But today we'll try to make a case that there's something worth thinking about in the Ryan family saga. This time, we'll do it with data — or rather, more data than before.
In early October, Gallup released the results of its long-term look at the preferences of men and women — those with children and those without — when it comes to working outside of the home. The results were pretty stark.
When you look at women and men as two large groups, a majority of both would prefer to work outside the home. For men, those figures have remained relatively flat over the last 23 years. Women's feelings have fluctuated more, with a big drop between 2002 and 2006 and then a big gain leading up t0 2009. The numbers have held steady since then.
But dig into the data just a little deeper and the preferences of men and women with children and those without are pretty stark. In fact, a majority of women with children — both those who are employed and those who are not — told Gallup's survey team they they would prefer not to work outside the home. While 56 percent women with children said this, 39 percent of women without children agreed.
For men with children, there was little difference. In fact, men with children were barely more likely to prefer to stay home (26 percent) than those without children (23 percent).
Now of course, these are expressions about people's preferences. The differences between our preferences and our realities are sometimes large. But our preferences do have meaning since they are often born of experience. And it would seem, based on the data above, that while many women prefer to work outside of the home before they have children or after their children turn 18, those with children under the age of 18 see things very differently.
And if you dig into the country's actual labor force participation data — in this case, the share of adults over 20 who are employed or actively seeking work (we felt that for these purposes teen workers should be excluded) — there are some pretty big differences that show up here too. This is a look at what's actually happening in the labor force, not simply what people prefer.
What all the data above can't tell us is why these patterns exist.
The large gaps between the share of mothers who say they prefer to work outside the home and those who do not hints that something about the working-mother experience is difficult or at least less desirable for many women than the alternative. The fact that far more white and Latino men are employed or seeking work than women also offers a pretty powerful clue. One's preferences regarding work and motherhood only matter if your alternatives allow for an economically sustainable situation.
And then there is the hard-to-quantify but certainly real influence of culture on all of the data above. We know that cultural expectations for women and men are not exactly the same as they were 50 or even 20 years ago. But that doesn't mean that they are completely transformed either. So many men and women are experiencing different pressures at work and at home when they have children that among most racial and ethnic groups, they are opting for different paths.
And it's important to note that, as a group, women are now more educated than men but still earn less than their male peers.
That's why we thought Ryan's concerns about how he might balance a new potential job with the kind of family life he prefers were so interesting. It's not something that many men or congressmen express often — at least in public, and at least when compared with their female peers. And the idea that work and family balance is a women's issue or a women's concern has long shaped the parameters of most public discussion and even public policy related to family leave, caretaker responsibilities and workforce participation. That hasn't really ended.
Of course, it is possible that Ryan's work-family balance concerns are little more than a cover — an excuse that seems admirable. (This is a well-worn political excuse for opting not to run for something.) Some point to Ryan's willingness to join the GOP presidential ticket in 2012 as proof that perhaps he's not so concerned with being away from loved ones. But it's also true that the vice president's family, unlike those of members of Congress, typically lives with the vice president at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.
So it might make sense to temper your skepticism here, just a little. Besides, Ryan is also just one man contemplating a choice between working a demanding gig and working an even-more-demanding gig. What about the rest of America?