Monday, June 30, 2008

How to write a New York Times article to make it seem like women work harder than men

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times came out with this article about the distribution of labor within American marriages, which reached the top of their "most-emailed" list. And guess what? According to the author of the piece, Lisa Belkin, things aren't equal.

No, things are awful. And people are irrational. (As one of the experts quoted in the article explains, “When you look at this rationally, it is very difficult to understand why things are the way they are.”)

You see, men have things very good, and women have things very bad. Why? Because wives do a lot more housework than their husbands. (She claims that this only counts unpleasant work like cooking, not fun stuff like reading to your kids.)

Hmm. But ... wait a minute. Is that all that matters? Think about it. What's missing?

Last year, an article in Slate by Joel Waldfogel summarized the findings of a new international study:

Throughout the world, men spend more time on market work, while women spend more time on homework. In the United States and other rich countries, men average 5.2 hours of market work a day and 2.7 hours of homework each day, while women average 3.4 hours of market work and 4.5 hours of homework per day. Adding these up, men work an average of 7.9 hours per day, while women work an average of—drum roll, please—7.9 hours per day.
OK, so one article says things are horribly unequal, and the other says things are exactly equal, down to the fraction of an hour.

So who's right? Well, the Slate article looked at housework and employment (which the article clumsily calls "homework" and "market work"). The New York Times article looks only at housework, and ignores employment.

That certainly looks to me like the New York Times will omit whatever relevant information it has to from a story, as long as this will lead to a conclusion that men are lazy and uncaring, while women are overworked and sympathetic.

But I don't want people to go away from this thinking, "So he agrees with the article that says men and women do equal amounts of work, and he disagrees with the article that says women have it rough." Nope. I don't necessarily believe that.

For one thing, the Slate article is, as I said, about ... men and women. Did you notice what's missing? We don't know their marital status! All the data cited in the article seem to lump single men and women together with married couples. So you can't leap to conclusions about whether marriages are equitable. The article just isn't about that.

But of course, just because Slate left something out is no excuse for the Times to leave something else out. And in fact, the New York Times' omission is much worse.

See, the Slate article wasn't claiming to say anything important about marriages in particular (just men and women of any marital status). Incomplete? Sure. Actively misleading? Not really.

Belkin, on the other hand, is trying her hardest to get you to think, "Well, gee, marriage is incredibly unfair to women!"

Admittedly, Belkin didn't completely ignore this point. No, it's worse than that! She brings up the point to make it look like she's addressed it, but without providing enough information to really judge whether marriages are inequitable:
[Francine Deutsch, one of the researchers,] was struck by how often the wife’s job was seen by both spouses as being more flexible than the husband’s. By way of example she describes two actual couples, one in which he is a college professor and she is a physician and one in which she is a college professor and he is a physician. In either case, Deutsch says “both the husband and wife claimed the man’s job was less flexible.”
Well, the "college professor" vs. "physician" examples may be a cute way to illustrate that narrow psychological point. But what about the much more important question:

How much do men and women actually work in the workplace? And if men work more, is it enough to cancel out the housework disparity? We never find out; we're only told the figures for work done at home.

To be fair, the article does break the housework statistics down into broad categories of how much the husband and wife work at the workplace: we find out that the housework disparity exists even when both spouses have "full-time paying jobs," and we're told that this "makes no sense at all."

But that's just not good enough. Some full-time jobs have much longer hours than others, and it wouldn't be surprising if men tended to work the longer full-time jobs. Why are we told the specific number of hours of housework, but not the specific number of hours worked at the workplace? Without that information, it's impossible to know how big a disparity (if any) there is.

[UPDATE: I could have been a little more precise in making that point. She does give a statistic that looks on its face like it's telling you exactly how many hours men and women work at the workplace, but you can't usefully compare it with any of her other statistics because it's from a different study. And it's buried about as deep into the article as possible. See this update for a long, boring explanation.]

