From the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco.
I have been attending sessions about work and family balance. The people who do the research and the people in the audience, most of whom are also doing similar research, tend overwhelmingly to be mothers. I went to a packed house session in which one of the women on the panel said she was glad to see more than a smattering of men. I counted 5 out of about 80.
One very interesting panel was an "author meets critics" session for Pamela Stone's Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Are Heading Home. She studied highly educated moms in high-powered careers who left or scaled back those careers and spent more time raising their kids. Stone started her research before Lisa Belkin's New York Times article, famous in family research circles, started a media discussion about the "Opt-Out Revolution." By the time Stone was ready to publish, though, the moment was ripe for a sociological study to go beyond the journalism.
The thesis on the "opt out" side is that many women choose to suspend or give up high-powered careers to put that same energy into raising their children. The counter-thesis of this session was that women really wanted to stay in high-powered, time-demanding careers, but the inflexible structures of work and the unwillingness of husbands to scale back their demanding careers forced these women off the CEO track.
The first critic set the tone. This is not really an author meets critics session, she said, but author meets admirers. And she pronounced the litany:
gender differences are socially constructed;
Men and women want high-powered, demanding careers equally;
Women do not approach parenting differently than men;
The differences we see are not due to choice but social structure (and sometimes male selfishness).
Each speaker in turn recited the litany. Yet the empirical material they recounted, from their own research, from what their students told them, from their own experience as mothers, and even from the material in Stone's book, started to tell another story. Yes, social structure matters. Yes it is hard to manage parenting and a demanding job. But many of the women did, in fact, want to be home raising their kids more than they wanted to give all their time to the job. And few of the men they were married to felt the same way, though they supported their wives' choices either way. There probably isn't an opt-out revolution, but for women whose families make enough to let them scale back work for kids, many want to. They want to raise their kids themselves and not hire other people to do it. They do believe in "intensive mothering." Some of them don't even feel torn about it, but rather think that raising their kids is a good use of their fancy education and experience.
This evidence was dealt with in a revealing way: women who thought they were choosing motherhood over career because they wanted to were really just socialized to think that. And men who thought think they are being good fathers and husbands by working more to support their families, they have just been socialized wrong, too.