(WOMENSENEWS)--What should smart ambitious women with some measure of career fulfillment do to prove they're not miserable and sexless? Hold a mass demonstration with smiley-face banners?
The latest incarnation of these false charges comes from critic Camille Paglia, who in June wrote a New York Times article, "No Sex, Please, We're Middle Class," saying that a sexual malaise consumes the country. The culprit: "the anxious, overachieving, white upper middle class."
Women in this group, says Paglia, postpone childbearing and "men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work."
And she adds, "Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure." These brainy female drones certainly don't turn men on, Paglia believes, calling to mind the old saw that "men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses."
No matter how many times researchers debunk that story with real facts, it refuses to die. Feminism is always the culprit for women's alleged unhappiness. I've tracked this story over the past few years on Women's eNews, and its hardiness is astonishing.
For example, in a 2009 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Ross Douthat wrote, "All the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness. In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of 'the problem with no name,' American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In post-feminist America, men are happier than women."
Study Paints Different Picture
A different story was conveyed by a study done by Professors Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, researchers at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. They reported on data collected each year since 1972 in the United States General Social Survey, which has asked men and women: "How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3." Over the years, some 50,000 men and women have participated, making it a huge study.
While the results have varied over the years, Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis and my frequent co-author, points out that in large-scale studies, very small differences can rise to the level of statistical significance. However, the differences between the sexes in this study are so small that generally they are less than one-half of 1 percent. This tiny difference tells you nothing about men, women or happiness.
And when the researchers looked at men and women in particular domains of life--employed, married, single etc.--they found virtually no differences in overall happiness between men and women. It was only when they looked at the sample as a whole that very small differences emerged. Journalists hyped these findings far beyond their true meaning.
In 2007, Forbes.com published an article by editor Michael Noer with the headline, "Don't Marry Career Women" and subtitled "How do women, careers and marriage mix? Not well, say social scientists."
In 2005, the news media had a field day with a study that appeared to show that the higher a woman's IQ, the less chance she had to marry. It garnered headlines in the Chicago Sun Times, Toronto Star, The New York Times and The Atlantic magazine and was featured on "60 Minutes." Atlantic titled its story, "Too smart to marry?"
Creating Panic Among Successful Women
In 2002, Sylvia Ann Hewlett presented a study of high-achieving women who weren't marrying or having children at the same rates as other women. In her book "Creating a Life," she helped to create panic among successful women: "Nowadays, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child." She argued that high-achieving women who were still single at age 30 had a less than 10 percent chance of ever marrying.
Such stories prompted women to believe that they have to appear less intelligent than they are, reports sociologist Christine B. Whelan of the University of Pittsburgh. In her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" she writes that nearly half of single women believe their professional success is intimidating to the men they meet. High-achieving women think their success is not helping them find love. She finds that 66 percent of single women achievers in one survey disagreed with the statement "My career or educational success increases my chances of getting married."
This notion inspired a "Sex and the City" episode. Miranda, the high-powered lawyer, tells a man she meets at a speed-dating party that she's a flight attendant so he won't bolt in fear.
But this media spin is so wrong.
Take the "fact" that women with high IQs are "too smart to marry," as The Atlantic magazine put it. Almost none of the stories with the scare headlines reported that the data were gathered from men and women born in 1921. The women are all now in their 80s.
Should a study of octogenarian women be taken as the reality of today's young people? Of course not.
Real Data Suggests the Opposite
What about the Forbes.com story that men who marry career women are unhappy and the Paglia notion that achieving women are sexless grinds?
Real data suggests just the opposite. One longitudinal study of 500 couples by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Janet Hyde found that for both men and women, the highest sexual satisfaction was among couples who both worked and experienced high rewards from their jobs. A good job, it seems, is good for your sex life.
Paglia admires country music, "still filled with blazingly raunchy scenarios, where the sexes remain dynamically polarized in the old-fashioned way." So how come every other song is about misery, desertion, cheating hearts and lost loves? The old gender roles hardly guarantee great sex. And as for her fantasy about the fun office of the past--where men and women happily flirted--she hasn't read the data about sexual harassment in the good old days.
She might also want to watch an episode of "Mad Men," the TV series about ad executives in the 1960s. Young people, in particular, tend to be shocked by the disparaging treatment of women that gets portrayed there.
The fact is that men are not avoiding smart women. Sociologist Valerie Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles reported that contemporary men are choosing as mates women who have completed their education. The more education a woman has, the more likely she is to marry.
Economist Elaina Rose at the University of Washington in Seattle has followed the diminishing marriage "success penalty" that women once suffered. Twenty-five years ago, a woman with a graduate degree was 13.5 percent less likely to have married at age 40 to 44 than a woman with only a high school diploma. By the 2000 Census, however, that penalty had largely disappeared.
But don't expect these facts to spoil the media's love affair with the notion of a high-achieving woman sacrificing her sex appeal. Having both love and money is apparently an expectation that only guys are supposed to have.
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Caryl Rivers, professor of journalism at Boston University is the author (with Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis) of the book "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs."
For more information:
Excerpt: 'Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women,' ABC News: