Empty Feel-Good Words and Delusions About Gender Norms Do Not a Good Survey Make

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Oct. 4 2011 12:42 PM

Marketing Survey Fail

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Samantha Cameron, (2nd L) wife of British Prime Minister David Cameron, bakes cakes for the Downing Street Royal Wedding Street Party

Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images.

Female-oriented advertising consultanting group Women at NBCU put out a press release documenting a survey it did of women regarding family life, a press release that was all but faithfully reprinted at the Salt Lake Tribune. It's a delicious example of how to generate a whole bunch of words out of meaningless nonsense. Women at NBCU claims to have discovered that American women and men are getting more home-y, domestic, and traditional, but the questions the group asked to get this information should provoke skepticism instead of belief.

For instance, the survey found that 66 percent of mothers would rather be a stay-at-home mother than a working parent, which is touted as strong evidence of some genuine enthusiasm for '50s-era living. But the same survey found that 36 percent of men also said they wanted to stay at home, which is the antithesis of tradition. It appears what this survey is measuring isn't some widespread desire to find fulfillment through homemaking so much as a widespread desire to not have to work for a living. Since the question was asked of men and women who had already indicated financial necessity as a reason to work, these results aren't unexpected, since people are assuming you're asking if they'd like to be wealthy enough that work is optional. If you'd asked people, "Would you like a rich relative to die so that you could never work a day again?" you'd probably see a lot of enthusiasm for that fantasy, as well. I'm a rowdy feminist, but if you suggested that I could spend my life baking cookies without nary a worry of money again, I'd probably indulge that fantasy for a minute, too. I'd bet a question that brought more of the realities of housewifery into view---stay-at-home mothers are more than twice as likely to live in poverty---would produce many times less enthusiasm. That would be especially true if women were reminded that a single-breadwinner home means having to ask your spouse for any and all money that you spend.

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I also have to quarrel with this: "Moms reported that the 'breakdown of the traditional family' was the second most serious issue facing children today, right after drug abuse." Interesting. I wonder what the options they were provided were, since in reality the most pressing problem probably facing children today is poverty---nearly one in five children live in poverty. But the wording of "breakdown of the traditional family" is so vague as to be meaningless. I'm sure married women answering this question are quick to latch onto that, because divorce is a very real and scary threat and that answer echoes their direct fears. If you were to ask me what the most serious problems facing cohabitating women in their 30s are these days, I'd probably be distracted by you tossing in "your boyfriend turns out to be a cheating louse and you had no idea" with a list of other things like "employment opportunities" and "health insurance concerns." Had they been more specific about what a "traditional family" is, however, I bet they'd get different results. If women were asked whether or not they think that it's good for children to be raised in a society with legal marital rape, a blind eye toward domestic violence, and an inability of women to sue for divorce if their husbands walk out on them---all markers of the "traditional" family---I'm guessing you'd get a different answer. Same story if you asked women if they'd be better off if they weren't allowed to have their own bank accounts or to borrow money on their own, since allowing women to control their own money is part of the breakdown of the "traditional" family. The problem with using the word "traditional" on a survey is that it's a feel-good word that encourages people to look at the past with rose-colored glasses. It invokes Christmas trees and cardigans, dinner at Grandma's, and church weddings. It doesn't invoke unhappy marriages from which there is no escape, though of course that's a far more relevant aspect of "traditional" marriages than the color of your wedding gown.

Of course, one alternate reading for this survey is they simply found the most delusional group of women alive: "60 percent of moms believe that in 10 to 20 years there will be as many stay-at-home dads as there are stay-at-home moms." Unless we have some drastic, rioting-in-the-streets level of social change, this belief simply cannot come into fruition. There are 5 million stay-at-home mothers in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. There are, according to the same survey, 154,000 stay-at-home fathers. In other words, there are 32 times as many stay-at-home mothers in the U.S. than stay-at-home fathers. The level of social change required to even those numbers out would be revolutionary, and there's no real indication that this level of change is on the horizon. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.