American Sociological Association

Boxed In: Beliefs about the Compatibility and Likability of Mother-Occupation and Father-Occupation Role Combinations

Researchers have long noted that role expectations of a “good” mother conflict with those of a “good” worker, described as the “cultural contradiction” of motherhood. But given that work roles vary tremendously in terms of the cultural meanings the public assigns them, the authors examine variability in the perceived compatibility of mother-occupation and father-occupation combinations. Building on previous research, the authors hypothesize that (1) some parent-occupation pairings will be viewed as significantly less compatible because of incongruent expectations and meanings, and (2) incumbents of supposedly compatible parent-occupation pairings will be evaluated more favorably than incumbents of incompatible pairings. Both hypotheses are tested using original survey data on perceptions of mothers and fathers in 28 occupations merged with occupational characteristics from secondary data sources. The results strongly suggest that even though there are well-known prescriptive norms for both mothers and fathers, mothers’ occupational choices are more actively policed compared with fathers’.


Mary C. Noonan, Freda B. Lynn, and Mark H. Walker