Louise Story’s remarks at the Yale Women’s Faculty Forum panel, 10/20/05

First off, I’d like to thank the Women’s Faculty Forum for inviting me to be a part of this panel. I have a great many things to share with you this afternoon, and I am excited to answer your questions.

I began reporting my article at Yale nearly a year ago. There were many ways a reporter might have gone about studying women at elite colleges. A reporter might have interviewed women in various student organizations, sports teams, or classes. Or, a reporter might have stood on Old Campus and interviewed passers-by. However from the start, I believed that it would be much better to find a representative sample of all Yale College female students. For that sample, I chose two residential colleges – Pierson and Saybrook. As you know, students are assigned to one of Yale’s 12 colleges before their freshman year using a computer model that tries to make each college representative of Yale as a whole.

Last fall, I contacted all freshman and senior women in Pierson and Saybrook with a long list of open-ended questions. I always knew that I did not want to use a software program for surveys in which students would have answered questions with a click on a “yes” or a “no.” For my reporting project, I made my questions open-ended just as an interview in person would be. In many cases, the women I contacted wrote lengthy, insightful, personal replies. A little under half of the women asked me not to use their names in anything I wrote.

Between late November and early February, I received 138 replies. That was just over 60 percent of the women I contacted. Of course I would have preferred to have had 100 percent participation, but after studying the responses, I felt comfortable moving forward with what I’d received.

One thing I did to determine if late respondents were different from early respondents is I compared the two groups. For example, 54 people replied to me in November or early December, and 84 people replied in January or February. In that first group of 54 women, about 65 percent told me that when they became mothers they wanted to stay at home with their children or work part-time for at least a few years. In the second group of 84 women who replied in January or February – after 3 or 4 promptings by me – about 60 percent of them said they wanted to be home with their kids. For the whole 138 replies, this averaged to 62 percent of women telling me they wanted to be home with children. I rounded that figure down in the article and said it was “about 60 percent.”

You may wonder how I defined staying at home. I did not want to count people who simply took maternity leave or a year or two off. So, to be counted in my figure, you had to make clear in your answer that you would take at least 2 years off or work part-time from the office or from home for at least two years. It was pretty easy for me to interpret whether respondents crossed this threshold because they gave detailed answers. Here is a typical response: ” I plan on taking time off to raise my children, at least for the first few years. I think that it’s important that parents, and not stand ins, raise their own children. I want my children to remember me being there for them during their childhood, more selfishly, I want to be there. Childhood happens once, and then briefly. Why would anyone want to miss it?”. I classified this as a “yes” (to my taking time off question), and in fact she said in a later question that she wanted to be home at least until her children are in elementary school. When women wrote back answers that I wasn’t sure how to classify, I simply replied to them and asked for more clarification.

Some people have said that my survey may have alienated some of the women I contacted because when I first sent it out, the first question asked “when you have children do you plan to stay at home with them or do you plan to continue working?” After a few women mentioned this to me, I added a question to the start of the survey, which said: “Do you plan to have children? (If not, skip to question #6)” The percentages of women who said they wanted to be at home at least two years did not change depending on which survey people replied to. More people did reply to the second one – but that could be because it was sent out at the start of second semester when people had more time on their hands. The first one was sent out at the end of the fall semester when people were focused on writing final papers and studying for exams. Because the responses between the two did not differ, I kept the data from both in my results.

I also purposefully, from the start, avoiding asking anything about marriage, so that my questions could fit people who wanted to marry or not and people who were homosexual or heterosexual. All women, no matter their preferences, face the choice of whether to have children and whether to stay home!

I cannot say how the non-respondents would have answered my questions. Some reporters or people conducting a survey might have stopped e-mailing reminders to the women in the pool after receiving half as many replies as I received and thus those who answered after three or four e-mails from me would typically have been classified as non-responders. But, after my prompting, these slow responders planned to stay at home at 60 percent rate.

I can tell you that the non-respondents would have to be dramatically different from my respondents to lower my results. For example, if the percentage of women wanting to be at home in the non-respondents was only 31 percent – and note that that 31 percent is a big drop from the 62% in my respondents then the overall figure for the entire pool of 220 women contacted would still be greater than 50%. That’s right: even if 70% of the women in the non-respondents were likely to work when they have kids or not have kids at all, my findings hold up as important. In the most extreme case, where 100% of the 82 non-repliers all planned to continue working, , you’re still left with 85/220 women who want to end or adapt their careers in a major way to be home with their kids. That’s 39% percent.

Lastly, I’d like to say a word about the demographics of my respondents. They are astoundingly similar to that of Yale’s student body. Fourteen of my respondents were foreign students – that’s 10% and that matches the 10% of Yale’s freshmen class last year who came from other countries. The Northeast corridor from DC up to Maine made up 40.5% of my responses. That figure was 40% for last year’s freshmen class. Students from the South were only 9% of my respondents while they make up 12% of Yale’s student body. Students from the SouthWest were 5% of my replies and are 6% of Yale students. The Midwest representation in my replies matched that of Yale: 13 percent, and students from the Rocky Mountain states made up 2 percent in my replies, like their 2% of Yalies. The West Coat was close, at 18% in my replies and at 17% of Yalies. This simply confirms that the residential colleges are a random selection of Yale and that my respondents were typical students.

51 percent of my respondents were seniors and 49 percent were freshmen.

As for their majors: the majors of the seniors in my respondent pool mirror Yale’s as a whole: 19 percent of my respondents were science majors – just like Yale’s average of 19 percent. 41 percent of mine were humanities majors, just under Yale’s average of 45 percent. And, 38 percent of mine were social science majors, just over Yale’s 36 percent. Two seniors were double majors across the categories – one in humanities and science and one in humanities and the social sciences.

And, as for financial aid, I added a question about how students were funding their education after receiving the first batches of surveys, so that question was answered by 82 people – who were among the later responders. Of those 82 people, 40 of them, so almost half, mentioned only their family when I asked how they were funding their education. About 34 percent of them said they are receiving financial aid, and 7 percent of them said they were funding it with scholarships or loans. This 7 percent did not mention their parents. About 40 percent of Yale students receive financial aid. My respondents financial aid representation quite representative of Yale students in general.

As I pointed out in my article, women wanting to be home with their kids is nothing new. Take the Yale alumni survey data that I mentioned. That showed alumni currently taking time out at a rate quite similar to what Yale college women told me they think they’ll do.

Some important caveats:

1. I never said these results are new. If anything is surprising it is that that the results don’t appear to be different from the past.

2. Many Yale women had nonworking mothers. This is true whether they were on financial aid or not. Since they ended up at Yale, it is not surprising that many of them believe that what their mother did is a path that works and they would be happy to emulate their mother’s choices.

3. I never said that what people predict they will do is what they will end up doing. Many women will find exciting opportunities in the workplace and change their mind about the value of working. I am not trying to measure what women actually do, only what they thought they would do as undergraduates.

4. You may be disturbed by the findings of the article. Attacking the messenger won’t change the reality. I am a journalist, and I documented what these women told me. I make no claims on what Yale women should do – that is for you to debate.