Online craft marketplace Etsy, which is powered primarily by women, joined the Nasdaq exchange on April 16. Market watchers greeted its early success with surprise—which speaks volumes about how they, as well as major media outlets and government officials, think about women. However, as the market launch demonstrated, some widely held assumptions, like mothers’ work-related preferences, are based more on presumption than fact.
For example, in August 2013, Pew Research released a study exploring the professional preferences of American mothers. Pew reported:
Working part time has consistently been the top choice for women with at least one child under the age of 18 in the three years that the question was asked. Nearly half of mothers (47%) in 2012 said that their ideal situation would be to work part time. The share was 50% in 2007 and 44% in 1997.
Readers could be forgiven for being surprised by these findings, since they have not been widely disseminated by the news media. In fact, regular readers of mainstream media outlets, like Vox, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, are more likely to encounter articles that treat it as an article of faith that most mothers prefer full-time work and a career trajectory that mirrors that of the typical productive male. Whether or not that narrative best reflects what the reporters live or believe, it is certainly widely reflected in the parenting stories they publish.
Just this year, Vox has run articles decrying society’s “pushing” moms out of the workforce, enumerating the downsides of stay-at-home motherhood, and arguing that day-to-day childrearing is best done by (immigrant) nannies. Vox also trumpeted the findings of a questionable study that insisted that it doesn’t matter how much time parents spend with their children; a University of Michigan economist, as well as involved parents everywhere, shook their heads in disbelief at that last one.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post has run a series of articles in recent months that paint a very particular portrait of working women, focusing repeatedly on the pay gap. There was an article calling explanations for the gender pay gap myths, another urging women to request raises to close the pay gap, and a third arguing “why we still need Equal Pay Day,” the last of which demonstrated no understanding of parents’ mindsets.
For anyone who missed the Post’s point about how difficult it is to simultaneously be both a mother and a career woman, there was an article ruing that “stingy” family leave policies mean women “are working later into their pregnancies—and going back to work earlier too,” as well as a map showing “where working women have it best,” based on “the median annual earnings for full-time women workers, the gender earnings ratios among such workers, workforce participation and their share of higher-paying professional and managerial jobs.”
In its pages, the New York Times has insisted that “stay-at-home parents already get a tax preference,” which is unlikely to ring true to stay-at-home parents who labor for long hours without pay. The Times has also warned that the pay gap is closing because men’s wages are stagnating or declining, rather than any advances for women, and urged American workers to seek out workplaces with “an equal mix of men and women” for increased job satisfaction; that article, of course, says nothing about the happiness married women might find in spending more time with their offspring.
Although the occasional defense of stay-at-home motherhood makes it into the pages of these outlets, the overall narrative is clear: moms want to work full-time, and only deficient policies, at the corporate and governmental levels, stand in their way. By contrast, the real-world example of Etsy—where women vote with their time and labor (as sellers) and their hard-earned dollars (as buyers)—is a case study that offers insight into many women’s real preferences.
The online marketplace enables its 1.5 million active sellers, 88 percent of whom are women, to work flexible, typically part-time schedules from home and sell their wares to millions of customers worldwide. It offers women the opportunity to use their talents and contribute to their family’s income without sacrificing time with family. For while many stories about working mothers begin from the assumption that women prefer full-time work, the success of Etsy demonstrates that the truth for many married mothers (whose families may not require a second full-time income) lies elsewhere.
When mothers are lucky enough to have choices, many of us choose to use our gifts in a part-time capacity, so we can maximize time with our children, especially when they’re young. Part-time work may not close the gender gaps that so concern the mainstream media, but the combination of flexibility, control over our schedules, and increased family time brings many real-world mothers the greatest contentment.