Cognitive Daily

A few weeks ago, I was excited to learn that a project I’m working on got written up on NPR’s News Blog. However, I was less excited when I saw the way my own status was described:

Dave Munger, a science blogger and stay-at-home dad in Davidson, N.C., wanted to find a way to show people that some blog posts are meant to carry more weight than a rant or an off-hand comment.

Would people consider my project to be less noteworthy if they thought of me as a “stay-at-home dad”? Technically, I guess I am a stay-at-home parent because my office is in my house, but since my primary occupation has nothing to do with childrearing or housekeeping, I felt the characterization was a little unfair, and it might make my work seem less serious than it is.

But maybe that’s just me.

That’s why I decided to perform a little experiment. I created a “reading comprehension test” describing a fictional person named Jordan Smith. I picked the name “Jordan” because it was one of the most popular American names for both men and women. At only one point in the story does Jordan’s gender become clear:

Because of robust data connections and satellite links, he can track operations at even the most remote locations. As a stay-at-home father of two, it’s important for Jordan to be close to his family.

The trick to the study was that readers saw one of four different versions of the story. Jordan was either a “father,” a “stay-at-home father,” a “mother,” or a “stay-at-home mother.” Then readers were quizzed on several aspects of the story. Did they have a different attitude towards Jordan depending on gender and “stay-at-home status? Over 1,200 people responded, and this graph shows the most dramatic results:


As you can see, readers guessed that “father” Jordan worked significantly more hours per week than when Jordan was characterized as a “stay-at-home father,” a “mother,” or a “stay-at-home mother.” The story made no mention of Jordan’s working hours, just a description of the organization Jordan was a part of.

There was no significant difference between estimated work hours for stay-at-home fathers versus mothers, but stay-at-home mothers were seen as working significantly less than both mothers and stay-at-home fathers. “Fathers” were estimated to work a full six hours per week more than “stay-at-home mothers.”

Does this mean our readers think stay-at-home parents aren’t as good at their jobs as other parents? We can’t say that based on this data. Perhaps they believe that stay-at-home parents are simply more efficient. Perhaps they think that stay-at-home parents have made a conscious decision to work fewer hours, possibly for lower pay than other workers.

We also asked readers to estimate the size of Jordan’s organization, “ReliefCorps International,” but stay-at-home or gender status wasn’t associated with a significant difference in the response.

I do think there’s a clearer case for gender bias in our responses. Why would respondents believe that women, regardless of their parenting status, work fewer hours than men, when all other aspects of the story are identical? I’m having a difficult time coming up with an answer other than gender bias.

Ultimately, based on these results, it appears that whatever stigma I felt by being labeled as a “stay-at-home” parent may be roughly equal to the bias a woman encounters every day, just for being a woman.

But “stay-at-home parent” is a label that’s much easier for me to control. I don’t have to tell reporters where I work or whether I have kids. And suppressing gender identity, even if it were possible, would in itself be seen as a rather questionable activity, don’t you think?


  1. #1 David
    December 14, 2007

    Your results show that people think fathers work more than mothers, revealing a bias, but I feel like you are assuming that there is a negative stigma with working fewer hours. You might rephrase your entire column as proof that people think fathers care less about their families that mothers, and therefore spend more time at work avoiding them, and that would be an equally “valid” conclusion. Who should feel the stigma? I suspect the psychological underpinnings of these results are more complicated than they are presented.

  2. #2 ann
    December 14, 2007

    As for me, I tend to think that parents who work out of their homes have a LOT more distractions, especially if the child/children is/are very small.

    The results above and my own perception are so interesting considering the number of people I’ve heard talking about what levels of DOOM (for instance) they got to and how long it took them- all while at a traditional work setting, not at home! AND, I’ve heard more than one talk about spending an entire day (!) playing a particular video game. And that is also not to mention how many blog posts and comments I read from people who either admit to being at work or from people who I know are at work. AND I just saw a discussion (on Mental Floss) and one comment was (paraphrased): Don’t use that kind of language because I read this at work and our server blocks out sites with that word on it. So, what does that say about productivity?

    So, go figure- I guess, as always, what we believe to be true and what is actually true can be very far apart!

    Interesting study and interesting post. (And I, by the way, am sitting by my laptop at home and should be sleeping!)

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    December 14, 2007


    I suppose you might be right that in some overall sense people might not see “stay-at-home mothers” as worse people than “fathers.”

