Thursday, April 12, 2007

Economists and social scientists, help me out here...

As a researcher whose training is of the lit crit/historical persuasion (I am NOT nor have I ever been a social scientist, though there are times when I really wish I were!), I have a question for my friends of the economist/social scientist persuasion:

For those picking up this thread today, I've been blogging this week about Leslie Bennett's book, The Feminine Mistake, as I read it. Much as I may disagree on certain (key) points, Leslie Bennetts is GOOD. Every time I silently voice an objection, she addresses it on the next page. But I have a more general question about journalists interpreting data when it comes to research on women/girls/families -- and maybe experts from the Council on Contemporary Families crew can help us out here and set it straight.

Bennetts writes that "some feminists have challenged the very existence of a back-to-the-home trend on the grounds that more than two-thirds of all American mothers still participate in the labor force" (7) and that "[o]ther analysts have challenged the idea that we're witnessing a resurgence of stay-at-home motherhood by attacking the news stories describing this phenomenon" (8). She calls analyses like those put forth by Heather Boushey "arguments." I thought they were evidence. She calls them "denials" and invokes (critically, perhaps, but I think not) Linda Hirshman who refers to it all as the "it's not happening" defense.

Which is it? Is it happening? Or not? Is the reading of the early 2000s recession as the reason for women's labor-force dip interpretation -- or fact?


Heather said...

Sure, I'll comment ... I've run hundreds of regressions by now trying to sort out whether there is or is not a trend of declining women's employment *because of children.* I haven't found any real evidence that points to women being more likely to leave employment today, compared to 25 years ago or 5 years ago, because they have children at home.

What we know is that employment rates for men and women (moms and non-moms) declined after 2000, and while women's employment rates have almost recovered to their 2000 levels, men's have not.

We also know that women lost more jobs during the recession of 2001 than they had in the prior two recessions. They did not lose more jobs than men, but compared to women in prior recessions, the 2001 recession was hard on women workers. I tend to think of this as women moving closer to equality to men in their vulnerability to the business cycle. (Typically, in prior recessions, men have seen greater employment losses than women during recessions.)

When we isolate the effect of children on women's employment, there is no increase. Does this mean that women are not leaving the workforce? No, but it does mean that we cannot identify children as the cause.

There is some evidence that husband's income may be having a slightly -- very slightly -- larger downward pull on women's employment in recent years. But, that's not about motherhood.

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