Keep in mind, this is a long, long article with a seemingly endless parade of characters, quips, and anecdotes. There was enough space for a diaphanous point like this: "Messages, loud and soft, direct and oblique, reinforce contextual choice." But they didn't have enough space for the crucial data about how much work husbands and wives do in the workplace.

And on top of all that, Belkin insists on looking just at quantity, not quality, of housework. If the wife spends two hours cooking and cleaning, while the husband spends an hour and a half on car repairs and carpentry, who would you rather be? It's far from obvious.

Once you start looking at the complex qualitative distinctions, the quantitative distinctions stop seeming like the only thing that matters. But again, the Times seems determined to leave out whatever information it has to so that it looks like women are the ones getting the raw deal.

And to combine the two points: what about the qualitative features of men's vs. women's employment? There are some pretty unpleasant jobs that are disproportionately likely to be done by men -- not because of discrimination but because men are just more willing to do certain jobs. Firefighter and trash collector spring to mind. There's no evidence that Belkin is even thinking about that, let alone looking at the relevant data.

Maybe the distribution of work in marriages is unfair to women ... or maybe it's unfair to men. Or maybe everything evens out in the end. I don't know the truth. But at least I know that I don't know.

(Photo of woman drying clothes by SF Buckaroo. Photo of father and daughter by Jamie Goodridge.)

UPDATE: Thanks so much to Instapundit and my mom for linking to this post.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Right on! And I like "diaphanous point."

John Althouse Cohen said...

I thought you'd like that!

Ann Althouse said...

I love that dad guy.

jen said...

These are the numbers that threw me:
the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14 — a ratio of slightly more than two to one. If you break out couples in which wives stay home and husbands are the sole earners, the number of hours goes up for women, to 38 hours of housework a week, and down a bit for men, to 12, a ratio of more than three to one.

For all the times I heard the refrain that being a stay-at-home mother and housewife is "a full-time job", I always imagined more than 38 hours per week.

But then I realized - neither one of these sets of numbers tell us whether these men and women are parents! That's a significant detail to be omitting. (It also doesn't get into homes vs. apartments.)

31 hours keeping an 1,100-square-foot apartment clean when you and hubby are the only ones in it? That's a clean place. 31 hours only partially spent on keeping a 2,500-square-foot house clean when it's you, hubby, and 4 kids under the age of 6 (with the rest of those hours spent looking after the kids)? Not so much.

Don Dale said...

I think you're being a bit unfair to the author. She certainly would have addressed your point if she had the time. But she likely had to fit writing the article in between mowing her lawn and putting in a new garbage disposal, so she just needed to cut a few corners.

Anonymous said...

Who exactly is watching soap operas and Oprah all week long?

Anonymous said...

If this is the study I'm thinking of, a lot of housework was actually omitted. Thinks like...carpentry and car repair, and if I remember correctly, lawn work as well.

They looked at a small fraction of housework, things that, stereotype or not, tend to be the female's role.

Anonymous said...

Before I chose to be a stay at home dad I was a working dad. I promise you, housework is way way easier than real work. Of course I still don't do the cooking or cleaning. That's squaw work. But if I did do it, it would be easier.

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you what, I'd be MORE than willing to have my wife take on the "traditional breadwinner" role and I'll take on the "housewife" role.

I could use the break.

Because the way it is now, I *already* do 75% of the cooking, and easily half of the household chores.

And I do the lawn (but not the gardening). And the minor carpentry and plumbing, and the car repair, and the budgeting, and all of the grocery shopping.

So, in my new role, I'll only do what I *ALREADY* do, minus the whole go to work for 9+ hours a day thing.

And I'll get to spend my wife's money and go to the gym and spend the afternoons with the kids.


SGT Ted said...

What is missing is that women like to complain more. They especially like to complain about men.

Anonymous said...

A doctor and university if they actually do their own cleaning and don't have domestic help. Maybe if they have no kids.

plutosdad said...

"cooking and cleaning, while the husband spends an hour and a half on car repairs and carpentry"

I was under the impression the study specifically left out home repair. Which would drastically undercount mens' hours. Unless that was another study in the past year.

Anonymous said...

