Exaggerating gender changes

It is great to acknowledge and celebrate the increase in father involvement in parenting. But it is not helpful to exaggerate the trend and link it to the mythmaking about looming female dominance. Yesterday’s feature in the Sunday New York Times does just that, and reminds me that I meant to offer a quick debunking of Hanna Rosin’s TED talk.

The story is headlined “Just Wait Till Your Mother Gets Home.” The picture shows a group of dads with their kids, as if representing what one calls “the new normal.” Careful inspection of the caption reveals it is a “daddy and me” music class, so we should not be surprised to see a lot of dads with their kids.

The article also makes use of a New Yorker cover, which captures a certain gestalt — it’s a funny exaggeration — but should not be confused with an empirical description of the gender distribution of parents and playgrounds:

Naturally, the story is in the Style section, so close reading of the empirical support is perhaps a fool’s errand. However, I could not help noticing that the only two statistics in the story were either misleading or simply inaccurate. In the category of misleading, was this:

In the last decade, though, the number of men who have left the work force entirely to raise children has more than doubled, to 176,000, according to recent United States census data. Expanding that to include men who maintain freelance or part-time jobs but serve as the primary caretaker of children under 15 while their wife works, the number is around 626,000, according to calculations the census bureau compiled for this article.

The Census Bureau has for years employed a very rigid definition of stay-at-home dads, which only counts those who are out of the labor force for an entire year for reasons of “taking care of home and family.” This may seem an overly strict definition and an undercount, but if you simply counted any man with no job but with children as a stay-at-home dad, you risk counting any father who lost a job as stay-at-home. (A former student of mine, Beth Latshaw (now at Appalachian State University), has explored this issue and published her results here in the journal Fathering.)

In any event, those look like big numbers, but one should always be wary of raw numbers in the news. In fact, when you look at the trend as published by the Census Bureau, you see that the proportion of married couple families in which the father meets the stay-at-home criteria has doubled: from 0.4% in 2000 to 0.8% today. The larger estimate which includes fathers working part-time comes out to 2.8% of married couple families with children under 15. The father who used the phrase “the new normal” in the story was presumably not speaking statistically.

Source: My calculations from Census Bureau numbers (.xls file). Includes only married-couple families with children under age 15.

That’s the misleading number. The inaccurate number is here:

About 40 percent of women now make more than their husbands, the bureau’s statistics show, and that may be only the beginning of a seismic power shift, if new books like “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, And Family,” by Liza Mundy, and “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” by Hanna Rosin, are to be believed.

I guess in these troubled times for the newspaper business it might be acceptable to report X and Y statistic “if so-and-so is to be believed.” But it is a shame to do so when the public is paying the salary of people who have already debunked the numbers in question. Just the other day, I wrote about that very statistic: “Really? No. I don’t know why this keeps going around.” Using freely available tables (see the post), I calculated that a reasonable estimate of the higher-earning-wife share is 21%. In fact, on this point Liza Mundy and Hanna Rosin and are not to be believed.

Source: My graph from Census Bureau numbers

TED: Misinformation frequently spread

There is a TED talk featuring Hanna Rosin from the end of 2010, and I finally got around to watching it. Without doing a formal calculation, I would say that “most” of the statistics she uses in this talk are either wrong or misinterpreted to exaggerate the looming approach of female dominance. For example, she says that the majority of “managers” are now women, but the image on the slide which flashes by briefly refers to “managers and professionals.” Professionals includes nurses and elementary school teachers. Among managers themselves, women do represent a growing share (although not a majority, and the growth has slowed considerably), but they remain heavily segregated as I have shown here.

Rosin further reports that “young women” are earning more than “young men.” This statistic, which has been going around for a few years now, in fact refers to single, child-free women under age 30 and living in metropolitan areas. That is an interesting statistic, but used in this way is simply a distortion. (See this post for a more thorough discussion, with links.)

Rosin also claims that “70% of fertility clinic patients” prefer to have a female birth. In her own article in the Atlantic, Rosin reports a similar number for one (expensive, rare) method of sex selection only (with no source offered) — but of course the vast majority of fertility clinic patients are not using sex selection techniques. In fact, in her own article she writes, “Polling data on American sex preference is sparse, and does not show a clear preference for girls.”

Finally, I don’t think I need to offer statistics to address such claims as women are “taking control of everything”and “starting to dominate” among “doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants.” These are just made up. Congress is 17% female.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Exaggerating gender changes

  1. Pingback: The Myth of Female Dominance « Welcome to the Doctor's Office

  2. I’m confused by your analysis of the at-home dad numbers. You’re saying they are exaggerated in the Times article? You think 626,000 at-home dads is a high number? There are like 60-70 MILLION families in America. 626,000 is not a high number or exaggerated. In fact, it is probably low. Dr. Lathsaw’s research concluded there are probably 2 million at-home dads so I don’t get how you are including a link to her article which contradicts what you are saying.

    Or maybe I am not getting what you are saying at all.

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  8. What I find really interesting about these numbers is to contextualize them internationally; women pretty much get the short end-of the stick in China and India, I don’t know about Brazil, Russia’s numbers aren’t good but that is only anecdotal; I don’t know about Europe. My point is sometimes books like Ms Mundy’s and Ms Rosin’s are written as though America is the centre of the world; and it is not.

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