Open University

Responsible Journalism


by Linda Hirshman

As I have mentioned elsewhere scholars, especially on the left, have been harsh in their criticism of me and other writers who reported the phenomenon of middle class women opting out of paid work. "A Myth," one reported. Family and work scholar Joan Williams called the real story "untold." "Why Can't the Media Ever Get it Right?" the Columbia Journalism Review asked. If we would just not tell about women deciding to quit, there would be no hostile workplaces and laggard spouses.

Indeed we were speculating on imperfect data. All the census showed when most of us wrote was a stuttering in the workplace participation of women especially among the upper income levels. I was careful, in Get to Work, not to say that we knew any more. Certainly there was no counterevidence from the numbers crunchers at the various government agencies. But the confirming data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not come out until just this spring. I think I was right to say what I knew from interviews and from what census data was available. If women with every opportunity to lead public lives were balking, even just capping the growth in public lives, what did that say about the future of feminism?

But I got a taste of what made them so angry myself last week when Leslie Morgan Steiner, admittedly not a researcher or academic, circulated her article in the women's magazine MORE, heralding the ease with which the opt out moms can glide right back into the executive suite based on nothing more than a handful of conversations with women she knew. Worse, the influential Huffington Post ran the identical story giving bounce to Morgan Steiner's amateurish and erroneous information.

Morgan Steiner's thesis is that the only reason actual scholars found return failure rates of close to 50 percent is that the women didn't want to go back to work badly enough. Sort of like Dorothy and the ruby slippers. "There's no place like work! There's no place like work!" It only took me one phone call to check Morgan Steiner's distinction, and it turns out it's completely false. The other studies were of women who wanted to return to work as well. After I published my counterevidence in The American Prospect, I learned that Cornell sociologist Shelley Correll did some really interesting studies of resumes with telltale hints of maternity in them. "Over an 18-month period, the researchers also submitted 1,276 resumes and cover letters for entry- and mid-level marketing and business job openings to 638 real employers. Childless women received more than twice as many callbacks as equally qualified mothers." So Morgan Steiner's little wet kiss to the stay at home moms looks worse than ever.

What's the difference between our decisions to publish? Well, Morgan Steiner knew about the studies that showed the opposite of what she was saying. Not quibbles at the margin; the opposite conclusions. She even cited the author of one of them in her article. Her distinction was risible and easily falsified. But more to the point, her report was not only factually unreliable, it was also dangerous. Her "good news" could lead women on the fence to quit, thinking they could always go back. Back, yes, but not back to the future.

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