Stop the Press Spree Against Working Moms
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Elizabeth Vargas, banished from ABC's World News Tonight co-anchor seat last May after announcing she was expecting a second child, returned to TV broadcasting last week.
While Vargas may no longer be "with child" in the biological sense, her first 20/20 story on Nov. 10 -- a report on working mothers, featuring herself as one -- is pregnant with the growing sense of working mothers' indignation.
In May, Vargas and the network said that, when she returned from her leave, she would co-anchor the Friday night news magazine, but would not return to the prestigious nightly newscast.
Though Vargas said publicly that it was a mutual decision, the nature of her come-back segment fuels my impression that her reassignment was a demotion and a negative signal to working mothers.
Vargas began her report with references to news articles about her being "dropped" from "World News Tonight" with shots of Vargas cuddling her new baby and discussing story angles for an upcoming project with a colleague.
From there she delved into the stories of three other working moms holding down demanding professional jobs, raising active kids and engaged in a daily "exercise in exhausting compromise."
Included was tape from a talk radio program, in which a female caller said her company avoids hiring working mothers or women they think will get pregnant.
Part of a Rising Tide
Vargas' segment is part of a rising tide.
Last Friday, the same day of Vargas' return to TV, Judith Warner, author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety," appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times to challenge Nancy Pelosi and other politicians to throw their political weight behind the broad spectrum of working mothers and their families. "At every point on the socioeconomic spectrum now," Warner wrote, "it seems that American families are cracking at the seams."
The 16th annual Unscheduled Absence Survey by CCH, a leading provider of human resources and employment law information, bears Warner out. Almost 2 out of 3 employees who fail to show up for work aren't physically ill, the report finds. Twenty-four percent, for instance, are handling family issues.
As mother-of-five Pelosi takes her post-election victory lap as presumptive speaker of the house, other high-profile moms are pushing through status barriers throughout the world.
Mother-of-four Segolene Royal, another example, is currently putting the strongest pulse in the preliminaries for France's 2007 presidential election. Comfortable and confident as new heads of government are mother-of-three Michelle Bachelet of Chile and mother-of-four "Iron Lady" Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson in Liberia.
As working mothers such as these win the limelight, they can only help to illuminate the contrastingly dark realities of so many other women with children.
Off-kilter news reporting on the reasons women leave jobs, laced with amateur psychology and traces of biological determinism, have been creating a false impression about women's employment patterns, says an attention-getting report last month by the Center for WorkLife Law, a research and advocacy group at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
"'Opt Out' -- or Pushed Out? The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Work Force," released Oct. 17, analyzed 119 newspaper articles (excluding commentary) about women leaving the paid work force between 1980 and 2006. A great deal of this journalism, the authors find, understates the severity of the economic consequences for women who are forced out of jobs by inflexible employers and those who believe working mothers are bad for the bottom line.
Most insidious, says the report, is that reporters often depict women abandoning the workplace as a matter of their personal preference, not a symptom of a nationwide crisis for which employer rigidity and lack of family supports are largely to blame.
The "opt out" stories overwhelmingly focus on white, affluent women with white-collar jobs, a skewed demographic from which to draw conclusions about a majority of working women, given that only about 8 percent of women hold such jobs.
The articles also pinpointed the pull of family life as the main reason women quit, whereas a number of diverse sources collected by the Center -- an in-depth study of fast-track women, census data analyses, and its own research, including its 2006 report on family responsibilities discrimination, "Litigating the Maternal Wall" -- add to the mountain of evidence that affirms most women cite workplace "pushes" (such as inflexible jobs) as a key reason for their decision to leave.
Framing stories about the tension between women's work and family lives as a problem of women failing to "balance" their commitments is spurious at best, sexist at worst. By making the individual responsible, and not corporations or government, the "Opt Out story line sends the reassuring message that nothing needs to change," the report says.
In addition to the narrow framing of women and work that the Center for WorkLife Law documents, I'm convinced that much recent journalism about work-life issues fails to consider a wide range of other social concerns.
Take a good look at any one -- the alternative minimum tax, originally targeting affluent taxpayers, now inflicting pain on tens of millions of households; layoffs; poor nutrition as a result of our eat-on-the-run society; the divorce rate; traffic congestion; wage levels -- and it will likely lead you to a woman on the verge of packing it in (and no small number of men, too).
Data to Inspire Realistic Stories
The authors do not merely chide reporters. They also offer data to inspire journalists to start telling more nuanced and factually based stories that look critically at the societal effects of women's "personal" decisions about leaving the paid work force.
A 2005 Cornell University study of employers, for instance, found that 84 percent of the participants said they would only hire a woman who had no children. Only 47 percent said they would hire a woman with an identical resume who had children and that woman would be offered less in starting salary.
The authors also praise stories that probe the issue in a serious way. One example: A May 2 CNN story reported by Paula Zahn about a corporate communications executive fired while on maternity leave. Her bosses contacted her repeatedly with work-related requests while she was on maternity leave and challenged her commitment to the job before eventually laying her off before her leave ended. Her lost income cost her the house -- literally; unable to keep up her monthly payments, she lost her home.
"Simply telling reporters that they are telling the wrong story does not give them new stories to tell," write authors Joan C. Williams, Jessica Manvell and Stephanie Bornstein. "Reporters need ready access to accurate data to paint a complete picture."
In other words, the issue of employer bias against working mothers, up to now thinly explored in the press, should be a wellspring of news stories based on documented facts and trends.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly journal of news, research and commentary about women and media.