More Kids Won't Kill Your Career...Unless You Want Them To

Last Updated Sep 9, 2011 2:13 PM EDT

I've mostly been avoiding political news lately, but the Republican primary race has still managed to get on my radar. Is Michele Bachmann as crazy as that hatchet job of a Newsweek photo implies? Is Sarah Palin running or not?
Neither of these women are likely to secure the nomination, but here's my main observation: Bachmann and Palin have both managed to build big, national political careers. Politics is often a man's world, but these two women are playing in the big leagues. And they both have a ton of children. Palin has five, including a special needs toddler. And Bachmann, in addition to her four biological children, fostered almost two dozen over the years.

I was thinking of this recently when several people forwarded me a study from Australia finding that having a third child was quite detrimental to a woman's career. BNET blogger Kimberly Weisul covered the study in July, and it's gotten quite a bit of press elsewhere. It's relevant to me as I am about to have my third child in less than a month. I've noticed lately that when I mention to people in social settings that my prominent bump is baby number three, they either don't ask me about my job (while asking everyone else about theirs), or say "so with three, you're home with the kids, right?" People simply assume that three kids and a career must be nutty. Indeed, the language used on a lot of the articles about this study is that three kids is the "kiss of death" for a career, or that it will "derail" your professional prospects.

But the fascinating part of all this is that the numbers in the Australian study aren't actually that bleak. Some 55% of women with three kids worked outside the home in that sample. Sure, that's lower than the 68% with two kids, but it's still over half. In Australia at least, women with three kids are more likely to work outside the home than they are to be out of the workforce. The study's authors found that only 21 percent of women who are under age 30 and have three kids work outside the home (vs. 41 percent with two kids) but I'm not sure this is finding exactly what they think it is. To have three kids by age 30, you have to start quite young. You don't have much work experience, or perhaps even much education by the time you're dealing with motherhood, which means that you're less likely to have a job that can pay for childcare for one kid. Let alone three. The fact that the percentage of moms with three kids who are employed rises from 21 percent with young women to 55 percent overall implies that many people do successfully on-ramp later (Bachmann, for instance, took some time out when her kids were little).

Fundamentally, I think there's always going to be a selection bias with these kinds of things. Maybe women who decide to have three kids are more likely to want to spend the hours of 9AM to 5PM on childcare and kid-related activities than women who have fewer kids. Why would that be surprising? But that doesn't mean that having three kids, or more, means you can't have an amazing career if you want. Just look at Palin and Bachmann, or former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (3 kids), Nancy Pelosi (5 kids), J.K. Rowling (3 kids), WellPoint CEO Angela Braly (3 kids), and a host of executives I've interviewed over the years with their three and four children apiece. Sure, it's challenging, but so are most things that are worth doing in life. Three kids doesn't have to be the kiss of death, and isn't for most Australian women, apparently. Even if that didn't make the headlines.

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Photo courtesy flickr user, anyjazz65