Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

STORY'S STORY....On Tuesday, Louise Story wrote a front page article for the New York Times that identified a supposedly unnoticed trend in college life: "Many women at the nation's most elite colleges," she reported, "say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children."

Many people were, um, annoyed by this piece. Kieran Healy, for example, was annoyed on so many different levels that I lost count. Jack Shafer, however, noted that the real problem with this article was that whether or not its thesis was annoying, Story never actually demonstrated that it was true:

Story uses the particularly useful weasel-word "many" 12 times....None of these many's quantify anything. You could as easily substitute the word some for every many and not gain or lose any information. Or substitute the word few and lose only the wind in Story's sails. By fudging the available facts with weasel-words, Story makes a flaccid concept stand up as long as nobody examines it closely.

In fact, Shafer went too easy on Story. Not only was her piece weak and thinly documented, but the actual documentation she does provide indicates that there's no trend here at all.

Let's run the tape. Story bases her piece on an email she sent to 138 freshman and senior females at Yale (more details on that here). Here's what she found:

The interviews found that 85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely.

Shafer correctly notes that the results of a casual email survey are essentially meaningless, but leave that aside for the moment. Here's what Story tells us 14 paragraphs later:

According to a 2000 survey of Yale alumni from the classes of 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994....Among the alumni surveyed who had reached their 40's, only 56 percent of the women still worked.

....A 2001 survey of Harvard Business School graduates found that 31 percent of the women from the classes of 1981, 1985 and 1991 who answered the survey worked only part time or on contract, and another 31 percent did not work at all, levels strikingly similar to the percentages of the Yale students interviewed who predicted they would stay at home or work part time in their 30's and 40's.

Why yes, 44% (not working) and 62% (not working or working part time) are indeed "strikingly similar" to 60% (planning to work part time or not at all). In other words, nothing whatsoever has changed in the past 25 years.

This leaves Story with only one thin remaining hook, something she tacitly admits in the 33rd paragraph: the possibility that Ivy League women talk about being stay-at-home moms more than they used to. And maybe they do, although there's no real evidence for that either, aside from a tiny collection of ambiguous quotes from Ivy League professors and administrators.

But even if this were true, it would hardly be Page 1 material, would it? For that you need the survey. And the survey demonstrates nothing at all.

UPDATE: Percentages modified to correct arithmetic brain fart.

Kevin Drum 5:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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