A few weeks ago, I was excited to learn that a project I’m working on got written up on NPR’s News Blog. However, I was less excited when I saw the way my own status was described:
Dave Munger, a science blogger and stay-at-home dad in Davidson, N.C., wanted to find a way to show people that some blog posts are meant to carry more weight than a rant or an off-hand comment.
Would people consider my project to be less noteworthy if they thought of me as a “stay-at-home dad”? Technically, I guess I am a stay-at-home parent because my office is in my house, but since my primary occupation has nothing to do with childrearing or housekeeping, I felt the characterization was a little unfair, and it might make my work seem less serious than it is.
But maybe that’s just me.
That’s why I decided to perform a little experiment. I created a “reading comprehension test” describing a fictional person named Jordan Smith. I picked the name “Jordan” because it was one of the most popular American names for both men and women. At only one point in the story does Jordan’s gender become clear:
Because of robust data connections and satellite links, he can track operations at even the most remote locations. As a stay-at-home father of two, it’s important for Jordan to be close to his family.
The trick to the study was that readers saw one of four different versions of the story. Jordan was either a “father,” a “stay-at-home father,” a “mother,” or a “stay-at-home mother.” Then readers were quizzed on several aspects of the story. Did they have a different attitude towards Jordan depending on gender and “stay-at-home status? Over 1,200 people responded, and this graph shows the most dramatic results:
As you can see, readers guessed that “father” Jordan worked significantly more hours per week than when Jordan was characterized as a “stay-at-home father,” a “mother,” or a “stay-at-home mother.” The story made no mention of Jordan’s working hours, just a description of the organization Jordan was a part of.
There was no significant difference between estimated work hours for stay-at-home fathers versus mothers, but stay-at-home mothers were seen as working significantly less than both mothers and stay-at-home fathers. “Fathers” were estimated to work a full six hours per week more than “stay-at-home mothers.”
Does this mean our readers think stay-at-home parents aren’t as good at their jobs as other parents? We can’t say that based on this data. Perhaps they believe that stay-at-home parents are simply more efficient. Perhaps they think that stay-at-home parents have made a conscious decision to work fewer hours, possibly for lower pay than other workers.
We also asked readers to estimate the size of Jordan’s organization, “ReliefCorps International,” but stay-at-home or gender status wasn’t associated with a significant difference in the response.
I do think there’s a clearer case for gender bias in our responses. Why would respondents believe that women, regardless of their parenting status, work fewer hours than men, when all other aspects of the story are identical? I’m having a difficult time coming up with an answer other than gender bias.
Ultimately, based on these results, it appears that whatever stigma I felt by being labeled as a “stay-at-home” parent may be roughly equal to the bias a woman encounters every day, just for being a woman.
But “stay-at-home parent” is a label that’s much easier for me to control. I don’t have to tell reporters where I work or whether I have kids. And suppressing gender identity, even if it were possible, would in itself be seen as a rather questionable activity, don’t you think?