Let's take it to a more detailed level. Include statistics on missed work due to the use of Health Insurance in the office as compared Female v. Male. Then, take it a step further to reflect comparative work time in the office between single males without dependents (majority of employees) v. married females with dependents...and see who puts in a longer day.

Asteroid to hit the Earth tomorrow and destroy all life. Women and minorities hardest hit....

Anonymous said...

Sgt. Ted, she is a journalist, she is paid to complain.

The only woman I really know who complains about her man is in her 40s. She's got this feminist thing going on..."he feels he is so entitled and that his career is so much more important than mine"...Never mind that his career makes twice as much money and she has a spending problem.

It seems like women in my age group --mom's some working, mid 30s with kid(s) really are grateful for their guys.

The housfraus are grateful to be hausfraus. The working women are grateful dad takes kids to the park while they cook dinner.

Of course, maybe I select happy women to be my friends.

Micha Elyi said...

Anonymous (12:26 PM) wrote, "Sgt. Ted, she is a journalist, she is paid to complain."

The operative word is not "journalist," it's "she." Sgt. Ted's point stands.

By the way, this latest example of Women Have It Worse feminist agitprop furthers the falsehoods spread earlier by Arlie "Second Shift" Hochschild. They've been debunked long ago in works such as Warren Farrell's Women Can't Hear. Men and women of good will toward men have been saying the facts for years yet feminist distortions continue to elude the legions of fact-checkers who labor at The New York Times.

Anonymous said...

"Why are we told the specific number of hours of housework, but not the specific number of hours worked at the workplace? Without that information, it's impossible to know how big a disparity (if any) there is."

Actually the article does gives those stats, but they don't support the author's premise that men aren't pulling their weight.

"The most recent figures from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households show that the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14 — a ratio of slightly more than two to one."

"Patterson found that while heterosexual fathers work an average of 47 hours for pay each week and heterosexual mothers work 24, the average for lesbian mothers, both biological and nonbiological, is about 35."

If you believe the stats, weekly, heterosexual men spend a combined 61 hours on house work and their paying job.

Heterosexual women spend 55 hours a week, between the two.

I know it doesn't discredit her "message", but am I the only one who thought it was funny this New York Times article was written by someone with this by line?

"Lisa Belkin, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about her former nanny, who was accused of assaulting two elderly patients in Ireland."

Was it her nanny from childhood? Or her children's nanny? How did that affect the distribution of work in her household?

Dave Mitchell said...

The article did actually contain data on how much each partner works outside the home. On average, 47 hours for dads, 24 hours for moms. The author spun this to show that moms have to make more career sacrifices. I took it to instead show that on average, dads work 61 hours (47 outside, 14 at home), while moms work 55 hours (24 outside, 31 at home). Seems pretty equitable to me.

Anonymous said...

The person who fixes my car charges three times as much as the person who vacuums my office. Anybody see where i'm going with this?

Anonymous said...

The one thing that actually is a threat to women's right - Islamic Sharia Law - is rapidly making inroads in the West. Honor killings are common in London, and will soon be coming to New York.

Yet, the feminists are not fighting this.

John Althouse Cohen said...

buckeye tom and dave:

You're right. Thank you for pointing this out. I see that I should have been more precise. I plan to update this later on when I have more time.

Unfortunately, even with those statistics, she's still leaving out what we'd need to know in order to judge whether there's a true disparity. That statistic about employment done by men vs. women is from a different study from the studies she relies on to argue that there's a housework disparity. In other words, it's not commensurable with the data supporting the main thesis of the article. Finding out that men work an average of 47 hours and women work an average of 24 still does not tell you the crucial missing piece of information: How much total work is done by men vs. women? You would need to have a single study that gave you the distributions of total hours worked each week and then broke it down by employment vs. housework. To say, "Well, there's one study about the housework disparity, and then we have some other random statistic from a different study about how much people work at the office," is just not good enough. She never cites a single study to back up the assertion that wives bear a greater work burden than their husbands.