    However, if a woman was trying to build interest in a project she was working on, and that project was characterized as the work of a “stay-at-home mother,” these results suggest to me that the project might not be taken as seriously, regardless of what people think of her as a human being.

    They certainly make it clear that in publicizing my own work, I should take care not to be described as a “stay-at-home dad.”

    My goal in this case isn’t to get people to people believe I’m a good person, it’s to get them to believe I’m good at my job.

  4. #4 Charlotte
    December 14, 2007

    I wonder how much personal experience played into people’s perceptions and interpretation of the reading. I, for one, guessed the Jordan would spend about 30 hours a week working from home. This estimate was not based on whether Jordan was male or female. Rather, it was the perception that I have gained from my friends that work at home and raise children. Most of them do not have the ability to work completely full time (40 hours plus) with the added responsibility of tending to their children. However, they do manage to work close to that 40 hour mark – regardless of whether they are male or female. It would be interesting to know if responses varied based on the respondents personal work history or the work situations of people they know.

  5. #5 Stefanie
    December 14, 2007

    I think you’re forgetting that stay-at-home parenting is pretty close to a full-time job. Any other job you do during that time I’m going to assume is done at less than full time.

    It’s not that I wouldn’t think you were good ad it, but I’d assume that it was more of a second job you do in whatever time you can squeeze out of your day.

    I think it’s also been established that women, even those who work outside the home as many hours as their husbands do, end up doing more than half of the household chores. Responders probably took into consideration that a woman who is in the home more hours probably has more household and parenting tasks dropped in her lap than a man would, and therefore simply has less time to devote to outside-the-home ventures.

  6. #6 D. Himes
    December 14, 2007

    As a ‘stay at home father’ with a small business, I easily empathize with you. When friendly people first find out what I do, they are quick to observe/joke that they could never do it because of the temptations (like beer) around the house. I think there are a lot of people who see this lack of discipline in themselves, and project it onto me (and you and other SAHs). It’s easy for me to remember that they also don’t have some of the other accomplishments I have, for which I had to fight a lot of temptation. In fact, that practice makes it focusing at home relatively easy now.

    On the other hand, working from home does have its own set of distractions: contractors making repairs, kids needing to be delivered to or picked up from various activities, and so on. Those events naturally fall to me. But office workers also have distractions, such as pointless meetings, which waste a lot of time.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    December 14, 2007

    Responders probably took into consideration that a woman who is in the home more hours probably has more household and parenting tasks dropped in her lap than a man would, and therefore simply has less time to devote to outside-the-home ventures.

    Well, if they did that, then they’d makin be a set of assumptions that question a woman’s job performance relative to a man’s. If they assume that a “stay-at-home parent” is a full-time job, then it’s not too much of a stretch to say they’d believe that Jordan’s work with the relief agency isn’t very important.

    If I was Jordan and I want to make a good impression on others, I’d make an effort not to be portrayed as a stay-at-home parent.

    But I question whether “stay-at-home parent” is *always* a full-time job. In my case, with two teenagers, I can work for an hour before anyone in the family is awake in the morning, then spend 30 minutes eating breakfast with the family, then go back to work for another eight and a half hours before heading downstairs to make dinner (by this time the kids are home from school and have done their homework).

    Occasionally I might need to drive a child to the doctor or orthodontist or music lesson, and that takes an hour or two out of my day, but otherwise I have around 50 hours a week available for non-household work.

  8. #8 Becca
    December 14, 2007

    Well, there’s always the possibility women who stay at home and both work and take care of kids do spend less time on their job.

    Of course, your readers could also have just assumed that women who stay at home and look after their kids are experts at time management.

  9. #9 Tony Jeremiah
    December 14, 2007

    Gender bias is probably an accurate hypothesis for the male/female difference in work hours regardless of status. In fact, sociologists have noted that the concept of (paid) work is normally afforded higher prestige when it is perceived as a male rather than female dominated occupation. In this instance, it appears in the form of the assumption that working more hours is equivalent to higher quality work.

    There may be another bias present concerning the lower status associated with unpaid work (i.e., work done from the home in general, and more specifically, work such as childrearing and household chores stereotypically associated with women). I suspect this particular bias explains not only why there’s a significant difference between the father vs. stay-at-home father work hours, but also, the difference between the mother vs. stay-at-home mother hours. Probably, the thinking here is that the father/mother status concern persons who are (paid) working persons, while the stay-at-home mothers and fathers are perceived as those engaged in less prestigious unpaid work most neutrally, or, who are lazy and/or unemployed at the most negative extremes of this perception.However, such perceptions would be entirely dependent on the types of persons who read CogDaily.

