Family research: What this BYU study found about which parent a school is more likely to call

BYU economics professor Olga Stoddard and researchers from two other universities conducted the study

Brigham Young University economics professor Olga Stoddard and Tufts University associate economics professor Laura Gee were chatting one day about volunteer sign-up sheets for their kids’ activities when they noted how they typically see only women’s names on the lists.

They both observed that, despite their husbands wanting to help with their kids, schools and coaches often defaulted to calling moms.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s got to be research on this already, on how women are disadvantaged in the workplace by shouldering disproportionate demands from outside forces,’” Stoddard said in a recent BYU News story.

As it turns out, there wasn’t any real research on the subject. So Stoddard, Gee and Syracuse University associate economics professor Kristy Buzard set out to find their own answers.

Their study, “Who You Gonna Call? Gender Inequality in External Demands for Parental Involvement,” found that schools are considerably more likely to call moms when a child needs something, even when contact information for both parents is available.

For their research, Stoddard, Gee and Buzard emailed about 80,000 U.S. principals, posing as a fictitious two-parent household considering schools for their child. Emailing sometimes from a “mother’s” account and sometimes from a “father’s,” they provided contact information for both parents and asked for a call, without specifying which parent to contact.

Of the principals who responded, 59% contacted mothers first, making them 1.4 times more likely than fathers to get a call.

Additionally, when the emails signified the father was more available, fathers received 74% of the calls. Emails indicating the mother was more available got over 90% of the calls.

And even when the father was both the email sender and the designated person to call, mothers were contacted first 12% of the time. When moms both sent the email and asked to be called first, dads were contacted almost zero times.

“There’s clearly an asymmetry,” Stoddard said. “You can tell external decision-makers, ‘We’ve decided the father is going to be the point of contact,’ and that’s effective in pushing more of the calls to the father, but there’s a ceiling. For the ever-increasing proportion of families that want a more egalitarian split in childrearing responsibilities, this tendency makes it difficult to get to 50/50.”

The study’s accompanying survey drew responses from 400 educators, who indicated that principals often think mothers are more available and prefer speaking with women.

Additionally, “a large driver of why mothers face more external demands has to do with social norms implying that mothers are better at these tasks and want to do them more than fathers,” said Gee.

These social norms can disrupt a woman’s productivity to the point that she loses wages, and can even affect what kinds of careers women choose because they anticipate constant interruptions occurring in the future, Stoddard said.

The inequality can also damage fathers who want more involvement in their children’s lives, she noted.

Stoddard, Gee and Buzard said parents can help manage demands by clearly signaling to school employees, coaches and others which parent should be contacted. Institutions can also help by creating guidelines or protocols, such as allowing parents to designate which times of day each should be contacted.

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