N.Y. Times piece spurs controversy

A front-page story in the New York Times last week on women at Yale increasingly favoring motherhood over careers has unleashed a campus debate on work and family and has drawn questions about the article’s accuracy.

The article, based on surveys and reporting at Yale, described a growing number of female students at elite colleges who want to leave the workforce or work part-time after they have children. The writer, Louise Story ’03 SOM ’06, reported the story over the last year and the Times published the Sept. 20 article, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” after she completed an internship on the newspaper’s business desk.

Story conducted a survey of female Yale freshmen and seniors in two of the 12 residential colleges, Saybrook and Pierson, and concluded that approximately 60 percent of 138 respondents said they would reduce or eliminate their professional workload for at least two years after having children. Story said the two-year criterion distinguished women who planned to alter their careers in a meaningful way.

The Yale Women’s Center is concerned about the trend as reported by the Times. Elizabeth St. Victor ’08, the center’s public relations coordinator, said Story’s sample of students was too small to be representative of a broad trend among women at elite colleges. The Women’s Center is planning to conduct a study of the same issue, possibly with the help of a graduate student in the Sociology Department, to be released in approximately three months, she said.

“We want to seriously and honestly discover what Yale women are thinking about this — and Yale men as well,” St. Victor said.

But Barry Nalebuff, an SOM professor who has known Story since she was an undergraduate, reviewed her method of collecting data for the article and concluded that the survey provided meaningful results to draw conclusions about Yale women.

“I would say that there are people who have been very quick to attack her without having any understanding of what she’s done,” he said. “This is a gold standard, maybe never to be duplicated, in terms of how a journalist would go about gathering data.”

In November 2004, Story sent a 25-question survey to approximately 220 women and by February, after the survey was sent to non-respondents four times, 138 students had provided lengthy responses to her open-ended questions. For example, the survey asked, “When you have children, do you plan to stay at home with them or do you plan to continue working?”

Story said she selected students from only two colleges, since each college is approximately representative of the student body. She surveyed freshmen and seniors so she could consider how opinions may have changed after three years of college, she said.

“As the data came in, it became apparent from the start that there were a lot of women who might adapt their careers,” Story, a former staff reporter for the Yale Daily News, said in an interview this week with the News.

The story generated attention on Web logs and other news outlets. Jack Shafer, the editor at large at Slate, an online news and opinion site, called Story’s article a “bogus trend story.” He argued that she used the word “many” too frequently in her article.

“Like its fellow weasel-words… ‘many’ serves writers who haven’t found the data to support their argument,” Shafer wrote in a critique of Story’s article. “A light splash of weasel-words in a news story is acceptable if only because journalism is not an exact science and deadlines must be observed. But when a reporter pours a whole jug of weasel-words into a piece, as Louise Story does … she needlessly exposes one of the trade’s best-kept secrets for all to see. She deserves a week in the stockades. And her editor deserves a month.”

More than a week after Story’s article ran in the Times, students are still discussing the story on campus. At least one of the students quoted in the article who said she plans to suspend her career for motherhood has received heated e-mails from readers who are angry with the reported trend, multiple friends of the student said.

The three students quoted in the Times as representative of the trend did not return requests for comment from the News. But two students who were interviewed for Story’s article said the article was one-sided in its depiction of Yale women, arguing that many women would not want to give up their careers to have children.

“I thought maybe she had found the answers she wanted and represented those as the majority,” said Laura Sullivan ’08, who was quoted by Story as not wanting to stay at home as a mother.

After completing the survey, Story contacted several of the women who had replied and met with them on campus to learn more about their personal beliefs. She took Morgan Dwyer ’08 and five of her suitemates to dinner last year to discuss motherhood and careers. While Dwyer said three of her suitemates told Story they plan to stop working or move to part-time employment after they have children, Dwyer was adamant about her intention to become an astronaut — her dream since third grade.

“I want to do that before I let kids get in the way of being able to fly into space,” she said.

At dinner with Story, the six students debated the issue of staying home — but Dwyer said she believes the full debate was not reflected in the Times article. Story quoted only three of them, all of whom told Story they wanted to become stay-at-home mothers.

Story said she was unable to quote everyone she interviewed, but she said some students’ pro-career views were illustrated by Sullivan’s quote. Because of her survey findings, which Story said were unexpected, she sought to explain why so many women indicated they wanted to put motherhood before careers.

History professor Cynthia Russett, who teaches courses on women’s history, was interviewed by Story last year, but told the News she felt that her views were misrepresented in the Times article. Russett was quoted in the Times as saying, “The women today are, in effect, turning realistic.” But Russett said this week that she had no evidence of the trend other than Story’s survey and, if the trend is valid, it should be lamented.

“It seems to me it’s a very forced choice on people,” she told the News. “They’re not making a free choice because they don’t have the kind of institutional arrangements that would make the true free choice possible.”

Story said Russett’s quote in the Times was accurate and for reasons of length she was forced to pick from the many comments Russett made in her interview.

The Women’s Center hopes to continue a debate on the issue of women’s balance between career and family, even once the controversy over Story’s article dies down, St. Vincent said. The center is planning a speaker series next semester on the topic, she said.

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