    Given that (1) CogDaily and its content is very popular; (2) that technically, if you have two persons of similar capability, both running blogs but one works most of the day at a regular job and the other does not, it is likely that the one having more time to devote to a blog will produce a higher quality blog due to greater time devotion; and (3) a prior informal CogDaily study showing that a good portion of CogDaily readers don’t work the standard work week, it’s highly unlikely that the ideas that originate from this blog will be perceived as low quality due to the status of its creator.

  10. #10 Stephen Norris
    December 15, 2007

    I just assumed the person (and I don’t recall which version I saw) worked a standard working week (37.5 hours) and put that down, since there was no mention of anything else…

    And in my experience the more important you are in a company, the less likely it is you do stupid amounts of unpaid overtime.

  11. #11 Miss Cellania
    December 15, 2007

    How discouraging. I always supported the family financially, even when I was married. Since I switched careers and started telecommuting, I work MORE hours, since I’m paid by actual output instead of a timeclock. People see me running errands at 9AM and it seems like I don’t work. They don’t see me typing at 2AM.

    Maybe the answer is in the label itself. In many people’s minds, “stay-at-home-mom” is different from “telecommuter”. When people hear the term “stay-at-home” parent” (either gender), they probably think of preschool children, which take way more of your time than school-age children. Why should family status be mentioned in a job description anyway?

  12. #12 Freiddie
    December 15, 2007

    I never thought that’s what the survey was all about. I guess “stay-at-home” is the same as “less-work” to many people, even though it is now highly plausible to work at home.

  13. #13 hej
    December 15, 2007

    To me ‘stay at home parent/spouse’ is a PC version of ‘housewife’. So in order to understand that they work at all is already modifying my prejudice. And I think that the journalist who called you that should apologise.

    As for the bias that women work less, take their jobs less seriously and get worse results than men (given objectively identical information) that’s well established. Perhaps the fact that this shows up in your study as well as more scientific ones is an argument that you have valid results 🙂

  14. #14 teddydouglas
    December 15, 2007

    Before making a conclusion of gender bias, let us keep in mind that the terms “male” or “female” were never used in the experiment. The only gender-suggestive terms used were “father” and “mother”. The argument can be made that the bias here is parenting status, rather than sex. Is it better to say that people are biased against “mothers” than against “women”? Seemingly not, but it is an important distinction nonetheless.

    Great article Dave, thanks for highlighting your results.

  15. #15 hitesh sahni
    December 16, 2007

    I think many stay-at-home bloggers will be tempted to remove the “stay-at-home” labels from their about pages after reading your post.

    Even the stay at home person has seen many aspects of the world in a unique way and he/she shouldn’t be inderestimated.

  16. #16 Morgan Williams
    December 16, 2007

    As a stay at home mother, I naturally assume when I hear the term that the person “staying home” is doing just that- remaining home (instead of working outside the home) in order to raise preschool children, home-school other children, or care for a disabled child. There is an element of sacrifice in that role, implying that something (paid work) is being given up by one of the parents so that the family can have the “luxury” of having one parent at home with the kid(s) for whatever reason.

    But “stay it home” does not do justice as a fitting description for that scenario; it could just as easily describe an unemployed person, whose kids don’t even live with him/her (they are still a parent, even if they don’t contribute to the childrearing effort). And even less apt is that phrase for describing the author, who actually does not parent at all during the workday, merely has a home office. (Say, “I don’t have a traditional 9 to 5- I have a home office” and watch people marvel at your entrepreneurial spirit and turn green with jealousy!)

    If you want to describe a person who does paid work at home (in addition to childcare or not), would it not be more accurate to describe him/her as a “parent who works from home?” I would be curious to see if that description carries the same bias. The “stay at home” moniker can, for those who have never done it themselves, conjure up the pejorative image of the slacker parent spending half the day in a bathrobe, eating bonbons and watching soap operas. Saying “stay at home” merely reflects the situation, not the reasons for it- which could be numerous with some reasons more deserving of respect than others.

