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Here We Go Again: CNN on Working Women

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On Thursday (Oct 12), CNN showed a preview of demographic report set to air in full the following Monday. The sneak peak described "one of the biggest shifts in the past few decades. The number of women working outside of the home has almost doubled."

This is, indeed, a demographic revolution well worth examining. The issues it raises are significant. For example:

How are these women faring? Of those working full-time, how many are earning enough to live with dignity? How many are working more than one job and still not making ends meet? And what about the women in the workforce who are doing fine economically - what are the societal implications of a class of women who are no longer tethered to men for economic life support?

And what about the quality of the workplace? How has it changed for women - and men - who have children and want to care for them? Can workplaces become "family-friendly" without also becoming hostile or unfair to workers who do not have partners or children? Have employers come to recognize and respect a panoply of important people and passions in their workers' lives, and not just the ones packaged in conjugal boxes?

Those are just a few of the deeply important questions that could be posed in a piece about the doubling of the number of women in the workforce. But they are not the questions that interested CNN.

Instead, the segment opened with a 39-year old woman who had achieved a high level success as a corporate executive. CNN introduced her not to praise her but to pity her. You see, she has started to hear "the loud tick tock of her biological clock." So she has left the executive suite for a job "which allows her more time to date."

Enter the one and only person CNN has invited to comment on women in the workforce - author Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Look no further than the dust jacket of her book, "Creating a Life," and you will get a good sense of what she is about: "The more a woman succeeds in her career," Hewlett claims, "the less likely it is that she will have a partner or baby." Hewlett trotted out for CNN the same dire statistics she peddled in her book.

There is only one problem with Hewlett's claims: They are wrong. Women with outstanding accomplishments on the job are no less likely to marry and then have children, if that's what they want, than women whose workplace achievements are more ordinary. (For a particularly insightful and thorough debunking of the Hewlett book, buttressed by evidence from a nation-wide study of 33.6 million women, see Garance Franke-Ruta's article in The American Prospect.)

Back to the one woman CNN has found who was once an executive but is now seeking marriage and children. The reporter asked her what she might do if she does not find the right man in five years. "I think I would be very open to single motherhood," she replied.

Wrong answer! The voice-over tells viewers what she was supposed to say: "What she really wants, though, is someone with whom to raise a child."

The reporter takes it from there: "What's your perfect kind of guy? We might be able to find him for you with this broadcast."

So there you have it. CNN, the so-called liberal network, takes a story about women's march into the workplace and turns it into a dating game.

Successful single women have long been the targets of scare stories warning that their fancy jobs won't love them back and their high-powered eggs will shrivel and die if they don't hurry up and procreate. (I discuss this in more detail in my new book, "Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.") CNN perpetrates these backlash myths under the banner of balance. How difficult it is for these women with their career successes to have it all, sighs the network.

I think the concept of "balance" has been under-analyzed and overrated. Stereotypically, balance is something that dedicated career women do not have, and will not have until they have added a spouse and children to their lives. But what about the women (and men) who do not want to follow someone else's script for a neatly-proportioned life, and want to tip their own scales toward the pursuit of social justice or scientific discovery or an understanding of the human condition?

And what about the trade off between individual balance and the greater good? Take Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, for example. When she walked away from her lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, she said she wanted to spend more time with her husband, whose was in poor health. Perhaps in doing so, she achieved greater balance in her life. Maybe she also deserves credit for being a caring spouse. Surely her husband benefited from her decision. But what about the nation? As one who believes that our country would have been far better served by the decisions of O'Connor than by those of her successor, I am saddened by her balance. I wish Sandra Day O'Connor were single, and dedicated her time to serving the cause of justice for as long as she lived.

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