One Size Doesn't Fit All: Today's working mothers defy the label "soccer mom."

By Published on .

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are nearly 35.5 million women with children under the age of 18 in America. More than two-thirds (24.1 million) of them work either full- or part-time. As the nation gets set to mark another Mother's Day this month, we decided to try to find out where the working mothers of America are concentrated.

The accompanying map, created by Arlington, Virginia-based market research firm Claritas, shows the distribution and concentration of married working moms. Counties in red and purple are the areas these women are most likely to call home; counties in green and blue are the least likely.

The map shows that working mothers are largely found in suburban counties of the nation's major metropolitan areas - locations that typically offer good neighborhoods and schools for kids, as well as short office commutes for adults. The next-highest concentration is found in urban counties, home to some of the nation's top metro areas. Working mothers are least likely to be found in outlying rural areas.

Take, for example, the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The highest concentration of working moms - twice the national average - can be found in the seven counties surrounding this region. Minneapolis, which is part of Hennepin County, and St. Paul, which is in Ramsey County, have average and below-average concentrations of working moms, respectively. The further away from the city's center you go, the more barren the crop of working moms becomes.

Just a few years ago, any mother who lived in the suburbs would have been described as a "soccer mom." The term was coined by political pundits during the 1996 presidential election to identify white suburban mothers with Republican leanings. Shortly after the election, marketers expanded the definition to include middle-aged, middle-income mothers who shuttled kids from dance lessons to softball practice in minivans.

Today, the term is part of the American lexicon even though some now consider it a stereotype. The reason: This group of women is too complex and diverse to fit into one label. Consider, for example, Tricia Leith. At face value, this 47-year-old married mother of two - Eli, 10, and Emma, 7 - is every bit a soccer mom. Leith works from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., four days a week, as a bookkeeper at the local food co-op. After work, she picks up the kids and escorts them to a variety of after-school activities such as soccer, swimming, tumbling, piano, and baseball practice. But Leith doesn't live in the suburbs. In fact, her home is an eight-family co-op in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood where the kids practice their soccer moves in the hallway or - on nice days - the sidewalk outside.

"The term `soccer mom' has become little more than a cliche," says Denise Fedewa, vice president and planning director of LeoShe, a division of Chicago-based ad agency Leo Burnett. Fedewa makes her living helping companies target mothers, but she does so without the use of the term soccer mom. "There's a lot more complexity to these women than the stereotype suggests," she says. Instead, LeoShe categorizes mothers into four distinct lifestyle groups (see "Mother's Work Is Never Done," Media Channels, September 1999). The groups are differentiated by a variety of drivers, notably how mothers seek self-fulfillment and how involved the husbands are in parenting.

Why do mothers deserve special attention from marketers? Besides the emotional appeal, there's an economic one: Women control nearly 85 percent of the nation's household income. By some estimates, that works out to as much as $3.5 trillion in aggregate annual spending on items as varied as cat food to the family Jaguar.

The companies that are most successful at targeting today's moms portray them as multidimensional women who are pressed for time, says Melissa Moss, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Woman's Consumer Network. Women are critical of advertisements that do not recognize the complexity of their lives, says Moss.

For marketers to be relevant to today's working mother, they must make products that simplify their lives, says Anne Marshall, co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based market research firm WomanTrend. "The typical mom is on the move from the minute she wakes up." Products that appeal to this group are easy to use, she says. Marshall points to Almay 3-in-1 Color Stick as an example. Instead of carting around a cosmetic case bursting with lipstick, eye shadow, and blush, women can instead pack Almay's simple stick.

Nordstrom is one company that has recently tried to shatter the stereotype of the typical soccer mom. The retailer used the label as part of its $40 million "Reinvent" campaign, which asks viewers to redefine mainstream terms. In one, a man dressed in khaki shorts and an unbuttoned dress shirt is lying on a couch, a pad and pencil in his hand. The copy reads: "Reinvent the power suit." The "Reinvent soccer mom" ad shows a trendy woman wearing glittery red pants. How's that for a Mother's Day gift?

Most Popular