  17. #17 hej
    December 16, 2007

    It just might be. Several years ago an economist had statscanada run some statistics on difference in wages between men and women, and as he interpreted the answers the difference is not strictly between men and women, but rather that married or divorced women and widows are worse off than everyone else.

  18. #18 Holly
    December 16, 2007

    Very interesting.. What’s more interesting is “mother” and “father” roles are seen so differently. We have to take into consideration traditional values that have been instilled for centuries (man makes money; woman cooks food/takes care of children) because even though we have come so far in achieving equality in social roles, people will inherently believe that the man is the bread-winner. I’m all for civil rights and I personally don’t discriminate in any manner, but the census will tell you that men and women still have “traditional” social roles. I embrace my femininity and I’m okay with cleaning, cooking, and doing the dishes. I ENJOY those activities.. sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that I’m “in my place.” Good article!

  19. #19 hej
    December 16, 2007

    You do know that your “traditional values” are less than 3 centuries as ideals, and about 60 years old as something that normal people could afford to practice? For most of history people lived as farmers, with men and women working side by side to bring in food, and none of them bringing in money. After industry work became the norm the idea that men were the main breadwinners became common, but before the 1950s only very rich people could afford to live on one income.

  20. #20 Amy
    December 16, 2007

    This is an interesting study. Are the shapes of the distributions about the means different for the different categories of response? That might give us a clue as to what people were thinking. For instance, if the SAH mothers’ reponses are bimodal, with one group clustered around a mean of 40 and one group much lower, that could indicate that some people just assumed “work=standard work week” (40 hours) and others were operating from the “SAH=doesn’t work” stereotype; whereas if they were all clustered around the mean or 31ish, that would be some support for the idea that everyone just figured they work less amount of time, for whatever reason.

    Just a thought…

  21. #21 Mathematician
    December 17, 2007

    This all seems rather silly. In standard internet-speak at least, a SAH parent by definition doesn’t have a paid job. Someone who works for money at home is a WAH (work-at-home) parent. (And someone who is full-time WAH obviously has some other kind of childcare, if only school: it’s practically impossible to imagine that someone can full-time WAH and look after children full-time without one role or the other suffering badly, or I suppose unless their work is “childminder”.) I didn’t get the version where the character was described as SAH, but if I had, I’d simply have been confused, as this would have been in flat contradiction with other information in the passage.

  22. #22 mark
    December 17, 2007

    Too bad you didn’t include a version with ‘woman’ and ‘man’ as a control group for a different variable. I think that for whatever reason, it is generally more difficult for a woman to detach herself from the presence of children. But I wonder if a single woman would have been rated higher than a SAH father?

  23. #23 Joanne
    December 17, 2007

    I agree with Mathematician — “stay at home” parent, as I understand the general usage, means they are not working for wages.

    Also, I’m not sure the control question was valid: when asked to estimate the size of Jordan’s company, I based it on data (number of countries served, for example). When asked to estimate Jordan’s work hours, I just flat out guessed, because there was no information. (My top choice wasn’t available: “70 hours a week during a disaster, 10 hours per week otherwise”.)

    If one answer can be estimated based on info in the story (or at least the reader thinks so), and the other answer is a guess, then one is not a good control for the other when estimating cultural bias of the person answering.

  24. #24 Jenni
    December 19, 2007

    I think every one is forgetting that working in the house is still work and considered a job. If the responders were to give hours of work fairly, and child-rearing is actually considered a job, then the graph would show the opposite. This tells me that the responders didn’t view housework or taking care of children as a full time job. I am a stay-at-home-single-mother and believe me, I do every bit of work you pay your day care providers plus some.

    And to clarify, being a SAHP pays, just not in cash.

  25. #25 AM
    December 20, 2007

    See, I picked less than 40 hours per week for the non-stay at home father, because he probably works mainly when there’s a disaster occurring and he said he values time with family. Since it seems like a startup business with at least a dozen employees (I imagine it’d take a lot to keep networked, IT, etc), it just seems like he could decide to work less if he wanted.

  26. #26 zets
    January 7, 2008

    I guess “stay-at-home” is the same as “less-work” to many people, even though it is now highly plausible to work at home.

  27. #27 TJ
    January 12, 2008

    As many other commenters pointed out (11, 16, 21, 23), many people see a difference between “stay-at-home” and “work-from-home”. I must have gotten a version without SAH, because I too would have been confused by the seemingly contradictory info!

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