Want More Women in the C-Suite? Try Paying Family Members to Provide Childcare

UMD professor finds women are just as competitive as men when they have family support structures.

January 22, 2024 Kimbra Cutlip

Studies of women from different countries, and in-class surveys with UMD students are challenging entrenched perceptions of competitiveness and workplace gaps between males and females. A recent research paper by Agricultural & Resource Economics professor Ken Leonard dispels assumptions that females are naturally less competitive than males and lays a new framework for viewing female competitiveness. Leonard has been studying gender-related differences in the US and Africa, especially as they relate to economics and decision-making, for decades. His paper compared women at different stages of motherhood across multiple societies and showed that women who have family support nearby when raising children are as competitive as men.

The only women who avoided competition were those who lived isolated from their families and did not yet have established families of their own. “Young, isolated from family and without older children is not an inconsequential stage of a woman’s life,” Leonard said. “These are the women who, in industrialized societies, are choosing and beginning their careers.”

He also noted that these traits describe college students who tend to be participants in research experiments about competition, which could skew study results and lead to the false conclusions that all women avoid competition.

Leonard’s work showed that the dynamic shifts when a woman has a child who is around the age of seven or so. As that child begins to enter society, the mother’s own family becomes more “established” and she is willing to "compete" on behalf of that child. With younger children, the mothers appear to be focused on nurturing the child, which looks more like protecting, not competing. Somewhat surprisingly, women without children behave more like women with young children than those with older children, as if they are preparing to have children.

The patterns in Leonard’s study parallel previous findings that women will avoid careers in workplaces where success is determined by willingness to sacrifice personal time for the job, because such a career will impact their ability to care for future children. This theory is addressed by 2023 Nobel Laureate Claudia Goldin, who has suggested less greedy workplaces will encourage women to seek high-paying careers.

As a result, there’s been much discussion about whether reducing competition and demands on personal time in the workplace will encourage more women to join the fray. But Leonard’s studies suggest another tack. He found women will embrace competitive settings like demanding or greedy jobs when they have close family support systems nearby and are comfortable with the care their young children receive.

“Young women are often encouraged to ‘lean in,’ but under the right circumstances, women might not need to be encouraged,” he said. “If women avoid greedy jobs because they fear their children will suffer, why not assure them they will not suffer?”

Leonard said his study suggests employers should consider providing support networks and family-based childcare, possibly through compensating the relatives of female employees to provide care for young children, or even for living nearby.

“As children get older, women will be more comfortable leaving them with professional strangers, but when they are younger, it is family that will support a woman in a way that makes her more comfortable pursuing a greedy job,” he explained. “Employers and workplaces would be wise to understand this distinction and seek to accommodate it.”

Adapting his surveys and experiments to serve as classroom discussion tools, Leonard is finding similar dynamics playing out among American college students. Designed to support student exploration of complex subjects, Leonard’s I-Series Course, The Science of Gender in Economics and Development, prompts students to consider the social, cultural and environmental influences on competition in all arenas of life, from school and work to social settings and family dynamics.

In surveys that take the form of classroom games, Leonard prompts students to consider the factors that influence decisions to compete. The discussions that follow have led students to conclude that women have evolved to be less competitive than men, just as evolutionary psychology studies have traditionally concluded. But with the results of his own field work in hand, and through careful guidance of discussions on the factors that influence women’s decisions, students come to see that willingness to compete may be embedded in societal structures that don’t favor women during childrearing years.

“In western industrialized economies we are not trained to consider the role of our own natal family in the opportunities that we have,” Leonard said. “Young adults see the world as something they will navigate alone, and young women in particular may not recognize just how important their family can be in creating an environment in which they are encouraged to take risks.”

By contrast, many young women in other countries are brought up with the presumption that they will live near their mothers, sisters and aunts who will provide support as they begin their families, and may more naturally take career risks than women living in western societies where this support is not a given.

Leonard’s work is helping the research community and UMD students about to launch into their careers understand the critical, often unseen role of familial support and societal barriers to female ambition.


The research paper, "How social structure shapes female competition throughout
her lifetime."
Jeffrey Flory, Kenneth L. Leonard, Magda Tsaneva, Kathryn Vasilaky, was published in the
Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization in December 2023.