Comment: Working women need more than lazy stories on trends

There are important details, data and context missing from many attempts to cover gender equality.

By Sarah Green Carmichael / Bloomberg Opinion

Every year when International Women’s Day approaches, news publications seize the opportunity to run stories about how women are faring in the workplace. The annual observance is a good opportunity to take stock of progress — or the lack of it — in gender equality.

But too often these stories highlight trends that aren’t backed by research or data. That bugs me. If we want to solve the challenges that continue to limit women’s progress, it’s important to separate assumption from fact. Here are four questions that I rely on to determine whether a story is worth my attention.

• Is the alleged trend supported by data or using data from a reliable source? I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve read that proclaim what women are doing without putting numbers behind it. Data aren’t everything — there is a place for storytelling — but to call it a trend, there should be some numbers to back it up.

For example, it’s common for stories to say that highly educated midcareer women “opt out” of the workforce, without supporting those assertions with solid numbers such as those published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The reason? BLS data don’t support that particular “trend.” In fact, there are more college-educated women in the U.S. workforce today than there are college-educated men.

That doesn’t mean you can’t personally name a number of women who left the paid workforce to be stay-at-home moms, or that their stories aren’t important. It just means they represent a pretty small fraction of the population. Moreover, most women who quit their jobs to care for children are generally out of the workforce a relatively short time. In a country with a European- or Canadian-style parental leave policy, they might not even show up in the data as quits.

• Does the trend fail to draw adequate distinctions between different groups of women? Too many stories in the International Women’s Day genre talk about women without distinguishing among racial or economic groups. But there are interesting nuggets in the details. For example: The gap between men’s and women’s labor force participation varies considerably by race.

We could have an interesting discussion about those differences. But not if a story elides them in the first place.

Similarly, trend stories often suggest that women with young children stay out of the workforce because of psychological factors; from stress to guilt to maternal devotion. But a pre-pandemic analysis from the BLS showed that the workforce participation rate for women shoots up once their children are school-age, a sign that external factors — such as the cost and availability of child care — may be even more significant.

• Does the story mention men at all? I’m tired of trend pieces that fail to even bring up men. Over the 20 years I’ve been reporting on gender equality, journalists have gotten much better at discussing employers’ role in perpetuating gender imbalances at work. But pieces on women in the workforce still fail to mention their spouses, who are after all the people who often have the biggest direct influence on women’s careers.

In households with opposite-sex couples, husbands play a huge role in their wives’ decisions about how much to work and which opportunities to pursue, not just through what they say, but in how they behave. A husband might say “I’m proud of your work,” but a wife’s career can still be stunted if he doesn’t share the cooking, cleaning and child care, or the mental load of managing all of the above.

• Does the story treat men’s behavior as the norm? Even a story that seems to be nuanced and data-driven can fall short. A common trend piece about women in the workplace is that we lack confidence. These stories are always backed up by reams of peer-reviewed, academic studies showing, indeed, a confidence gap between men and women.

But! It’s important to note that although this finding is robust, it doesn’t tell us whether men are justified in their confidence. That’s an assumption. And when researchers tested it, they found that men weren’t a neutral control group. Instead, men tended to have an inflated sense of their own abilities.

So women are less confident than men, true. But the reality is that men tend to be overconfident, not that women are underconfident. Again, this should influence which solutions we pursue. Do women need assertiveness training? Or do organizations need to stop equating bluster with skill?

At the current pace of change, it will be centuries before women achieve full equality with men. We’ve got to do better. And one place to start is being smarter about how we diagnose the problems women face.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

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