End the mommy wars, use data
August 19, 2013
Earlier in August the New York Times Magazine printed a cover story about successful career women who left work to raise their children. The story got readers predictably riled up, with more than 1,000 comments posted on the site. It also fueled debates on other websites (for an example, see the Atlantic).
The article continued a grand tradition in the “mommy wars” of creating and backing up arguments with anecdotes. For other examples, see here and even here, published in the New York Times Magazine a decade ago.
Many people seem to read these articles as general comments about whether women should work in or out of the home. They want to discuss and, yes, argue about the tradeoffs many women make when they balance work and family, but all many commenters do is offer more anecdotes to stories based on anecdotes.
So where are the data? What really happens when women opt out of paid employment? Research by Chicago Booth’s Marianne Bertrand, described in the summer issue of Capital Ideas, sheds quantitative light on the topic. Her 2013 paper “Career, Family and the Well-Being of College-Educated Women” (here’s a link) compares college-educated women who stay home with those who work full time. Instead of anecdotes, it draws on data presented in General Social Surveys from 1972 to 2010, and the 2010 Well-Being module of the American Time Use Survey. The results, greatly simplified: women at home report being happier.
It would be a mistake to think that data contain all the world’s answers, especially when conclusions can be simplified and spun out of context. If women in paid employment report being less happy, that doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t work outside the home, but it does raise questions: among them, what does happiness mean? What is negatively impacting the happiness of working women?
But data provide a basis of discussion, and referencing research rather than personal stories might help to cool tempers and advance the conversation. Unless, of course, we want to argue over the decisions made by 22 women featured in the New York Times Magazine. In that case, carry on.