has mainstream media covered the subject of U.S. working mothers leaving
the labor force to stay at home and rear children? First, let us define
our terms. By working mothers, I mean adult females with kids who labor
for paychecks away from their households. Of course stay-at-home moms
work. It is noteworthy that their labor is not counted in the official
measure of the economy, or the gross domestic product, the prices of the
output of goods and services (Associated Press, 1-28-06). The GDP can
go up, go down or stay flat, but the daily work of women who change
diapers, cook meals and clean house is hidden in plain sight when
mainstream journalists report on the economy.
We turn to mainstream coverage of working
women with kids in the New York Times Magazine. In an article
Opt-Out Revolution” about the life choices of some women who
became stay-at-home moms, reporter Lisa Belkin wrote: “It is not just
that the workplace has failed women. It is also that women are
rejecting the workplace” (10-26-03). Ms. Belkin interviewed women
employed in high-paying jobs. One woman was a TV reporter. Another was
a lawyer. They had the privileges of advanced education that paved the
way to high salaries.
A sub-headline in a
Time Magazine article by Claudia Wallis read:
“Caught between the pressures of the workplace and the demands of being
a mom, more women are sticking with the kids” (3-22-04). The story
about working women’s careers and their kids pulling them from the labor
market was getting legs in mainstream media.
New York Times reporter Louise Story wrote: “Many women at the nation's
most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put
aside their careers in favor of raising children.” The women students
she cited and interviewed at Harvard, Princeton and Yale “are likely to
marry men who will make enough money to give them a real choice about
whether to be full-time mothers, unlike those women who must work out of
economic necessity” (9-2-05).
Well, government data does in fact show that the rate of women with
children working and looking for employment has declined since the 2001
recession. In a recession, the economy’s production of goods and
services shrinks for six straight months. This half-year process
usually leads to employers hiring fewer workers.
Increased employer spending creates new jobs. Speaking of new hiring,
if the economy had been growing now as it was in 2000, about 4 million
people more would be employed. This includes women workers.
“The recession of the early 2000s was harder on women than the recession
of the 1980s or 1990s, and in particular, harder on younger women,”
wrote Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic and
Policy Research in Washington, DC (“Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the
Myth,” Briefing Paper, 12-05). In other words, women have been leaving
the work force because of the failure of the economy to create the
number of jobs that it had during the 10-year economic expansion that
ended in March 2001. The end of that decade’s rate of job growth was to
blame for the exodus of women from paid employment.
Think of women workers employed in the high-tech boom of the 1990s.
Think of the telecom firms such as WorldCom that boomed then busted as
the new decade began. This process put local women out of work such as
Janie Foydl. She “worked for troubled corporate giant WorldCom, and was
one of 200 local employees who were fired when the company shuttered its
Rancho Cordova call center” (Sacramento News & Review, 9-1-02). For Ms.
Foydl and other women, employment in high-tech industry has not returned
to what it was last decade.
What of the “child penalty,” meaning the effects of what having a
child actually does to the careers of some working women interviewed by
Ms. Belkin? That penalty has shrunk during the past 20 years,
according to Ms. Boushey, who analyzed national jobs data
from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. She continued: “The reality is that
mothers are now less likely to leave the labor market because of their
This reality reflects far-reaching changes in the US market for the
labor of mothers. The impacts on the lives of them and their families
are real and really worth the widest possible public discussion.
Some reporters in mainstream outlets missed the story on
mothers’ participation in the labor market by a kind of willful
blindness to the real lives of the vast female majority. Media hype
about women opting out of the workplace to become stay-at-home moms
distorted a daily reality for millions of mothers and their families.
Ms. Boushey sums up the effects of the business cycle on working women
and their families: “For many mothers, the slack labor market has not
only meant fewer jobs, but also an inability to find a job with the
benefits or flexibility needed to support a family both economically and
emotionally. The majority of children are being raised in a home where
both their parents are working, creating a time crunch at home and added
stress when there is no one available to take time off work to care for
a sick child or attend a parent-teacher meeting. Hoping for an opt out
by mothers is not going to change this. Rather than hyping anecdotes,
we’d be better off focusing on solutions for the very real struggles
families face in finding the time and resources to care for one
In brief, we need to find ways to make the economy work for women
and everybody else. Economics as if people mattered. Imagine that.
is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of
Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive paper. He can be
reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.