Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Definitive "Opt-Out" Report

Man, do I love the work of Joan Williams -- the forward-thinking about work schedules, the aggressive efforts to stamp out discrimination against parents, the whole shebang. And now she's taken on one of my favorite subjects: the (generally asinine) stories about well-educated women jumping out of the workplace so they can fulfill their fuzzy biological destiny to raise children. Williams and her crack staff at the Center for Work-Life Law have analyzed 119 news stories over 26 years on women leaving the workforce, and basically fact-checked them, putting out a brilliant report titled ""'Opt-Out' or Pushed Out?" It great reading from beginning to end; no stone is left unturned and no assumption is left unchallenged. (If you're pressed for time, just check out the press release.)

I've railed about "Opt-Out" stories before -- they focus on an exceedingly small slice of the population, the ignore the role of the modern workplace in forcing the issue, they misuse biology -- and my complaints are only the tip of the iceberg. But the element that has always driven me up a wall is the tendency of stories to talk about a mom's "choice" to stay home without discussion (or, usually, even mentioning) her husband.

And though you should read through the report for the whole range of arguments, I wanted to flag the part that was most significant to me -- the whole dad thing. According to Williams, it's not just me: there really are no men in these stories:
If one searches for articles on Generation X and Y men, one finds quite a bit of information that younger men have little interest in a life consumed by work and distant from family life. Yet in Opt Out articles, fathers and their wishes tend to disappear. We found 315 mentions of mothers in the 119 stories we examined, but only 25 mentions of fathers. Less than one-quarter (21.8%) of the stories we found discussed fathersÂ? desire for shorter hours.
Now I have no desire to turn this into a woe-is-modern-fatherhood thing, but it's always been self-evident that the choice to stay home isn't made in a vacuum, and if you want to report on the trend of moms leaving (by force or by choice), you need to at least give lip service to the impact on the rest of the family.

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