Also, that stat is mentioned only in passing, near the end of the 9th of 10 pages. I thought I had scoured the article for any such statistics, but I missed that one because it's buried in the middle of a discussion of gay households that's tacked on at the very end of the very long article. The far more prominent part of the article where she addresses the amount of employment hours worked by men vs. women is the part I discussed in the blog post, which creates the misleading impression that there's still a disparity even after you factor in employment. If anything, the later figures that are buried at the end of the article drastically undercut her thesis -- but again, you can't really count them since they're from a different study than the ones she draws on to claim there is a housework disparity.

Patrick said...

The wife runs her business from home. I go a client site on a daily basis.

I arrived home early one day to find every TV on, and tuned to Oprah.

I now understand why I pay the mortgage, the utilities, the taxes, the maintenance, etc., and the wife's business is bumping along. It's like the chicken and pig when it comes to eggs and bacon: the chicken's involved, the pig's committed.


Buckeye Tom said...


Let me clarify my earlier comment. I wasn't critizing your post. I was just referencing the fact that Lisa Belkin was cherry picking stats to support her premise. However, she clearly did a poor job because her numbers contradict her assertions.

I agree, to get a true understanding of the situation, one study encompassing all areas is needed. However, the author had an agenda to push, so she found stats that she thought would support her claims.

But, even the bit about gay couples who were offered up as the ideal "role models" for work distribution, contradicts her assertion that heterosexual men aren't pulling their weight.

"“Heterosexual couples can learn from gay couples about sharing housework and child care,” says Esther D. Rothblum, a professor in the women’s studies department of San Diego State University whose comparative study of the relationships of 342 couples — lesbian, gay, heterosexual — was published in the journal Developmental Psychology in January. “They are good role models.”

"Rothblum found that it is only heterosexual mothers who do the lion’s share of housework for the family each week — between 11 and 20 hours for her survey respondents. Lesbian parents, gay parents and heterosexual fathers all look the same on paper when it comes to cooking and cleaning — they all report doing between 6 and 10 hours a week."

So heterosexual males are working the same amount of hours at home as the "ideal role models". That means heterosexual females should only be required to work the same amount in order for the hetero couple to be on par with the gay couple. However the straight women are working twice as much. If anything, Lisa Belkin is making heterosexual females look like they have a compulsive cleaning disorder.

John Althouse Cohen said...

buckeye tom:

Great point about the comparison to gay couples!

I didn't mean to seem overly defensive in my previous comment -- it's just that I did see my original post had been a little imprecise. And of course you're right that the statistic undermines her thesis. I appreciated your pointing it out to me, since I glossed over it originally. I've put up a new post to clarify this point:

Unknown said...

i think men and woman have it equally as bad it may seem convenient to be at home but its probably just like being grounded being doomed to the house all day to clean and cook and take care of kids without getting paid no wonder woman wish their husbands would take them out of the house more but then for the men who spend all day not being home, needed to impress other people and do whatever he does with the pressures to roof feed and clothes his family no wonder when he gets home he just wants to rest and be in the house he pays for and only spends a little bit of time in. But besides all of that lets talk about future generations, i really wish men and woman both had income jobs and cleaned and cooked together isnt that equality? sure woman have jobs now but some men are willing to be a stay at home dads with no income but arnt willing to cook and clean i just think that when feminists fought they wanted equality not a half assed flip flop where they come home from work only to see the cleaning and cooking hasnt been done and they have to do it aswell.
i never agreed though with the man going out working to support the woman financially so i dont beleive aswell woman going out their to support men financially both spouses should be able to take care of themselves and everything else they share they share the paments as well (kids, house, bills). i dont know if its hard for you men to find a sucessful woman who isnt going to mooch and bum off of you but allot of guys out their, i know not all, just some arnt willing to do anything because they know theyll be taken care of by the ones who love them and their lovers who are succeeding....maybe its just my town but ive read up on some books that agree..input?

John Althouse Cohen said...

I am closing the comments on this thread to avoid spam. If you'd like to make a comment, just email me (email address is in the sidebar of the blog) and I'll open them back up.