Misrepresentation of Netmums survey result

// 12 October 2010

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Last week, the Guardian ran three pieces in response to a Netmums survey result apparently suggesting Mothers are more critical of their daughters than their sons. Netmums has stated that 21% of the 2,500 Mums surveyed “admitted they are harder on their daughters” while 11.5% “said they are strict with their sons”. This doesn’t seem like a huge difference to me but a look at the October highlights on the Netmums media page reveals more than 25 media sources focussing on Mums apparently treating daughters and sons differently. This has understandably prompted much debate in subsequent comment threads and discussions on the radio, television and internet about whether this reported tendency in Mums is true or not.

It seems obvious to say these results potentially illuminate only part of a wider problem. After all, wouldn’t it be useful to see how Dads reckon they treat sons and daughters? Sexism and gender stereotyping is a problem whatever the gender of the person doing it, so why only put the spotlight on Mums? Why indeed because, funnily enough, it turns out that Dads were actually surveyed too (complete with a rather dubious dinner incentive not offered to the Mums). The trouble is that the results are not on the Netmums website.

All is not lost however because, luckily, Echidine of the Snakes has followed up on her very thorough analysis of the survey and its representation in the media by posting the full results of the Dads’ survey!

And guess what? Firstly, 51% of the Fathers with children of both genders who said they found it easier to bond with one of their children than the others said they found it easiest to bond with their daughter. This is admittedly a little lower than the 54.9% for Mothers saying they found their sons easiest to bond with and, again, only represents a very slight overall bias. Nonetheless, I would say it lends a little weight to what some commenters said in one of the Guardian threads about harsher treatment perhaps stemming from Fathers being under pressure to train their sons to be “men”, while mothers are expected to teach their daughters to be “women”. This, in turn, suggests a parent may be inclined to be tougher with the child who is supposed to learn to meet the same gendered social expectations (according to convention).

Secondly, it can be seen that 28.5% of the men surveyed agreed with the statement “I am more critical of my son”, while 13.2% agreed “I am more critical of my daughter”. This means there were actually more Dads who believed they were more critical of their sons than Mums who believed they were more critical of their daughters. This makes it seem all the more unfair that Mothers ended up being the focus of the scrutiny.

To add to all this, Echidne reports that she informed Netmums about the problems in the study and that their response was that the detailed results she was using in her posts were not “the most recent results”. However, there is no sign of these recent results anywhere and, as Echidne points out, this means only the arguably flawed summary is now available for those who wish to study the questions.

In addition to this, some Netmums users have also mentioned how leading they thought the questions were:

I took part in the survey and TBH I’m not surprised by the result…but mostly because I found it very leading. For example, in the section about traits there was no option to tick that both genders could be ‘funny’ or ‘loving’ just one or the other. So your results don’t automatically mean girls are purely stroppy and argumentative and boys are the only ones capable of being playful and loving, only that the way the questions were asked reinforced stereotypes. So that’ll be survey results with a large pinch of salt for me please. Natalie B(25)

Three cheers for Echidne’s posts for highlighting this issue in such depth!

Photo by antiguadailyphoto.com, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

Lily // Posted 13 October 2010 at 1:08 am

So my first instinct when I read/hear about this kind of survey is to check the premises of the survey (which Echidne has done beautifully). The second is to wonder: “if this were true, is there some extra aspect that the survey hasn’t addressed?”.

In this case, I wondered whether some of these mums who are “harder on their daughters” might be doing so because they feel that they *have* to be. “I’m more critical of you because, like me, you are female and, in my experience, the world will demand more of you and be more critical of you – a female – than of your brother. My job is to prepare you for the world”. It reminds me of a lot of conversations I’ve had with South-Asian friends of mine (in Britain, continental-Europe and the US), where our parents would routinely say to us “to get to the same level, you need to work harder and be better than [your white/western counterparts]”. Admittedly, I have not been following this issue super-closely, but I haven’t seen this argument discussed much. I’m by no means saying this is the correct approach but what do other f-word commenters think?

F // Posted 13 October 2010 at 1:54 am

Boo for rubbish polling.

That said I don’t think it’s fair to put the differences entirely down to gender stereotyping or sexism. I expect most parents realize that there are different sources of danger for boys/men and girls/women and are in part training them in how to be safe. To not do so would be stupid.

Anji // Posted 13 October 2010 at 10:27 am

This is a great post Holly, thanks for writing it. I read Echidne’s posts with interest, and I too wondered why mothers were the ones being concentrated on when fathers seemed as, if not more, ‘biased’ than mothers.

A J // Posted 13 October 2010 at 12:17 pm

Wasn’t this just a website poll in the first place? Not any sort of properly conducted survey. In which case the biggest mystery is surely why anyone was giving any credence to the results in the first place! Especially allegedly reputable news sources like the Guardian.

It’s about as relevant as one of these reader polls the Daily Mail does on a regular basis – and probably about as accurate.

dom // Posted 14 October 2010 at 12:29 am

“a rather dubious dinner incentive not offered to the Mums”

Since mumsnet is a website for mothers, it seems rather obvious to me that the offer a dinner for two ( that’s “for two”, so therefore regardless of which sex won the prize, both a man and a woman would both receive a meal ) was offered to fathers as they are not visitors to the site & their opinion would be harder to obtain, added to which men are ( stereotype coming up ) less likely to complete such a survey.

The fact that the father’s survey is less visible is presented by you as evidence of a misrepresentation of the MOTHER’S poll results, rather than a lack of representation of the father’s results.

