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What Women Want: A Rebuttal to the Times

A recent <I>Times</I> trend-piece on over-achieving women headed for homemaking sparked furious debate; the authors argue for a new frame.
 
 
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Louise Story's article, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood" ( New York Times , Sept. 20), refueled debate in a world where anecdote trumps evidence, leaving the public misled and researchers baffled once again. But rather than grant these stories more power, researchers and the press must widen the angle, refocus the lens, re-release the facts, and guide the emphasis back to where it belongs: on the American workplace at large.

Last week's outcry suggests a growing, healthy weariness with yet another false alarm about women opting out. Response to Story's piece was as quick as it was smart: Letters printed in the Times the following day flagged the extreme class and race bias implicit in Story's piece. Bloggers countered the "news" with counter-anecdotes and cutting remarks, while high-profile editors publicly interrogated journalistic standards. Women wrote letters to editors urging broader coverage of a wider range of women's work/life concerns, and the Times' own Nicholas Kulish deftly questioned the return to Harriet and Ozzie-like stereotypes. As a coalition of researchers, we join and redouble these efforts to reframe the national conversation about women's options, choices, and needs by letting the facts speak for themselves.

Fact: Few American women can afford to opt out.

Though the focus of much of last week's rebuttal, it bears repeating: Among married-couple families in this country, dual incomes are the norm. In 2003, 58% of married-couple families were composed of two earners. For most black women, who are about half as likely as white women to be married, for most immigrant women, and for most white women as well, opting out does not even enter the radar. Ivy-educated wives of high-earning men may be choosing to stay at home for a while, but they are certainly not leading the nation's women (the majority of whom must work) in a mass exodus from the workplace.

Fact: Women -- younger, married, and well-off -- value financial independence and professional identity.

In a society where dual incomes are vital to economic survival, professional ambition is something most women take seriously. Story's article implies that younger women are uninterested in professional success, that they're opting out before they ever opt in. Research proves otherwise. According to a Simmons College School of Management study from April 2003, 97% of the over 3,000 teen girls surveyed expected to provide financially for themselves and/or their families. Only 3% said they thought someone else would support them, and only 6% said that they would leave their jobs after having children and never return. Girls of color reported higher expectations for future financial responsibilities than white girls, with 85% of African American girls expecting to support themselves and their family, 86% of Hispanic, and 83% of Asian American, compared to 77% of Caucasian.

Fact: Young women aspire to lead; and not simply at home.

Another Simmons study of 570 professional women found that 55% of women under 34 aspired to top leadership, a higher percentage than the 45% of their older female colleagues. Notably, there was no statistical difference in the ambitions of women with or without children across the board. Why, then do some highly ambitious women leave great jobs? Lower pay, barriers to promotion, inadequate childcare and eldercare, and intractable workplaces. These are the issues meriting front page attention.

Fact: Women want ways to step off the career track momentarily but later get back on.

The women in Story's tale may be stepping off the track to stay at home for now or think they will work for a while and then step off permanently, but statistics show that most will want to opt back in. Sylvia Hewlett's Hidden Brain Drain Task Force reports that 37% of American women now pursue non-linear paths, meaning that more than a third of working women are on-ramping and off-ramping during their careers, while 58% take other "scenic routes" (flexible work options). The problem is not that women shun high-power careers but that the traditional linear career path has yet to be reconceived to include women in the structures for success. To wit: many women over 40 re-enter today's workforce with renewed energy and creativity, but the workplace has yet to accommodate them well. And notably, for many women of color, professional struggle -- whether it's to get on and/or back on -- never ends. A Catalyst study, Women of Color in Corporate Management, revealed that higher percentages of women of color found barriers to advancement in the workplace, such as lack of a mentor (33%) and lack of company role models of the same racial/ethnic group (16%), to be greater than barriers arising from familial commitments (4%).

Fact: Women want flexibility in the workplace, but it's rare and often comes with a price.

Working women across the board want flexibility in the workplace. But flexibility is as uncommon today as women on the Supreme Court. When women do take on flexible work schedules, they are often stigmatized. Sixty-six percent of women surveyed by Working Mother Media said that the stigma is real. And, according to Jan Schaffer, Executive Director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, there is a serious discrepancy between perceived and actual opportunities: "Women are being offered money and power, but what they seek is more control...Quitting is driven as much by job dissatisfaction as by motherhood. And maternity is just a face-saving way to bolt."

Hence the opt-out mythology continues to persist. For some, there's much invested in believing that domestic arrangements setting us all back 50 years are "sexy," as Story's piece at one point suggests. And with women now firmly embedded in the workforce, the "new" news seems to be that some are clamoring to get out. But such a focus offers, at best, a partial story. At worst, articles that emphasize the false choice of "staying at home" vs. "pursuing a career" reinforce the expectation that women themselves should bear the entire burden of childcare, alone.

To channel public attention away from this retro, yet common, assumption and toward a more progressive vision of a post-Ozzie and Harriet world, here are some stories that we, as researchers, think should be making headlines instead:

"Gen X men crave work/life balance too"

Gen X women are not alone in their quest for flexibility. More and more, the idea of work/life balance appeals to men. According to the Families and Work Institute, 44% of all Americans consider themselves "highly overworked." The Next Generation: Today's Professionals, Tomorrow's Leaders, a Catalyst study of 1,263 men and women born between 1964 and 1975, found that 55% of men and 64% of women report coming home from work "too tired to do some of the things I wanted to do." Catalyst's study also found that while over half of both men and women would like to telecommute (59%) or work a compressed week (67%), few currently use such flexible work arrangements (17% and 6%, respectively). When looked at with men as well as women in mind, obstacles preventing "work/life balance" are no longer "women's issues," but issues affecting society at large, and the fabric of all our lives.

"Stay-at-Home Moms By Default, Not Design" Why not focus on a wider swathe of women staying at home with children, women who can't afford not to? While Story's article, like Lisa Belkin's before it, focuses on a narrow sub-strata of highly privileged women, at the other end of the economic spectrum are those forced to stay home because they can't find affordable childcare. Two new studies from the National Women's Law Center - Child Care Assistance Policies 2005 : States Fail to Make up Lost Ground, Families Continue to Lack Critical Supports and In Their Own Voices : Parents and Providers Struggling with Child Care Cuts - speak to the realities of many women's lives. And, as Legal Momentum's Early Childhood Education for All: A Wise Investment reminds us, investment in childcare not only guarantees a better work/life balance for women and their families, but strengthens the economic growth and productivity of our country overall.

Rewriting the story

What women need most are not stories of highly educated women married to high earning men choosing to stay at home. Women - and the nation - need stories about flexible workplaces, adequate childcare and eldercare, living wages, equal pay, and companies that understand why retaining women workers and developing women leaders is good for the bottom line and the health of society at large and know how to retain them.

While Story's non-story adds fodder to the noisy lore that women from the Ivy League are parting with careers, the facts remain muted. What we researchers want, and need, is a megaphone, a way to break through the din and broadcast the reality that should be shaping the policies that can improve all our lives. Journalists and researchers: it's time to team up.

Linda Basch, PhD, is President of the National Council for Research on Women; Ilene Lang is President of Catalyst; and Deborah Merrill-Sands, PhD, is Dean and Co-Founder of the Center for Gender in Organizations, Simmons College School of Management.