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Monday, January 29, 2007

Distorting the truth

I still shake my head in bewilderment when I think about a story I wrote several years ago about a company that saw its stock rise 40 percent in one day based on a misleading press release. The company's spokeswoman told me, "We compared apples to oranges just to prove a point." Their point cost people a hefty load of money.

I know press releases are not often reflective of reality. That said, I'm really annoyed with a press release issued on January 16, by the Simmons School of Management (SOM). It was called, "Most Women Aren't 'Opting Out' of the Work Force, Simmons Study Finds: Women are Leading the Way to a New Career Model, Authors Say."

The SOM press release said the study examined how many women were leaving the workforce during different points in their careers, why they made certain career choices, and how they tried to manage a work-life balance. The take-away: positive. Just don't think that their sample was representative of women, or even regular college-educated women. The findings were based on "400 middle- and senior-level professional women from around the nation with an average of 20 years' work experience from across the business and non-profit spectrum, who attended the 2006 Simmons School of Management Leadership Conference in Boston."

Talk about a small slice of reality. But that was not all. The full study footnotes admit that their sample set was very skewed towards the positive findings that they reported:
The sample was described as "highly qualified women" who had a college degree with honors or a graduate degree. The SOM sample could be defined as "professional women who have chosen to remain employed full-time." Given that the U.S. Department of Labor states that 75% of employed women in 2005 worked full-time, the SOM sample over-represented these women. Given that 33% of women aged 25-64 held college degrees in 2004...[the] sample over-represented these women.

Women are not opting out of the workforce in droves, said lead study author Professor Mary Shapiro of the Simmons School of Management, in the press release. "It's a myth--based on a handful of anecdotes in the popular press about white, high-income women," Shapiro said. But based on their own skewed sample, are the SOM findings spreading a myth of their own? It too is based on a handful of anecdotes from white ("Given the expected demographics of the population from which we were drawing our sample, we recognized that we would have a small percentage of women of color to study") and high income (average salary: $116,000) women.

So which is a bigger myth? The opting out? Or the study findings?

The SOM survey cited improvements over a 2005 Hewlett and Luce study. For example, SOM said "less than half the number in our survey left the workforce temporarily." Since I don't have the H&L study to look at, it's hard to know if things improved that drastically in one year. If the sample sets were similar, this would be a big improvement. But if the H&L sample included a larger demographic, would there still be a positive trend?

I would like nothing more than to find out that women are getting more flexibility from their employers. But it is difficult to know what is real when press releases are perpetrating more myths. To be fair, if over time, this particular study finds that this particular subset of women is getting more flexibility from their employers, that is great. At that point, we can hope that those benefits trickle down to all women.


  1. have you heard about this event next week? very relevant to your topic

  2. I completely get your frustration. Why is it so hard to get empirical evidence on this question? I know that in my limited experience, I do know a fair number of white collar women who have negotiated flexible or non-traditional schedules and have experienced success in their careers, but I am always left wondering if we are unusual or part of an emerging trend.

  3. Hello Suzanne,
    Thank you for reading our research and posting some very interesting questions about it. I’d like to address some of your concerns.

    As a blogger, you may have been also “shaking your head in bewilderment” starting back in 2003 when mainstream media started reporting how women were “opting out” of the workforce. I was, too. And talk about a “small slice of reality!” Time Magazine, Fast Company and others ran stories based on anecdotal stories from a few women. One story which claimed that maternal instinct was on the rise, and that accounted for the number of women leaving the workplace, was written after the editor talked to a few of her girl friends.

    My colleagues and I at Simmons were incensed: how could a reputable magazine extrapolate from a sample of 6-8 girlfriends what the total working female population was doing? Clearly those women were highly educated, most likely white, and definitely privileged. What was more: they could afford to not work.

    We set out to explore a larger “slice of reality,” the reality of the working professional woman. You are absolutely correct that this still is a narrow subset of the US working female population
    ---it doesn’t capture union jobs, hourly workers, women in minimum wage jobs. But that is exactly why we included all the demographics about our sample, both in the text of our study and in our endnotes. We wanted to be very clear that we weren’t speaking about all women (and in fact, we even state that we didn’t capture enough women of color to be able to speak about their work experiences, but plan to in future studies). You are correct: it is too easy for the press to grab one statistic about one group of women and use it to explain all women.

    We do feel we were able to understand what working professional women (of a higher income, as we stated) were doing. Their income and demographics did allow us to push back against what the mainstream media had been saying for the past 3 years and what the rest of us know for the wider reality: women work to pay the bills. Over 85% of our women had to work (in that they contributed at least 50% to the household income, and over 35% of them contributed 100%). But what surprised us was that this group of women, contrary to the media, said they weren’t opting out when they used flexible work arrangements (FWAs), such as flexhours or telecommuting. Instead, they were using FWAs to make work “work” for them, to juggle crazy lives and to primarily stay full time employed, and were using FWAs without hurting their incomes.

    Can this be extrapolated to a larger population of women? Maybe. As you said, this “particular group of women is getting more flexibility from their employers”….but we didn’t say employers in general were becoming more accommodating, or that negotiating for FWAs is easy, or that leading a life juggling work (no matter how flexible) and family/outside worklife is easy. Ask any woman who has negotiated to leave work by 3PM to be home when the kids get off the bus, only to get back online and do email once the kids go to bed, that life is not easy. But it’s the best she can do, given that she has kids to care for and bills to pay. In that regard, it may be a story that resonates with many women who don’t earn $116,000 a year.

    Finally, one message that we hope does resonate with women of all incomes and job types: you aren’t wrong or deficient in asking for FWAs. You are proactively managing your career to make it work for you. The reason employers look at you with raised eyebrows, or think that you aren’t committed to work, or think “there goes maternal instinct,” is that they are judging your career choice against an outdated career model---a model that is no longer supported by stay at home moms, and lifelong stable employment; an outdated career model that equates “face time” with commitment and measures billable hours instead of productivity.

    Mary Shapiro,
    Simmons School of Management
    Study Author