Divorce dons become reluctant media stars

Click to follow
You can see them flitting down the corridors of the universities, frightened that every passer-by may be a journalist or an angry colleague. Academics, usually women, who have written about sex and divorce are finding that however prosaic their research it can still be used by both sides in the war over family values.

Last week it was the turn of Helen Sweeting to discover that both moral conservatives and liberals can take any work and turn it into a controversy.

Ms Sweeting does not give the impression of being a contentious figure. A social scientist at the Medical Sociology Unit in Glasgow, she and her co-author Patrick West have been monitoring 1,000 children in the west of Scotland.

But because their latest research was into how family life affects teenagers' chances of taking drugs or becoming pregnant, and because it was released in a week when the furious debate about the Government's divorce bill was at its height, Ms Sweeting suddenly found herself the focus of national attention.

The report's most startling finding was ignored as no moral lessons could be drawn from it. Ms Sweeting discovered that girls were most likely to end up taking drugs not when their parents divorced, but when their mother or father died - a result which, as she said, leads to the conclusion that the best thing that parents can do for their children (and themselves) is stay alive.

The Daily Mail highlighted evidence that divorce was dangerous to children. "Now the figures prove what common sense always told us," it said. "The results demonstrate more starkly than ever that it is the children who suffer most from ever-rising rates of divorce, family break-up and single motherhood."

The Guardian took the same figures and came to the opposite conclusion. The nuclear family was less important to teenagers' happiness than the quality of family life they receive from one or two parents, it said.

Both were right. Girls whose parents had divorced were more likely to experience teenage pregnancy and take drugs than teenagers living with both their parents. Equally, the best thing for teenagers was for parents, whether natural or step, to spend time with them.

After dozens of media interviews, Ms Sweeting is bemused. "The problem is that this is a complex report so I suppose people can take what they want from it. Still, we've stuck all the press clippings on the wall to show all our colleagues how one story can produce wildly different interpretations."

Catherine Hakim at the London School of Economics could perhaps have helped her cope with the attention. Last month Dr Hakim became a celebrity when she told many conservatives what they wanted to hear and attacked "feminist myths" about women and work. Many women, she said, still see the wife's job as looking after home and family, and the husband's as being the breadwinner.

However, Dr Hakim's main problem has been her fellow academics, some of whom will not speak to her, rather than the journalists who rushed to interview her.

Eleven women sociologists accused Dr Hakim of ignoring the fact that women by economic necessity were in a weaker position than men. Many had to work and run a home and neither government nor employers were helping them deal with these dual roles.

Undeterred, Dr Hakim will publish a new book tomorrowwhich will claim that there is a widening division between conflicting groups of career- centred and home-centred women. Working mothers will want the state to pay for child care while mothers who stay at home could see this as a waste of their partners' taxes.

The book claims that survey evidence shows that women prefer male bosses because they are less likely to discriminate against them, and criticises the belief that the equal opportunities laws of the 1970s are inadequate. Far from being paltry concessions, they have dramatically helped women.

Dr Hakim, too, has been taken aback by how her research has been used by the media. She is angry that the Daily Telegraph seemed to use it to argue that employment protection for women was "obviously unfair" to men.

Nevertheless, she said, "I feel I've been better treated by the press than by academics".

Leading article, page 20