The Current8:32Why schools are more likely to call moms when a kid gets sick
When a group of researchers were chatting about the pressures of being working mothers, they realized they all had one frustration in common: their kids’ schools always called the moms — not the dads — if one of their kids got sick or some other problem arose.
“So many of the calls come to them, even though they’re in kind of very demanding jobs [and] they’ve told the schools to call their children’s fathers,” said Kristy Buzard, an associate professor of economics at Syracuse University in New York.
“At some point they said, ‘Yeah, there’s got to be research on this.’ They looked around, there really wasn’t,” she told The Current’s Matt Galloway.
Buzard and her co-authors, Olga Stoddard and Laura Gee, decided to fill that research gap.
Earlier this year they released a study entitled Who You Gonna Call?, published in the SSRN Electronic Journal. Their research — which focused on heterosexual parents — suggests that schools will often default to calling a student’s mom when something is up, even when both parents expressed a desire to share the responsibility equally.
These school decision-makers believe that a mother is either going to be more likely to answer or call back– Kristy Buzard
Buzard talked Galloway through what the study involved, and what it can tell us about the gender divide at work and at home. Here is part of their conversation.
Part of the story here is how the study was done, because you have a few different takes at this. Tell me what you did.
So we sent emails to the large majority of school principals — kindergarten through high school — principals in the United States from a fictitious parent asking for some information. You know, [saying], “We want to learn about schools for our child, could you give one of us a call?”
So we would send the email from one parent or the other. We would CC the other parent, and then we would provide both phone numbers. And then we just recorded who they called.
And what did you find?
We found that they called back the mother about 1.4 times more than they called back the father.
Now that in itself could have been an answer, but you wanted to complicate things a little bit more. So you did variations on the study, right?
First, we sent signals about which parent had more or less availability and tracked whether the schools would listen and follow the signals that were being given. And we found that in general they do, but the responses were kind of asymmetric. They were more willing to respond to the mother when she was saying that she wanted more of the calls and a little bit less to the fathers.
When you said that both the parents are working full time, what was happening?
We saw virtually no change in the proportion of phone calls that mothers were getting versus fathers.
The last variation or complication that you make is saying in the letter, ‘We want to make this decision together,’ you know, suggesting that both parents are equally involved in this. What did you hear then?
Virtually the same thing. Not really much difference.
Why do you think that the schools were tending to call the mother first?
There’s a big effect of who sends the emails, which I think is pretty reasonable.
But if we put that aside, about 50 per cent of what’s left over is about beliefs about the value of the response from each parent. And what we see is that on average, these school decision-makers believe that a mother is either going to be more likely to answer or call back. Or is going to maybe be better suited to answering the questions and having that conversation.
But we also see that there’s a big chunk left over that may have to do with other aspects, maybe of social norms — that it’s just, kind of, the mother’s job to do this. Or there would be something weird about calling a dad when you’re used to calling moms. Or maybe moms are easier to talk to. You know, we can’t get super fine detail there, but this is coming from multiple areas. It’s not one very simple story.
If you step back from this, why do you think this matters? Why do you think learning about this matters?
We are interested in this because of the fact that there’s still a significant wage gap in the labour force … and it seems to be concentrated among parents.
Some of this, we hypothesize, comes down to the extra burden on the mothers of taking care of children. We also see some evidence that women who anticipate having children may select into more flexible jobs in the first place, which are on average lower-paying. So we’re kind of losing out on some of the best productivity of women because they have to make plans, because they’re punished in the workplace for dealing with this extra burden.
How do you change this? How do you ensure that that burden is more equitably shared?
We think there are things that can change both within the household and in kind of the larger systems. I think our study shows really strongly that schools do tend to respond to the person who reaches out to them. If we switch who does that initial contact, that will help. It doesn’t go all the way.
What we’re really more concerned about is the fact that the school systems that record the phone numbers and who you should call, etc. are not very flexible. The standard is, “Here’s the primary contact. If that person doesn’t answer, then you call a secondary person.”
But we’re seeing that parents today, on average, really want to share the burden of rearing their children equally.
Your sense is that parents want to … make sure that those calls aren’t just directed at one person?
Absolutely. And I think we can be more efficient too. Different people have different schedules at different times. If we could have just a little bit better information systems, which I know is a big expense … we could get answers more quickly.
The parents, the teachers, the kids could all get what they need better if we could just kind of match a little bit better, you know, who’s getting that outreach at which times.
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