Lynn, Noonan publish on perceptions of occupation compatibility for mothers

Friday, July 31, 2020

Freda Lynn, University of Iowa
Freda Lynn

Research shows that the public holds unfavorable views of women working in traditionally male-dominated roles, such as leader or scientist. Clashing stereotypes are typically to blame. The public expects women to be warm and friendly, but expects leaders, for example, to be competitive and forceful. Two associate professors in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Iowa, Mary Noonan and Freda Lynn, are breaking ground by investigating what the public thinks more broadly about mothers and fathers working in a diverse set of occupations.

Freda Lynn and Mary Noonan, associate professors in the Department of Sociology and Criminology, have published “Boxed In: Beliefs about the Compatibility and Likability of Mother-Occupation and Father-Occupation Role Combinations,” a groundbreaking new sociological study. Read the article here.

Noonan and Lynn published their study, “Boxed In: Beliefs about the Compatibility and Likability of Mother-Occupation and Father-Occupation Role Combinations”, in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World. The duo worked with Mark Walker, assistant professor of sociology at Louisiana State University and former UI graduate student.

Mary Noonan, University of Iowa
Mary Noonan

The researchers collected data on public perceptions of how well-matched the roles of mother and father are with 28 different occupational roles, such as lawyer and librarian. Doing so allowed them to better understand hidden assumptions about what people think makes a woman a “good mother” and a man a “good father”, and the extent to which the public scrutinizes the role of mother versus the role of father. 

Noonan and Lynn concluded that mothers are viewed as more compatible with jobs that are female-dominated, have high ethical standards, are safe, and offer plenty of part-time opportunities. For example, occupations such as lawyer and politician were deemed relatively incompatible with motherhood while teacher, nurse, and secretary were deemed generally compatible.

“We argue that these occupations are seen as more compatible with motherhood because they align with norms concerning what a 'good mother' should be—someone who has time for her children, is nurturing, etc.,” Noonan said. “Furthermore, we found that a mother working in a supposedly incompatible occupation is penalized by being judged as less likable, less sincere, less trustworthy, and less attentive to her children than a mother in a supposedly compatible occupation.”

In contrast, the only occupational characteristic that predicted compatibility for fathers was the level of power associated with the job. Furthermore, father-occupation compatibility was not strongly associated with value or worth.

“This suggests that the public has fewer ‘rules’ when it comes to combining work and parenting for men compared with women; a mother’s choices are more actively policed compared with a father’s,” Lynn said.

Noonan and Lynn’s research suggests that mothers in incompatible occupations face more societal penalties, and therefore may experience more negative mental health repercussions. Additionally, “rosy images” associated with mothers working in supposedly compatible occupations may contribute to females continuing to pursue female-dominated occupations.

Mary Noonan

Mary Noonan joined the University of Iowa faculty in 2001. Her previous research has used quantitative methods to study relations between gender, work and family. In 2014, she received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Collegiate Teaching Award. Most recently, Noonan received COVID-19 RAPID funding, which she will use to examine the impact of the pandemic on childcare and working parents.

Freda Lynn

Freda Lynn joined the University of Iowa Department of Sociology and Criminology in 2008. Her research focuses on the dynamics of winner-take-all markets. In 2018, she received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Collegiate Teaching Award. Recently, Lynn received NSF funding to study the pathways of college students in and out of STEM fields. 

About Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World

—Grace Culbertson


The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 73 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.