Your article maintains that the results of the mother’s survey are deliberately singled out in order to perpetuate & reinforce negative mother/daughter stereotypes. In other words, for a change, a fathers opinion does matter, but only to prove a point about perceived negative stereotyping.

As for the “free food” incentive for fathers & your remark that it was a “dubious” measure, I entirely agree…to assume that fathers require an added incentive in order to take an interest in their own children is a misrepresentation of the feelings of fathers…was that what you meant? Or was it just important to you that mothers were not offered the free meal?

earwicga // Posted 14 October 2010 at 10:35 am

dom –

‘so therefore regardless of which sex won the prize, both a man and a woman would both receive a meal’

Why? Are all parents hetrosexual?

‘The fact that the father’s survey is less visible’

Netmums removed the results from their website. The results aren’t ‘less’ visible but NOT visible at all.

‘In other words, for a change, a fathers opinion does matter, but only to prove a point about perceived negative stereotyping.’

You don’t feel men’s opinions are valued in society? Perhaps you would like to provide some evidence for this?

Holly Combe // Posted 14 October 2010 at 11:10 am

Well said Earwicga.

@”Dom”: For someone who “entirely agrees” that the free food incentive for fathers was a dubious measure, you’ve devoted a lot of your comment to justifying why Netmums might have offered it.

I don’t doubt that Netmums being a website for mothers will have played some part in their strategy. However, as you say, assuming fathers “require an added incentive in order to take an interest in their own children is a misrepresentation of the feelings of fathers”. This approach is obviously unhelpful to fathers and mothers alike.

The fact that the survey results for the Dads were not visible was presented as evidence that the whole survey (along with the full breakdown of the Mums’ results) had been misrepresented and the full results withheld. However, I would still maintain that the omission of the Dads’ results has contributed heavily to the misrepresentation of Mums in the subsequent stories. As I said, over 25 media sources have focussed on the relationship between mothers and daughters when, actually, there was a higher percentage of fathers who said they were tougher on their sons than there were mothers who said they were tougher on their daughters. I actually would have been very interested (as I’m sure many others would have been) to see what Dads had to say in their own right but, in this case, it seems clear that the withholding of the fathers’ results really did contribute to mothers being held under unfair scrutiny. I don’t think there is anything wrong with pointing this out.

polly // Posted 15 October 2010 at 7:54 am

A ‘survey’ of this type – voluntary responses on the internet, is never going to show reliable results because of a phenomenon known as ‘voluntary response bias’ – ie people who are more interested in/hold strong views on the subject are more likely to respond. If the questions are worded in a ‘leading’ way this is likely to lead to other types of response bias – people may simply give what they think is the ‘correct’ or expected answer. And finally the women on netmums aren’t representative of the population as a whole. So you get a ‘non response bias’ where certain groups simply won’t see the survey.

Jane // Posted 17 October 2010 at 12:40 pm

I found the news of this poll very interesting as it confirms what I have always thought. It does not matter to me if the survey is not perfect, I still find it a useful contribution.

You seem to be saying that mothers’ being harder on their daughters does not matter, as fathers may compensate by favouring their daughters. Well, it does matter for two very important reasons. The first is that it is still mothers who are the primary carers and the second is that many children (and therefore daughters) don’t even have fathers.

Holly Combe // Posted 17 October 2010 at 9:58 pm

@Jane. I’m not saying I reckon Mums being harder on their daughters somehow wouldn’t matter. As I said in the piece, I think sexism and gender stereotyping is a problem, regardless of who may be guilty of it. I’d say this also still stands, regardless of whether it may be offset by a possible positive bias from someone else.

I think it’s worth bearing in mind that less than a quarter of Mums who responded actually said they thought they were harder on their daughters (with the same applying to the number of Dads who said they thought they were harder on their sons). This, for me, makes it all the more unfair that the media chose to hone in on the detail in the manner one might have expected had the majority of Mums answered in that way.

Troon // Posted 18 October 2010 at 1:07 pm


It’s not just that it doesn’t really show this, though (for reasons argued above) but that it attributes motive on gender lines, which would have been a problem however well conducted in terms of technique and sample or reported.

Speaking purely personally I am very aware when I parent how far I build up points of identification with my kids which are partly based on my own life. Gender may be one of those, but so too could be birth order, whether the child looks like you, what age the child is and what talents and traits the child develops. The survey can’t provide any distinction between (to use deliberately stereotyped example which would for other unacceptable reasons have been excluded anyway) a male professional footballer whose daughter has just been called up to the England u-17 side is treating her well (or for that matter harshly) because sh’e a great footballer, or because she’s his daughter.

So the survey in itself seems to offer not only no real information but also no real help. It doesn’t tell us if any supposed treatment is due to gender, it just assumes it. If you’re an individual mother (or for that matter a father) reading this it says nothing about how you might adapt your parenting. Which makes you wonder all the more why it was commissioned and publicised.

Troon // Posted 18 October 2010 at 1:22 pm

I would also add that Mumsnet badly misrepresented Mumsnetters by restricting the survey to parents of both genders. There is a standard Mumsnet ‘gender’ thread which runs ‘My DD very different to DS, is this a gender thing?’ to which the response is invariably ‘MY DD and DD are also different in exactly this way’. Hence the most vigorous opponents of gender stereotyping on mumsnet were excluded from participating (despite the fact that, you would have thought, if gender is an issue it would apply equally to parents with children of the same assigned sex).

Catherine Redfern // Posted 19 October 2010 at 12:16 pm

Just a clarification, I think this survey was done by Netmums, not Mumsnet. Confusing I know…

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