubbish such as Christine Odone’s latest waffle) which “doesn’t just say ‘men don’t do childcare’, it also says ‘men don’t *have* to do childcare’.” derives these meanings from.

Yet, having read your comments and the report over and over, I still feel that the fault here lies almost entirely with the reporting and a misunderstanding of process. In answer to the specific rebuttals you make:

1. You ask “Is there a link between paternal obesity and childhood obesity? It’s not a trick question, I’m genuinely asking – has paternal obesity been studied and found to have no effect on childhood obesity?”

In answer, no, but earlier studies did look at parental obesity patterns and those of their children. Their assumption was that there might be a genetic link (so they were flawed in being devoted only to heterosexual birth parents), which meant that they did distinguish between men and women. The results showed a maternal obesity to be a much better predictor than paternal obesity. This may be simply genetic, but in the absence of clear genetic causation did open up other legitimate questions about behaviours. It was the existence of this research and the group’s close connection with it which moved me from feeling about it as you did at first, and to believing that it was being heavily misreported.

2. You say state repeatedly that they just ‘assumed’ that men did no caring.

In fact, they clearly did not ‘assume’, they cite surveys on childcare patterns which justify the choice as worth following up (including several used by authors on this site). They would also have been unable to publish had their exclusion rate from men who replied been very high (in fact it was tiny). Obviously, they could have repeated these studies again, but any field has to work from what is published and held sound (hence the links to other articles and sites in pieces here), otherwise everybody spends so long checking what has been done nobody does anything new. So there are checks here.

3. You state that men are much more involved than is assumed, even if not responding to the survey as ‘primary carers’.

In order for the selection of maternal work as a criterion to be indefensible we would need evidence not only that men undertook childcare roles, but that these roles were highly significant across the survey group. This would demand both an assumption that men undertook equal shares of childcare (which they don’t, they really don’t) and that they had equal responsibility for the possible causal factors involved. The broader surveys of childcare patterns do not suggest the general semi-utopia of paternal involvement you suggest, or that men seem to have shared responsibility for food and exercise. Rather they seem to take on particular roles (e.g. collection from school or nursery) often citing practicality rather than perceived shared responsibility as the rationale. Similarly studies of household labour show more men cook, but for special occasions (the chef syndrome) leaving day-to-day food preparation to women. Unlike Kath I don’t think this just ‘is’ or should be treated as such when making policy, the point is not just to describe the world but also to change it. But I do think it is enough to defend the selection from being intrinsically sexist when it is part of descriptive research.

4. On funding and authorship I was perhaps unduly influenced by phrases such as ‘studies like these’ (and cycleboy’s comment) which seek to show an inherent bias in the report’s construction on the basis of a very shallow reading of it, and to imply that this might be the same sort of study as those conducted by, for example, Ms Odone, where funding and limited research clearly dictate the agenda. The same is true of simply attacking statistical adjustment (hence the pay gap comment, where such adjustment is critical to showing the gap). This is a personal attack on its authors, in that it calls their professionalism into question.

Generally, I think the problem that I have here, especially in the way you stress men’s roles, is that both you and the reactionary loons who reported it assume the survey is about causation and blame. It is too large a study to be that-what it shows is a correlation (and it could have shown no correlation, neither you nor anybody else has convinced me otherwise). The group’s remit (the large millennium cohort study) precludes such detailed research from the start because it demands close observation that cannot be undertaken on such a large scale. The report is part of a chain so that those performing closer, more detailed studies have somewhere specific to focus their observations on-i.e. it narrows down the field for further studies, it does not constitute the finished product (which is why it conclusions are so naffly vague, and why the ‘perhaps’ in the remark you quote is highly significant in context-it’s a suggestion for further research). It certainly doesn’t say, for instance, that working mothers are to blame for their children’s obesity. The obvious question that could and should be asked is what childcare is available, since the last people that can be responsible for inducing the behaviours noted are those who are not wholly responsible for childcare. That follow-up research must include a serious look at men’s involvement, otherwise it’s deeply flawed. But this one piece need not. I would have preferred someone to bite the bullet and just do that smaller observational study on childcare options and obesity first, the report you too seem to want. But that would have been hard to obtain funding or time for without some study suggesting that the one obvious variable in childcare pattern (the mother’s work) had any effect.

I should stress that I’m not necessarily defending the research as accurate. Self-reporting is potentially misleading (in particular those mothers with responsibility may lie because of the prevailing bias which ‘blames’ them for childcare), and the income factor is much less pronounced here than in other obesity studies (perhaps, although more research would be needed, because household income and income to spend on food and leisure equate less well once childcare costs are taken into account). And Law’s use of ‘parents’ and ‘mothers’ is slippery, and shows professors can be rather imprecise at times (although it is, as I note, not founded on assumption but on previous studies of childcare roles).But I don’t see anything in it, as there is in so much else, which makes these flaws so serious they are explicable only by ‘sexist assumptions’ rather than professional disagreement.

Sorry, this is much too long (hence why you’re the interesting blogger and I’m the sad wordy nerd who has an academic post), but there is a serious issue here, on how research is reported and commented on. Its authors did not do a good job of putting their work in context which might help (the earlier studies) or in explaining the form of a scientific paper (the bold statements and conclusions). In terms of initial dissemination, the press release must have been terrible, the PA’s wire twisting made it worse, and the newspaper reporting contributed. But if the reporting is considered then the opposition that blogs such as your might make possible is also partly to blame, since by fulfilling your role so well and ‘commenting on this one piece’ in analogy to other pieces then you distort the work and ends up pushing the blame onto ‘inaccurate’ or ‘sexistly motivated’ research, which the comments then support. I’m not arguing against what you state the coverage of it implies, nor accepting this division of labour ‘just is’, and was concerned I should be taken as doing such, but I am really concerned that analysis of the main problem not get hidden by the conventions of how these things are reported. Hence when you state you’re not writing a report on research, but on this, I think you should write the bigger report, and use this as a case study and nothing else. But then, I realise, I’m just criticising you for what you didn’t write, just as I feel you are criticising the authors for what they didn’t write. If the problem is not (or even not principally) the research itself, but the climate in which it is released (including the opposition to it) then there is a much more serious problem that those of us on both sides of the academic fence need to address, be aware of and finds way around.

PS: Homo does mean ‘not woman or child’ as well as ‘not animal, vegetable or mineral’, otherwise the document I’m currently reading talking about ‘homines et feminae’ and later ‘homines et uxores et juvenes’ makes no sense (it isn’t referring to same sex marriage). Perhaps your Latin is just purer and more classical than mine. I should still have used hominem, but was seeking a succinct way of stressing that the research team had probably fought hard against unthinking sexist assumptions in order to be in post, and that must have been particularly annoying to then be attacked for them for following the dictates of their profession.

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