Sunday, August 09, 2009

In the Church of Gender

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.


TallCoolOne said...

Guess these folks have internalized what Taylor referred to as the mentality of the "68ers": society can be reformed _ad infinitum_.

Your post reminded me of something my mother once told me as a child: Don't go into a meeting where it's mostly women talking about women. You won't like what you hear. (It has proven true on so many levels in my life...)

devilscarpet said...

I'm surprised the argument wasn't more forcefully made in that case, honestly. I can't help but wonder, however, if the people doing the research asked women simply if they could still work a full-time job, and their children receive the same level of care, would they? The answer is, of course they would. But the better answer is, "But that's idealistic and impossible." There are only so many resources period, not just because of the social structure, but because of how life works. Women are faced with a choice between family and high-flying career, and more than men, they choose family, just as you've said. And honestly, while I think we can make society more equitable to the raising of families in general (also offering paternity leave and the like), but that has issues, too. Large ones, that would need to be overcome.

I guess my point is simply, while it'd be great if everyone could have everything they want, it's not the status of the world. We can try to make it better, but the logic on which we're trying to do (individual choice) seems faulty compared to other incentives (look how much better off these children, the next generation of workers, are!).

m. Mead said...

I am not surprised that the sociologist believe that only they are socialized correctly. They are smarter than others. Ask them they will tell you.

Amy said...

Interesting. In my home, I was "socialized" to see that women can earn more than men, women can succeed in jobs traditionally held by men, and women can be honored with keys to the city and Sagamore of the Wabash (kind of a big deal honor in Indiana). My mom was a nurse who worked her way up to COO of a regional hospital, and my dad was a firefighter who retired early, and was thus home with me a lot. Kind of a reversal of traditional roles. And yet what did I decide to do after I graduated college, got married, and I found out I was pregnant? Stay home and raise children. And I love it.

So glad I stumbled onto your blog. It's good to find someone who isn't angry about every issue under the sun -- I happen to be a pretty "gruntled" person, too!