Dueling Data on Women and Work

Yale researcher challenges Times article saying female grads of elite colleges would choose children over jobs.
October 4, 2006

A New York Times article last fall managed to offend just about everyone. Its thesis -- that women at elite colleges increasingly plan to leave the work force when they have children -- angered many feminists, and media critics accused the Times of publishing anecdotes masquerading as social science.

A new study suggests that the article also overstated the number of women who hope to leave the workforce long-term. Yale University’s Women’s Center released a survey last week finding that just 4.1 percent of Yale women plan to stop work entirely after having children, compared to 0.7 percent of men. A vast majority of women -- 71.8 percent -- reported they would take less than one year off work after their children were born.

A total of 469 Yale students completed the survey: 153 men, 315 women, and one student who did not identify gender. The surveys were distributed to 2,000-2,200 students by masters of five of Yale’s 12 residential colleges who agreed to send them to students.

Victoria Brescoll, now a postdoctoral research fellow at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who conducted the survey in the 2005-6 academic year as a graduate student in social psychology, said the survey results suggest that men and women equally value career and family, contradicting the implication of Louise Story’s September 2005 article, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.”

“What does 'many' mean? Personally, I don’t think 4 percent equals many, ” Brescoll said.

Story reported in the now famous article that 60 percent of 138 freshmen and senior women interviewed at Yale said they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely for at least a few years once they have children. About half of those women planned to work part-time, Story said, with the other half planning on stopping work altogether.

The article has come under fire since its publication: Slate’s media critic, Jack Shafer wrote that Story “presented her (anecdotal) results to sound like good sociology” and The Nation columnist, Katha Pollitt, said the article represents a tendency by the Times to write about women dropping out of the workplace without sufficient data to support it.

“I thought that Louise Story’s story was a very good example of how you can find what you look for,” Pollitt said in an interview Tuesday. “I think the study was skewed, I think she was more interested in the people that gave the kinds of answers she was looking for.”.

She added: “It’s very nice to have some data that speaks against the dominant story line that The New York Times and other elite publications present.”

But Story’s conclusions are not always as far off the Yale study’s numbers as one might think. Story’s numbers, which applied to women who planned to leave the work place or work part-time for at least two years after having children, are not directly comparable to the Yale Women’s Center study, which asked students how long they would take off from work after having a child and offered a variety of time lengths. The closest parallel to Story’s cutoff was “one to three years” -- an option chosen by 11.7 percent of women responding.

The Yale study also did not indicate the percentage of women who would like to work part-time, though it did find that there was not a statistically significant difference between the number of men and women who would continue to work full-time if they had either a partner to support them or could find high-quality child care. But, as far as they can be compared, the Yale study found that 22.8 percent of women said they’d stop working for a year or more, compared to roughly 30 percent of women in Story’s article who planned to stop working for two or more years, with another 30 percent planning to go the part-time route.

Eric Sandberg-Zakian, a senior who is outreach coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center, said that there were similarities in those two figures, but that Story’s overall tone depicted the 30 percent not as women taking some time off, but “deciding they don’t want to be in the work force and that family is more important to them than career” – a conclusion Sandberg-Zakian said the Yale study doesn’t bear out.

Story, who now covers advertising for the Times, referred to remarks she made in a speech at Yale explaining her methodology for the study, in which she points out that she only counted in her 60 percent figure women who said they’d like to leave work altogether or work part-time for at least two years.

“It’s possible that this became quite a politically charged issue after my article was published that it could have had even greater skew in who responded,” Story said of the data in the Yale survey. She also criticized the Yale study’s low response rate.

Story also referenced a study conducted by a senior at Princeton, described in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, that she said has similar data to the numbers she reported. Amy Sennett, a 2006 graduate, wrote that women are significantly more likely to interrupt their careers to have a family, with 79 percent of women and 67 percent of men saying they would interrupt their careers, and women being willing to do so for a “much longer period of time.”

In addition to the controversial data regarding career plans post-childbirth, the Yale study also finds that men and value equally value careers, but women see more barriers, Brescoll said, including issues of day care and being able to financially support a child. It finds that a higher percentage of men than women plan to become parents, perhaps suggesting, Sandberg-Zakian said, both that men find it more socially acceptable to say they want children and, more negatively, that women are more likely to understand the barriers facing child-rearing.

“We wanted to ask a lot more questions other than just how much time are you going to take off?” Brescoll said. “We wanted to tell a more complete story.”

The Yale study will be posted on the Yale Women’s Center’s Web site later this week.


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