Tuesday, July 1, 2008

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

WARNING: This is a boring, dry post to refine one of the points I made from my previous post. You should read that post before, or even instead of, reading this one.

A couple of commenters questioned an assertion I made about Lisa Belkin's New York Times article on the distribution of labor in marriages. So I want to clear this up.

Here's what I wrote in that blog post:

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.
One commenter said:
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.
The next commenter (who hadn't seen the above comment, since it hadn't appeared on the blog yet) made the same point:
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.
So, was I wrong? Did the article actually give the relevant data?

Well, I'll admit my language wasn't quite precise enough because I had glossed over that statistic.

But no, the article does not give the relevant data. Belkin does not cite a single study to show that women bear a greater work burden than their husbands.

Okay, now here are the details:

The statistic about employment hours worked by men (47 per week) vs. women (24 per week) is from a different study than the studies she relies on to argue that there's a housework disparity. So 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'd need to have a single study that first gave you the distributions of total hours worked each week, and then broke it down by employment vs. housework. It's just not good enough 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." I have no idea what kinds of different methodologies the two studies used, which completely throws off any meaningful comparison of the data (especially since both studies presumably rely on self-reporting).

Also, if you were writing an article on how much work is done by husbands vs. wives, where would you put the crucial data about how many hours they work at their jobs? Would you put that information...
(A) near the beginning of the article, along with the main discussion of the statistics on the difference between how much housework is done by wives and husbands, or

(B) at the bottom of page 9 out of 10, near the end of a special discussion of gay households?
I don't know about you, but I would have chosen (A).

The author chose (B).

It's nice to include data on gay households as well as straight ones ... but you know, if you write an extremely long article on marriage, and you tack on a short section at the end that's specifically about gay relationships, it's probably not going to get read by a lot of people. Most readers are going to be more interested in learning about straight marriages than gay relationships, because most readers are straight.

In other words, Belkin buried this piece of information about as deep into the article as possible.

Of course, if you do want to graft the "47 hours/24 hours" statistic onto the other study as a way of figuring out whether there really is a disparity, you'll seem to undermine the author's thesis. That is, it will end up looking like men actually work a bit more than women. As the two commenters quoted above point out, if you combine housework and employment, you get a total of 61 hours worked by men (47 employment + 14 housework) and 55 hours worked by women (24 employment + 31 housework).

But again, I don't consider that a valid statistic, since it's jumbling up different methodologies. There's no way to know how that might skew the comparison one way or another.

The basic point from my original post still stands: when you dig down into the article, Belkin is just not giving us the info we'd need to make a judgment of whether there's any real gender disparity as far as the work done by married couples.