“Stop the Press Spree Against Working Moms”

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Read Sheila Gibbons’ essay by that name here. Below is an excerpt:

…Off-kilter news reporting on the reasons women leave jobs, laced with amateur psychology and traces of biological determinism, have been creating a false impression about women’s employment patterns, says an attention-getting report last month by the Center for WorkLife Law, a research and advocacy group at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

“‘Opt Out’–or Pushed Out? The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Work Force,” released Oct. 17, analyzed 119 newspaper articles (excluding commentary) about women leaving the paid work force between 1980 and 2006. A great deal of this journalism, the authors find, understates the severity of the economic consequences for women who are forced out of jobs by inflexible employers and those who believe working mothers are bad for the bottom line.

Most insidious, says the report, is that reporters often depict women abandoning the workplace as a matter of their personal preference, not a symptom of a nationwide crisis for which employer rigidity and lack of family supports are largely to blame.

The “opt out” stories overwhelmingly focus on white, affluent women with white-collar jobs, a skewed demographic from which to draw conclusions about a majority of working women, given that only about 8 percent of women hold such jobs.

The articles also pinpointed the pull of family life as the main reason women quit, whereas a number of diverse sources collected by the Center–an in-depth study of fast-track women; census data analyses; and its own research, including its 2006 report on family responsibilities discrimination, “Litigating the Maternal Wall”–add to the mountain of evidence that affirms most women cite workplace “pushes” (such as inflexible jobs) as a key reason for their decision to leave. …

The 16th annual CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey referenced in the Gibbons essay (though not in the above excerpt) is summarized here. As linked above in the excerpt, the Center for WorkLife Law report: “Opt Out”or Pushed Out: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict. The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce, by Joan C. Williams. Jessica Manvell and Stephanie Bornstein is available here. A summary of the report is available here. Below is an exceprt from this news story:

… Most mothers do not opt out,” says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings. “They are pushed out by workplace inflexibility, the lack of supports, and a workplace bias against mothers.” In one recent survey, 86 percent of women cited obstacles such as inflexible jobs as a key reason behind their decision to leave.

Ms. Williams is coauthor of a report released last week, ” ‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out?: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflicts.” The study finds that press coverage of these issues typically focuses on highly educated professional women who account for just 8 percent of American women. Ms. Belkin’s now-famous “opt-out” article, for example, profiled eight women who were graduates of Princeton, her alma mater. Such articles also give the impression that women’s departure from work is a matter of choice.

These rarefied portrayals do not feature workers like Michelle Lee of Norfolk, Va. She has never heard the term “opt out.” And she never intended to leave her job as an administrative assistant at a pharmaceutical company. But when she needed time off to take her three sons to various appointments for chronic conditions, her boss was unbending.

“I was willing to come in early, leave late, and eat at my desk to make up the time,” Ms. Lee says. “They gave me an ultimatum: I could not miss any more days. I told them it would be better for me to resign right now.”

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