Colleen Kay Porter: Get the data right

Published: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 4:17 p.m.

As a soft-money researcher always on the lookout for another grant, my ears perked up when President Barack Obama used the word “statistics” in his inauguration speech.

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Michelle Obama has said the issue of work-life balance is one of her priorities. That might provide new prospects for researchers to provide data that inform public policy on such issues. The catch is, some of the existing research in that field is problematic.

I hope that this new wave of research can avoid such pitfalls. Here are some of my personal gripes:

1. Don’t let ideology override data.

In 2003, a widely publicized study by a “pro-family” group claimed that when marriages are troubled, people are happier in the long run sticking with the marriage. These findings were contrived by lumping together those who divorced with those who are separated (which is the most stressful status). When “divorced” and “separated” were split into distinct categories, the marriage advantage diminished.

2. Be careful with the T-word.

I’m talking about “traditional.” I find it much overused and misleading as applied to single-income families.

Today’s mothers who are at home full time with children for a season rarely make that decision based on custom, and have little in common with moms of previous generations. Unlike June Cleaver, most don’t wear pearls and high heels as they vacuum. They are full partners in marriage, and father does not automatically “know best” in their households.

When my daughter returns to work after maternity leave with her second child, her husband is likely going to be at home full time for a while, as she finishes her graduate schooling, a move that is seen as radically progressive. Ironic that if their genders were flipped, they would suddenly be considered “traditional.”

3. Ask the real question.

One of the questions that recurs on surveys about parental employment goes something like, “Agree or disagree: Employment of wives leads to juvenile delinquency.” This drives me batty, and I don’t know how to respond.

Employment of wives doesn’t necessarily affect children, because wives aren’t always mothers. I suspect that children might get into more trouble if a parent is not at home supervising after school, but that could be mitigated by good after-school programs; I don’t think it is always the mom’s job. There are so many ways to ask about the real issues that have policy implications; why do researchers ask these same tired and confusing items over and over again?

4. Quantify, don’t label.

Of the young moms I know personally, most of them are employed and most are at home with children. Say what?

Well, there is a lawyer who works while her baby naps, an occupational therapist working one morning a week while her husband handles their kids, lots of nurses and dental hygienists who work just a few shifts a month and trade baby-sitting with each other, and so on.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they are employed. But they self-identify as full-time parents. Others do “equally shared parenting,” with both partners having part-time jobs and both caring for children.

In this era of telecommuting and flexible employment, they are the wave of the future, and researchers need to find a better way of quantifying their employment. It’s one of those situations when a simple percentage can be misleading.

5. Don’t underestimate the contribution of a supportive spouse.

Numerous studies show that the most successful employees are men whose wives are not employed. Why? Researchers come up with various theories: For instance, the sole breadwinner feels greater pressure to provide for the family. The family doesn’t need a second salary once a high income level is reached. Once such men are in power, they reward those like them, making a self-perpetuating system of discrimination against women.

Few studies consider what an asset a supportive spouse can be. I think it makes a huge difference, and it isn’t merely the wife’s lack of a paycheck or her gender, but what that spouse does for the employed partner.

My sister’s husband was a plant manager and later became a company vice president, partly because his wife was such a great hostess and available to fly up to the firm’s hunting lodge in Wisconsin or down to the condo in Florida to wine and dine potential clients. She played a direct role in his career success and greater remuneration.

Even in families where the parent at home isn’t so actively involved in the employed spouse’s career, having someone to meet the plumber and care for sick kids makes a huge difference in worker productivity.

I am not saying that way of doing things is always better. I trust that each family makes the choices that are best for their particular situation. But certainly the consequences of various choices are different, and it is both sexist and stupid for researchers to ignore the contributions of supportive spouses.

I hope that new research to inform Michelle Obama’s agenda can accurately describe the many effective family constellations found in America today, with varying shapes and sizes of parents, children, extended family.

Colleen Kay Porter is a Gainesville mother and grandmother, and part of a research team at UF.

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