Rivers and Barnett

(WOMENSENEWS)–A growing media narrative over the past year says men do not like high-achieving women.

It’s been fueled by stories in, among others, The New York Times, the Chicago Sun Times, Toronto Star, "60 Minutes" and the Atlantic magazine.

This drumbeat reached its zenith Sunday in Maureen Dowd’s New York Times Magazine piece, "What’s A Modern Girl to Do?"

The article has become the most e-mailed article from the Times’ Web site this week and has left Dowd fielding readers’ mail on "the past and future of feminism."

What a waste of such a powerful platform. If only Dowd–capable of such wit, charm and political insight–had bothered to check her social science data.

"Decades after the feminist movement promised equality with men," Dowd laments, "it was becoming increasingly apparent that many women would have to brush up on the venerable tricks of the trade: an absurdly charming little laugh, a pert toss of the head, an air of saucy triumph, dewy eyes and a full knowledge of music, drawing, elegant note writing and geography. It would once more be considered captivating to lie on a chaise lounge, pass a lacy handkerchief across the eyelids and complain of a case of springtime giddiness."

For this surreal description of contemporary men and women, Dowd draws on "data" that shows her running with the media pack, yes, but sadly out of touch with serious social science.

An Alleged Trend

In particular, Dowd hypes an alleged trend of men rejecting ambitious women based on a 2004 study by psychology researchers. Those findings, by psychologists Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan and Brian Lewis of University of California, Los Angeles, were wildly overblown.

The study was done on a small sample of 120 male and 208 female undergraduates, mainly freshmen.

The males rated the desirability as a dating or marriage partner of a fictitious female, described as either an immediate supervisor, a peer or an assistant.

Surprise, surprise! The freshman males preferred the subordinate over the peer and over the supervisor when it came to dating and mating.

The study, however, was no barometer of adult male preferences. Rather, it reflected teen boys’ ambivalence about strong women.

Men, by contrast, do not reject achieving women. Quite the opposite. Sociologist Valerie Oppenheimer of University of California, Berkeley reports that today men are choosing as mates women who have completed their education. The more education a woman has, the more likely she is to marry. Unlike the single University of California, Los Angeles study, this finding comes from an analysis of 80 peer-reviewed studies.

Evolutionary Theory

Another major problem with the college students study was that investigators claimed an evolutionary basis, namely, that men’s drive to reproduce their genes leads them to prefer relatively subordinate, docile females.

By the same evolutionary token, then, women should be "hardwired" to seek as mates men who are older, dominant and in control of financial resources. But that same college study found nothing of the sort. Instead, the young women showed no preference for dominant males over other males for either dating or mating.

The notion that women are driven by their genes to seek older, rich men has been skewered by recent research.

Alice Eagly of Northwestern University and Wendy Wood of Duke University provided a major review of mate-selection data with findings from 10,000 people in 37 countries.

It found that in societies where women have access to resources, they do not choose older "provider" males to marry. Instead, they go for men who are kind, intelligent and can bond with children.

Yes, when women can’t pay their own way, rich older men look pretty good, even if they don’t change diapers or listen to what a woman has to say. But when women bring home the bacon themselves, they start looking for something quite different in a guy.

Dredging Up the IQ Study

Dowd dredges up another study about men not liking smart women. This one was conducted by investigators at four British universities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol and Aberdeen) and found that for every 15-point increase in IQ score above the average, women’s likelihood of marrying fell by almost 60 percent. The Atlantic published this research in 2005 under the title "Too Smart To Marry?"

Really bad news for bright women, right?

Not. Neither Dowd nor the Atlantic bothered to mention–apparently they did not know–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 a guide for today’s young people? No.

Dowd also recycles Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s argument, from her book "Creating a Life," that high-achieving women tend to be miserable and often childless. For a challenge to that data, read Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic Policy Research. In a 2002 published study based on several large government data sets, Boushey found high achievers little different from other working women.

From 36 to 40, high achievers are more likely to be married and have kids than other female workers, but they marry later than other women. Boushey found that women between the ages of 28 and 35 who work full time and earn more than $55,000 a year or have a graduate or professional degree are just as likely to be successfully married as other working women.

Dowd writes that many women today "want to be Mrs. Anonymous Biological Robot in a Docile Mass. They dream of being rescued; to flirt, to shop, to stay home and be taken care of." And so forth.

Irritating Fluff

Dowd’s writing is fun, but is basically a bunch of irritating fluff.

As a piece of institutionally self-serving evidence, for instance, she refers to a recent front-page story in The New York Times about young women attending an Ivy League college who were planning to reject careers in favor of staying home and raising children. The article claimed that 60 percent of women in two Yale dorms wanted to jettison careers and be stay-at-home moms.

The story was not written by a Times reporter. It was written by a journalism student doing her graduate thesis who based her story on an e-mail survey. Slate media writer Jack Shafer found the "facts" in the story so flimsy that the reporter "deserves a week in the stockades. And her editor deserves a month." He pointed out that the writer used the word "many" 12 times in place of statistics.

Writing in The Nation, columnist Katha Pollitt said she had contacted a number of people at Yale, including professors and students who were interviewed. She said not one felt the story fairly represented women at Yale. Many students said they’d thrown away the reporter’s questionnaire in disgust.

Physics professor Megan Urry polled the 45 female students in her class and only two said they planned to stay at home as the primary parent.

When Dowd bases her views of men and women on such poor research, it’s no wonder that Dowd looks into the crystal ball of feminism and finds the picture so disconcerting.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. They are co-authors of "Same Difference; How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs." 

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