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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science in Society"
October 21, 2005

Alexis Bennett
Family Issues and Mental Health

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Summary of Project Findings: Bryn Mawr Work and Family Project

Today's topic "burst on the scene inadvertently." As the result of a lively conversation led by Peggy Hollyday two weeks ago on Gender and Science, Alexis was asked to speak both about the results of her own recent study of work-family negotiations, as well as what she knew, more generally, of research into "the day care debate": what are the effects of maternal employment on the emotional and cognitive development and well-being of children?

Alexis began the discussion with a summary of her own study of Bryn Mawr alums (1980-1983), a group chosen in part because they had participated in a survey while they were Bryn Mawr undergraduates in which they said (among other things) that the biggest challenge they expected to face, in planning their future lives, was that of work-family balance. Twenty years later, this cohort reported high satisfaction with their lives overall, and very little work-family conflict. There were actually significant differences between an initial more "global" study, and the results of daily logs kept by some participants. When they recorded their moods over a typical five-day work week, they reported less stress than they had anticipated. Alexis took a number of questions about her results:

  • what percentage of the sample were homosexual?
  • was there a control group of single folks? of those who were not parents?
  • how "special" (highly educated, well-to-do) was the sample?
  • to what degree does that specialness limit the usefulness of the study?
  • were there gender differences in handling the "spillover" of work stress @ home (another study suggests that men withdraw @ home, as the result of workplace stress, while women become more moody, and openly express those moods)
  • did she ask if work and family enhanced one another? (the perspective of the survey --and of psychology generally--"is so negative")
  • how is social science research conducted? (not by beginning with a normative view, but by developing a hypothesis and testing it)
  • how to explain the differences between the "global" and the "daily" accounts of levels of stress? (were respondents reporting, in the first case, what they were expected to report?)
  • did respondents' sense of conflict come from an awareness of compromise? from a general unease with the decisions they had made with one's life?
  • are differences in levels of satisfaction the result of differences in personality?
  • is the wealth of the sample the explanation for their satisfaction?
  • is the key to conflict reduction the result of choice (bought by having more money)?
This study started with the assumption that work and family are "antagonists"; designing the study differently might elicit more positive reports. But by and large, respondents were "not feeling a lot of conflict" between work and family. People, like those in this study, who are "satisfied with their lives overall," are less likely to experience sharp mood swings; daily difficulties at work and home are moderated by a general sense of satisfaction. What seemed most salient, in Alexis' report, was the level of investment in family roles; respondents felt more conflict when they spent less time with their kids.

After the study was completed, Alexis received a dozen "diatribes" from respondents, explaining either how difficult it had been to achieve the balance of work and famly they enjoyed, or how difficult it had been to rate such things on the scales provided. Studies are now suggesting that college women are chosing careers in anticipation of achieving a balance of work and family.

Children have seldom been asked directly how they measure their sense of satisfaction with their parents' working lives. (See, however, Ellen Galinsky's Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents .) There are two major areas of study into the impact of work on parent-child relations, and they rarely come together. One looks at the amount of stress experienced by working parents; the other looks at the consequences of maternal (note: only maternal) employment for child development. Such studies suggest that day care, qua day care, does not have an impact on children's cognitive or emotional development (although the quality of day care does matter). The one central factor that seems to matter most in children's growth and development is not how much time their mothers spend with them, but "how moms are with their kids," that is, how warm and responsive they are. When asked, children don't express a wish for "more time" with their parents, but for time that is better spent; they want their parents to be "less stressed." In sum, kids--who have no basis for comparison--seem not to be as conflicted as their parents are, about the amount of time they spend at work.

Anyone who would like to participate in further discussion of these issues is asked to contact Anne Dalke. There will also be meetings held, in the spring, to report on the work of a committee addressing work-family issues at Bryn Mawr. In the interim, conversation is invited to continue on-line.

The brown bag conversations will continue next week, when Karen Greif and Tamara Davis (both professors in the Bryn Mawr Biology Department) will lead a discussion about genetic engineering. Embryonic stem cells are touted by some as having promise for curing a broad range of degenerative disorders, and condemned by others as destruction of human life. The debate has become further clouded by claims of creating stem cells from other sources, which critics argue lack the potential of those from embryos. What is the range of viewpoints on stem cells, both scientific and ethical?

The stem cell controversy has given rise to an alternate form of funding for research--huge outlays of funds by states and private agencies. What implications do these patterns of funding have for the future of stem cells and products from them? Tamara and Karen will provide some background about stem cells to help inform the discussion. Further fodder for discussion may also be found in two essays which appeared in the New York Times on October 11, 2005: Nicholas Wade's "California Maps Strategy for Its $3 Billion Stem Cell Project," and Gina Kolata's "Embryonic Cells, No Embryo Needed: Hunting for Ways Out of an Impasse."

References for Brown Bag Discussion of Family Issues and Mental Health

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