Children whose mothers work during their early years do as well at school as those with stay-at-home mothers, debunking a common parenting myth that has piled guilt onto career women, according to research released on Tuesday.
An analysis of six studies looking at 40 000 children over the last 40 years found there was no link between mothers continuing their careers and children achieving less at school or misbehaving.
Studies had shown that children born to career mothers in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s did not perform as well, with their literacy and numeracy skills about two percent lower.
But the latest research by Heather Joshi of the University of London's Centre for Longitudinal Studies found children born since the mid-1990s whose mothers worked during their early years fared just as well as those whose mothers did not.
She said this "generational change" was triggered by better maternity leave and greater availability of childcare, something only rich families could afford in the 1980s, with other children making do with informal, less structured care.
Balancing work and family
"There has traditionally been a concern that the employment of mothers comes at the expense of child development," said Joshi who presented her findings to a meeting of policy-makers and academics organised by the Campaign for Social Science.
"But as the percentage of mothers in work has gone up, any impact on children has diminished."
Joshi said the most important factor that triggered this change in Britain was the Labour government's investment in childcare in the mid-1990s.
The research was welcomed by parenting groups who said it would help end the emotional baggage that mothers faced when deciding whether or not to return to work and should encourage them to continue their careers.
Women make up 46% of the workforce in Britain but account for just a third of management roles.
"This research suggests changes in maternity leave and greater availability of childcare and the consequent increase in maternal employment have played a big role in enabling parents to balance work and family," Fiona Weir, chief executive of the single-parent charity Gingerbread, told Reuters.
"A lack of family-friendly jobs and the shortage of affordable childcare are still making it difficult for single parents, in particular, to balance work and family ... with one in five single parents who work full-time and one in four working part-time bringing their children up in poverty."