Nov 1 2006

Career Women, Go Home

Media return to a favorite obsession

Can women have jobs and still be good wives and mothers? Mainstream media have been picking at that scab ever since women began breaking out of their culturally circumscribed role as wives and homemakers and taking on professional careers. But with his August 22, 2006 article on, “Don’t Marry Career Women,” Michael Noer made a particularly pointed stab at it, using discredited, dubious and downright bogus research to bolster his paleolithic perception that working and wiving don’t mix.

He stated his thesis in the first paragraph: “Guys: A word of advice. Marry pretty women or ugly ones. Short ones or tall ones. Blondes or brunettes. Just, whatever you do, don’t marry a woman with a career.”

And just like that, the mainstream media had new fodder for the age-old story of whether women are suited for the workplace. Noer’s piece was hardly a new journalistic exploration of gender—indeed, it’s not even based on new science.

Every few years, there comes a big high-profile article that declares, for one reason or another, that the feminist goal of equality between the sexes has finally been revealed to be a misguided social experiment, concluding that we, collectively, can now happily return to our regularly scheduled gender roles. “It’s intriguing to me that the more women achieve . . . the more the media sends the message that [we] are not suited for it,” says Caryl Rivers, professor of journalism at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Market Scare Stories to Women.

There is a steady beat of these haphazardly reported stories that purport to explain a) that women do “naturally” prefer to be at home with the kids; b) that women are leaving the workforce in droves to be stay-at-home wives and moms; c) why, scientifically, sociologically, professionally and personally, women should make that choice, and/or d) the terrible potential consequences for their men/children if they fail to do so.

Some of these recent articles stand out, however, not only for their self-generated publicity, but for bolstering their theses with single-sided and often spurious research:

A 2003 New York Times Magazine article (10/26/03) by Lisa Belkin, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” presented un-contextualized statistics and anecdotes from a tight-knit circle of privileged Princeton alumnae as data.

In 2004, Atlantic Monthly’s “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Move-ment” (3/04), by Caitlin Flanagan, was a similarly solipsistic examination of how working women have built their careers on the backs of exploited workers whom they pay to care for their (poor, neglected) children.

In 2005, the New York Times (9/20/05) ran a front-page piece headlined, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” using a poorly designed email survey to validate a claim that women today were going off to college just long enough to acquire their “MRS” degrees.

In the same year, Lisa Hirshman wrote an article for the American Prospect (12/05) that surveyed three Sundays’ worth of New York Times announced brides (the “logical heirs” of feminism, according to the article), and found that they had fallen off the feminism track and landed smack in the middle of Mommyhood Lane.

Then the New York Times ran another piece, Maureen Dowd’s “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?” (10/30/05), that declared feminist goals incompatible with dating and relating in the real world, based on Dowd’s own experience.

Recently the timing of such cyclical stories seems to be quickening.

In early February 2006, John Tierney of the New York Times penned an op-ed piece, “The Happiest Wives” (2/28/06), on the nature of true matrimonial happiness: in his words, “equity, which is not the same as equality.” It was based on the same research (Social Forces, 3/06), funded by conservative think tanks and deeply flawed in its methodology, that appeared in many of Noer’s footnotes. Tierney’s piece was essentially a paean to the days of yore, when women knew their place. Everyone was happier.

In August, Kate White, editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, went on the CBS Early Show (8/15/06) to tell its accomplished female viewers how not to emasculate their husbands with their success. “He’s got to feel like he carries the weight in the relationship somehow,” she explained.

“So if he’s not the financial—the main financial provider, he’s got to be the protector, or maybe he’s the really social one. When you have dinner parties, or get-togethers, he’s the one who’s really the dominant social force. You’ve got to let him know he has a big role, and you can’t talk about ‘my money,’ it’s got to be ‘our money.'”

On August 22, Noer lobbed his “Don’t Marry Career Women” grenade, followed quickly by the New York Times’ Dowd, who took up Kate White’s tune on August 23 to throw some snarky jabs at Kevin Federline, Britney Spears’ husband, whom she refers to as “Mr. Spears,” and at Bill Clinton, dubbed “B-Clint” and “First Lad.”

Finally, on September 17, the New York Times’ David Brooks took the release of a new book on the same topic—The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine —to expostulate on his own belief that “happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.” Those patterns, of course, have women heading straight back home, where they can put their “intense desire for social connection” to good use.

Whether the aim of such pieces is to bolster sagging site hits—as the New York Times conjectured (8/28/06)—or an honest but misguided attempt to explore gender issues in contemporary culture, they rarely add anything but controversy and confusion to a topic that is, according to social scientists who actually study these things, fairly clear-cut.

While the stories that get the most play rely on a handful of cherry-picked studies—or data within studies—the preponderance of research points quite to the contrary. “It’s an irritating thing—just how often the same discredited evidence gets recycled with a new hook,” says Stephanie Coontz, research director for the Council on Contemporary Families.

This, though, appears to be the point. Each such story predictably generates its own media fallout, inviting response pieces and defense pieces, almost all of which uncritically reiterate the original “facts” proffered by the first story. These types of stories, citing science in support of regressive ideology, inevitably incite “controversy,” which only perpetuates the cycle.

Meanwhile, sociological work that roundly discredits those few studies promulgated by think tanks and pimped by retrograde reporters gets short shrift. “There’s a lot of other data that says very different things,” says Rivers. “They never get in the headlines.”

By marketing what she calls “scare stories,” aimed squarely at the anxieties of career women, Rivers believes the news media target a highly desirable demographic. “It’s pretty calculating,” she says. “They find that when they put these kinds of scare stories on the cover, that sells. If you put this kind of story on your cover, you’ll get buzz, and you’ll get sales.”

And because few journalists writing such articles fact-check the research or even have the scientific wherewithal to know whether a study cited is in decent scientific standing, many readers assume that there’s factual basis to the claims that are made, when, in fact, there’s often nothing further from the truth.

One statistic that is often cited is that between 2000 and 2004, there was a decline in the number of women in the workforce, and that is taken to mean that professional mothers were collectively packing it in and heading home with the kids. The statistic is true, according to Coontz, but what it doesn’t include is that there was an equally important drop in employment numbers across all demographics. “We were in a recession,” explains Coontz. “This is just an example of people taking real research, but ignoring the complexities and then spinning it.”

The research that both Tierney and Noer cited (that was then repackaged in countless other accounts) that wives are unhappy when their husbands earn less than they do? The original article, in the journal Social Forces (3/06), primarily found that women are happiest when their husbands are emotionally supportive of them, and when they feel the division of household labor is fair. Homemakers, according to Coontz, are less likely to feel that they are taking up an unfair piece of household labor when their husbands are bringing in all the money, and working women are just as happy if husbands are doing their share of housework. “But do we ask men to step up to the plate?” asks Coontz. “No—this is a non-story.”

“Pro-marriage, pro-family think tanks go around looking for these studies, reading them very quickly, ignoring the social science involved, but figuring out the one conclusion that they can use to put on their website and put it out as a press release,” she explains. Then journalists, “who are not trained as social scientists, get something that sounds interesting, but is not news.”

There is some reason for hope, though. The Council on Contemporary Families has promoted responsible and accurate use of sociological research for five years, and in that time, Coontz says, she has seen a change. Rather than coming to CCF to balance the “research” of right-wing think tanks like the American Family Association, Coontz says, major media like Newsweek and the Associated Press are approaching scholars first, and letting them explain the real data.

Keely Savoie is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.