Mary Noonan, Sociology

Mary Noonan with her dog, Lincoln.

Mary Noonan with her dog, Lincoln. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Mary Noonan had a very nice, but somewhat competitive, older brother growing up.

He was always claiming that he could do everything better than she could, but Noonan, a University of Iowa associate professor of sociology, knew he was wrong.

“I always said, ‘Girls are just as good as boys.’ I know that sounds a little corny or hard to believe but I think it honestly had a lot to do with where I am now,” Noonan says. “I’ve always been interested in women’s issues.”

Noonan’s research focuses on gender, family, and work—particularly how family responsibilities affect success at work or one’s decision to work. Her latest study looks at a mother’s choice to breast-feed versus formula feed and how that affects her post-birth earnings.

Recently, Noonan sat down with fyi to discuss her latest research, what the motherhood penalty is, and what it’s like to take a trip around the world.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

This is my 11th year in Iowa City. This is the first job I took after I graduated from the University of Michigan. I’m originally from Massachusetts, so I like to get back there as much as I can. That’s where most of my family and a lot of my friends are.

One thing you’re working on right now is breast-feeding versus formula-feeding and how that impacts a mother’s post-birth earnings. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

I’m working on that with a former graduate student of mine, Phyllis Riepeyoung. Phyllis has two kids, and at one point was telling me how hard it was to breast-feed. We started reading some literature on what encourages women to breast-feed. There’s a lot of literature out there that shows that it’s really good for the health of the baby and the health of the mom. We started looking at what predicts who breast-feeds and who doesn’t.

In literature produced by breast-feeding advocates the point is repeatedly made that breast-feeding is especially good for poor women because it’s free. Our thought was, “It’s not free. Breast-feeding is only free if a woman’s time isn’t worth anything.” We thought it was interesting how the public health community over and over again kept saying, “It’s free. It’s free. It’s free,” suggesting that one’s financial situation shouldn’t factor into the decision of whether or not to breast-feed.

A few of my favorite things…

Fried clams

Coffee milkshakes

Irish ballads

The show 60 Minutes

Boston Red Sox

We decided to turn the question on its head and look at the relationship in the opposite direction. If a woman does breast-feed, what happens to her earnings after the baby is born and how does that compare to women who look just like her but decide to formula feed or breast-feed for shorter durations?

What did you find?

We essentially found—and this isn’t a shocker by any means, but the fact that nobody had really looked at it this way is somewhat innovative—women who breast-feed for more than six months are much more likely to drop out of the labor market, and so their earnings go to zero. This doesn’t happen for every woman who breast-feeds, but breast-feeding is very time-consuming and doesn’t really mesh well with the workday. For many women who want to breast-feed, being at home full-time makes the most sense. Professional, highly educated women are more likely to breast-feed for long periods of time. They can afford to stop working, if only temporarily, because they are more likely to be married, first of all, and their husbands earn enough for the family to live off of one income.

What are some of the hot topics in your field right now?

One big topic is flexibility, this idea of family-friendly work policies. My colleague Jennifer Glass and I are looking at who actually uses these policies and whether they seem to help women’s and men’s careers. In one project we look at women and men who telecommute and we find that they actually work a lot more than everybody else. It seems that having the ability to work from home increases the workday. This suggests that telecommuting might actually increase work-family conflict instead of reducing it.

The motherhood penalty, the fact that women who are moms make less than women who aren’t moms, is a big topic. A lot of research now shows that wage gap between non-mothers and mothers is even greater than the wage gap between men and women, especially among younger workers. What is still unclear is whether the motherhood penalty is a result of mothers having different preferences, and therefore making different choices, or whether employers think that mothers are less serious about and less committed to their work.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I have a very nice dog, Lincoln, and I have a nice boyfriend, Paul. The three of us are a little family unit. We like to hang out. I take a lot of walks in Hickory Hill Park with Lincoln. The last few summers I’ve been able to go back to Massachusetts. My family has a house on Cape Cod, so that’s really nice.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

I might be a librarian, but I would want to be an old fashioned one—the one who uses the stamp to check out books, nothing electronic.

What is one thing you think your colleagues would be surprised to know about you?

When I was 24, I took a trip around the world for a year. Solo. I kind of had this point where I was working at a consulting firm and I thought, “Is this my life, to wear nylons and be in a suit all day? I’m never going to see anything.” I didn’t really like the job all that much, so I saved up a bunch of money and planned this trip. I worked in Ireland for part of it, but I lived out of a backpack for a year. It definitely changed me to a certain extent. Not having that much stuff for a year makes you a bit of a minimalist. It was really fun and I’m glad I did it.

What was the most memorable thing or place on your trip?

India was definitely the coolest. It was so different than the other places that I had been. I had been to Australia and New Zealand and I visited Indonesia and Thailand. When I got there I was like, “Alright. This is different.” Everything just seemed so crazy and wild. It is hard to explain—it was disorienting and amazing at the same time. After the initial shock I got used to it.

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