August 31, 2012

Dear Researchers, Your Gender Bias is Showing

Yesterday I came across a press release that nearly gave me an eyeroll injury. It covered a paper that looks at data on the differing amounts of time women with and without paid jobs spend doing various activities related to food and their children, such as grocery shopping, cooking, eating with children, playing or exercising with children, and supervising or caring for children (inexplicably two separate categories).

From the release:
“When it comes to cooking, grocery shopping and playing with children, American moms with full-time jobs spend roughly three-and-half fewer hours per day on these and other chores related to their children’s diet and exercise compared to stay-at-home and unemployed mothers.” Overall, according to the full paper, they found that “The average number of total minutes per day spent with children is 410 min for non-working mothers and 277 min for working mothers.”

Now for the eyeroll.

As the second paragraph explains, “Employed fathers devote just 13 minutes daily to [chores related to children's diet and exercise] and non-working fathers contribute 41 minutes.”

So what’s the headline? “Fathers providing very little help in child care activities, regardless of employment status?” How about, “Fathers neglecting duties related to childhood obesity?”

Nope. Predictably, moms get the focus, and the blame, with “Working moms spend less time daily on kids’ diet, exercise, study finds.” The authors state prominently in the  paper’s abstract that these findings “suggest plausible mechanisms for the association between maternal employment and childhood obesity.”

The author actually did concede in a quote that maternal supports are needed and he’s not encouraging women to exit the workforce:

“It’s inaccurate to pin rising childhood obesity rates on women, given that husbands pick up so little of the slack,” cautioned lead author John Cawley, professor of policy analysis and management and of economics at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

This is a “what you said vs. what you did” problem. When your research indicates that the time fathers – working or not – spend on activities related to kids’ eating and exercise is in the tens of minutes, while the time mothers – working or not – spend is in the hundreds of minutes, suggesting that moms are to blame shows clear gender bias about expected household activities and contributions to childcare. The whole focus on women’s activities — with men’s as an afterthought — reeks of blaming working women.

So where are the fathers in this study (which focuses only on female/male partnerships)? In a section on “offsetting behavior by husbands/partners,” the researchers concede: “Time allocation decisions may be made jointly to maximize the household’s objective function, implying that some of the decreases in time by mothers may be offset by increases in time by fathers.” They provide multiple citations for the idea that household decisions are made jointly, suggesting that readers need evidence that this is actually true.

Framing the participation of fathers as “offsetting” behavior just emphasizes the biased notion that fathers are naturally secondary players in child care. Yes, we may know from the data that fathers spend less time than mothers on household work and child care. But the researchers’ interpretation of the data suggests and accepts that any potentially adverse events in the children’s health are the result of how working mothers are spending their time. They fail to point to another possible conclusion: that perhaps fathers lack of participation in children’s eating and exercise activities may affect the children’s health.

The authors also find that women tend to spend the most time on these activities when their children are young and less able to do things for themselves. (Note the lack of framing the issue as “women invest considerable effort to ensure care of youngest children,” or “younger children create greater time pressures on working women.”)

Look, I know the study is called “Maternal employment and childhood obesity: A search for mechanisms in time use data.” The researchers intended from the outset to focus on how much women’s working outside the home might be to blame for children’s obesity. But what they found is actually pretty minimal, in terms of the difference between working and non-working mothers, even if it’s statistically significant – 17 fewer minutes cooking, 10 fewer minutes eating with children, and 12 fewer minutes playing with children per day.

And, more importantly, they didn’t actually look at ANY health outcomes for the children involved. The researchers simply propose that these fewer minutes of motherly focus might contribute to childhood obesity.

Have you seen similar examples of gender bias in health research and related media coverage? Share your examples in the comments!


One Response to “Dear Researchers, Your Gender Bias is Showing”

  1. gm Says:

    Yes, I have seen media bias that begins with use of the word Gender when the writer means SEX. It is our SEX that gives us the potential to become pregnant and be mothers, with all that implies. Not Gender.

    Sex = female and male. Immutable. Biological.

    Gender = masculine or feminine and shades of. Trend. Changeable at whim.

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