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Friday, February 02, 2007

Simmons study author responds to MIC

Earlier this week, I criticized a recent study conducted by the Simmons School of Management about whether or not women are "opting out" of the workforce. The study reported that most women are not opting out. Rather, women are negotiating "flexible work arrangements" so that they can stay employed. I argued that their study--which included mostly white, high-income women--could possibly be perpetrating its own myth about working women.

Simmons Professor and Lead Study Author Mary Shapiro responded to my criticism and addressed some of my concerns. Here is her response:
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
I want to thank Ms. Shapiro for taking the time to respond to me. It is necessary that we continue the dialog about all working women--working parents. I hope that the more we talk about these issues, 1) more parents will try to negotiate some flexibility into their jobs to create an equilibrium between work and home, and 2) more employers will foster a work environment that values employees based on the job performed, not on gender or parental status.


  1. I would say I fall in that category of working women that Ms. Shapiro describes. I work from home (telecommute) because I am responsible for 100% of the income, have a child to raise, white (though, i'm not actually sure what that has to do with anything), a college graduate, and i'm making quite abit less income than prior to having a child.

    I don't mean to be following a trend. I'm just trying to do what is in the best interest for me and my family.

    Other than that, I have no point. I just wanted to say, "hey that sounds like me!!"

  2. Sarah -- You have an amazing arrangement with your employer! My biggest concern is that when press releases proclaim (and the media reports) that most women have set up flexible jobs, then people probably stop paying attention, thinking everything is all worked out--no problem. Once you look at the study and not the press release, you find out that it was talking about a very small number of women. Fortunately you fall into that category.