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(Not) Staying at Home

Today, the front page of the New York Times revived a perennial "trend" story: the days of the career women are numbered, because pretty soon, well-educated women will choose to give up their careers and become stay-at-home moms.

Attitudes on career vs. motherhood among college women at elite colleges are changing, writes Louise Story. She quotes one Harvard senior who said that guys think it’s sexy for women to stay home with their kids, and further, that "staying at home with your children isn’t as polarizing as I envision it is for women who are in their 30s now." In an only slightly less silly quote, Yale history professor Cynthia Russett says "at the height of the women’s movement and shortly thereafter, women were much more firm in their expectation that they could somehow combine full-time work with child rearing. The women today are, in effect, turning more realistic." (Emphasis added.)

Oh, there are so many things are wrong here, it’s hard to know where to begin. I could start with the lamentable fact that this story mostly rests on an email survey of 138 female freshman and senior students at two residential Ivy League colleges — a less representative sample is hard to imagine. But I think that I’ll start instead with the idea that women who think they will be able to skip work are being, in some way, realistic.

Let’s take a look at actual reality.

The majority of married women work: 62% in 2003, according to the Census Bureau, a figure that’s wobbled around by a few tenths of a percentage point in the past few years, but that has definitely trended nowhere but up for the past thirty years –in 1970, 40% of married women worked. In fact, married women who have children are more likely to work than all married women as a whole–69% of married women with kids worked. Again, there’s been a bit of a statistical wobbling of a few tenths of a percentage point, but the long-term trend is definitely not towards staying home.

Fine, but the point of the piece is to wring hands about our female leaders of tomorrow, today’s Ivy League female students, who say they plan to change diapers instead of the world. Leaving aside the questionable ability of college students to accurately imagine their adult lives (how many times did you change majors?), this also rests on a dubious assumption.

Which is this: women at Ivy League schools "will likely marry men who will make enough money to give them a real choice about whether to be stay-at-home mothers, unlike those women who must work out of economic necessity."

Now, Ivy League grads may be better off than most on average, but not all –and probably not most –are affluent enough to rely on a single breadwinner. Actually the lifestyle that many Ivy Leaguers would no doubt hope to lead demands a second income stream, and in fact, most households that have an income of $100,000 or more have two people contributing their wages. (That’s 77% with two or more earners, for those keeping score at home.)

Most households educated women are far more likely to work than women with less education. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of college educated women work, compared with fewer than one-third (33%) of women with a high school diploma. It’s hard to imagine this changing dramatically –no matter what the Times puts on its front page.

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2 thoughts on “(Not) Staying at Home

  1. UGH!!!! Is my first response to this NY Times piece. I really wonder if they don’t shelve it and periodically re-surface it every once in a while to make my blood boil. As always, Alison, right on top of things we talked about this piece in one of my classes. Apparantly the dynamics at Yale and similiar to what some have experienced with undergrads here at SU as well. Without further evidence, I’d like to just generalize off the top – not that these students will be better off in the future, but they have been better off in the past. Some of the reason for their sense of traditional families, etc… may connect to their very privileged, high SES lifestyle that brought them to these fine institutions.

    Next the idea that a 1 income household is a choice is a fabulous concept for these students to study, but its not likely to actually exist. (see Alison’s data) Even if it does exist for some of these women, it clearly isn’t a choice for all people even in these social circles.

    Let’s move on to the professor and her realistic comment. I don’t even know where to begin with that one.

    I guess I just need to say that I do truly believe that we all should have choices in all of our relationships to organize our lifestyle as we see fit. I don’t, however, find it at all profound the singular data points that the author cobbles together as evidence.

    On that note I’m late for class, but I’m sure I have more to say!!!! 🙂

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