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Geena Davis and the late Ann Richards at a panel in 2005 on the difficult choices successful women have to make. (AP)

How the press keeps missing the facts about working mothers

COMMENTARY | March 19, 2007

E.J. Graff of Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism says recurring media reports citing a trend among educated women to drop their careers rather than try to get to the top are inaccurate and the result of lazy reporting.

By E.J. Graff

(This article was adapted from "The Opt-Out Myth," published by the Columbia Journalism Review. In the coming weeks, Graff will be posing questions for  Nieman Watchdog that she says editors and reporters should be asking about workplace and family issues.)

For decades, the elite American news media have been reporting that there’s a “new,” counterintuitive trend among educated women: they’re choosing (gasp!) to leave their careers and stay home with their babies. That story stands in direct contradiction to the facts: during those same fifty years, more and more women—including mothers—have been steadily joining the workforce. The moms-go-home storyline reinforces cultural stereotypes and does so through laziness and inaccuracy, actively sweeping aside evidence that does not fit this narrative, and neglecting to report on data that contradicts its implicit and explicit contentions.

Here’s why this matters: More than 70 percent of American families have all adults in the workforce. They do face overwhelming pressures and problems handling their work and family responsibilities successfully—and working moms usually bear the brunt. But when the demands facing working families are posited as personal issues for individual mothers rather than as a major public policy issue for a 21st century economy, each family must tackle these issues alone.

What about the story is misleading? Consider:

  • These articles focus excessively on a tiny proportion of American women—white, highly educated, in well-paying professional/managerial jobs, with very high-earning husbands. Those women are hardly trend-setters: very few American families can afford to keep a worker home.
  • The women in these articles often say their skills can be taken right back onto the job. But studies show that, on average, professional women who come back after time away—or even after working part-time—take, on average, a hefty and sustained pay cut, and a severe cut in responsibility level. And they never catch up. 
  • The moms-go-home story usually begins and ends with women saying they are choosing to go home, and ignores the contradictory data that are sandwiched in between. For instance, many of these women mention that their workplaces were inflexible. And social scientists find a great deal of bias against working mothers, far more than what faces either working fathers or working women without children. Reporters and editors need to dig a little harder to find out: do women freely choose to go home … or are they pushed out?
  • These articles ignore decades of social science research showing that women are happier when occupying several roles; that homemakers’ well-being suffers compared to that of working women; and that young adults who grew up in dual-earner families would choose the same family model for their own kids.

Editors and reporters forget that the women who are now having kids aren’t post-feminism; they are mid-feminism. Over the past century, earlier generations of college-educated women picked either work or family, work after family, or family after work. Today’s college-educated mothers are the first to expect to do both at the same time. And so they are shocked to discover that, although 1970s feminism knocked down the barriers to entering the professions, the workplace still isn’t fixed. They stand on the new feminist frontier: the bias against mothers that remains embedded on the job, in the culture, and at home.

Here’s the story we really need: about the vast mismatch between, on the one hand, today’s all-or-nothing workplace and the U.S.’s all-hands-on-deck economy — and, on the other, the complete lack of public supports for working families. On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind every developed nation. Why?

For more information, including links to research and resources, please see my original article. Here at Nieman Watchdog in the weeks to come, I will be delving more into some of these issues, and suggesting some questions that editors and reporters should be asking about today’s workplace/family mismatch.

Unenlightened America
Posted by Barbara Payne - Marketing Consultant (ReallyGoodFreelanceWriter.com) and Founder of SWWAN - Single Working Women's Affiliate Network
03/20/2007, 06:54 AM

You are so right on. When you consider that no family in Finland ever has to worry about child care, you can begin to grasp how far behind we are in our attitudes. What a waste of talent and crime against nature that we can't better accommodate the needs of women who have tremendous talent and who also happen to need a few years to spend some time being a mother.

There is so much to be accomplished--you are in a good position to get some balls rolling. If there is anything we at SWWAN can do to help, please let us know. We look forward to your continuing work on this important area of inquiry.

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