Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Gift For You: Swimming Through a Study On Gender Roles As Innate And More

Aren't you excited about gifts?  If you don't celebrate Christmas, apply appropriate gift tags (or if you can't think of one, celebrate Jibbers Crabst).  Then join me in a fun swim through one popularization of one study and far into the vast oceans of its references and sources.  There's a good reason for this trip, as you shall see.

We will begin here (put on your flippers and mask):  "Why Men May Not Try To 'Have It All' The Same Way Women Do."  The article covers more ground than just one study, but most of it is dedicated to a recent follow-up study of mathematically gifted children from the seventies (full study available free at this link) who are now from their  late forties to their early fifties, depending on the cohort studied.

The follow-up study established that these mathematically gifted adults had had pretty good lives, with books, articles, tenured professorships, even a McArthur Genius Scholarship and high level CEO jobs.  The average family incomes in the group were also respectable.  What the researchers found, however, were pretty large differences between the mathematically gifted men and women:

"We wanted to investigate the lifestyle and psychological orientation required for developing a truly outstanding career and creative production," the researchers wrote in an article accompanying the survey results, published in November in the journal Psychological Science. "When SMPY was launched, many educational and occupational opportunities were just becoming open to women, so we paid particular attention to how mathematically precocious females, relative to males, have constructed their lives over the past 40 years."
So what insights did the high achievers offer?
Even at this level of intelligence, researchers found that the gender gap was real and obvious. Women in the study, as public discourse would suggest, were indeed interested in "having it all." Men were more focused on money than childcare.
But when it comes to "success," the achievers were varied in how they defined it, chased it and lived it out. As Lubinski told The Huffington Post, "There are many different ways to create a satisfying life."
And at the end of the day, there was one place that no difference existed at all: Study participants across the board talked about their family when asked what made their life worth living.

As a short summary of the study, the women in it worked fewer hours for money than the men in it, but worked more hours doing family-related chores.  The women earned less, on average, than the men in the group, but vastly more than the average earnings of women those men had married and somewhat less than the men they themselves married.

That sounds like slightly altered traditional gender roles.  Given that the individuals in the sample had their crucial childhood training before feminist thinking had any great impact I found it odd that the popularization didn't really address gender roles as sociological concepts* but dove pretty fast into the idea that what we see here are innate differences between men and women.

That assumption would be fine if we had controlled for the societal effects completely.  But those were not controlled at all. Thus, we don't know if the women in the study had the same opportunities as the men in the study.  But the study appears to equate the work histories of the participants with their own (possibly constrained) choices:

The SMPY researchers attempted to figure out why their high-achieving men and women made the life choices they did by analyzing the values reported by each gender group. Among the male participants' top values were full-time work, making an impact and earning a high income. Female participants, on the other hand, valued part-time work, community and family involvement, as well as time for close relationships -- in a nutshell: "having it all." 
I see two problems in that quote. First, there's the egg-and-chicken problem when we assess the values reported in studies like that.  Someone who has spent his/her time on a career might pick career-related values due to confirmation bias, someone who had to give up on a full-time career due to children might pick values which confirm those choices, and in both cases the societal gender norms partly reflect what men and women are taught to value.

Second, being able to dedicate oneself to a career while also having a family requires that someone else takes care of the family.  Likewise, being able to spend more time on the family may require that someone else works more in the labor market or at least gets paid more.

The way this popularization reads to me is as if the two ways of working are independent.  But they are not.  To put it simply:  A career focused woman would need a more home-focused husband and a career focused man would need a more home-focused wife for a life that is successful in the career sense and includes children.**

And this is where the societal norms enter again:  It was  harder for a career-focused woman to find a husband who is willing to "have it all" during the years when the individuals in the study chose their marriage partners.  Granted, the differences could also be innate, but not considering the societal norms explanation looks like a flaw to me, and so does ignoring the mutually dependent nature of the career-focus vs. "having it all."

The justification for the innate differences (my interpretation, that) seems to come from the study finding that both men and women defined themselves roughly equally happy on most dimensions (including career satisfaction).***  Indeed, the happiness measures suggest that, if anything, the men in the study population might be a bit less happy than the women (Tables S13 and S14).

Leaving aside all the problems with measuring happiness (is it absolute?  is it comparative, and if so, who are the people we compare ourselves with? do women compare themselves to men and vice versa?), this is the argument used for the innateness of the established differences in the Huffington Post article:

"Most of the important things that happen in life involve tradeoffs, and this is what you’re seeing with this study," David C. Geary, a cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post in an email.
Geary said that this pattern of men aspiring for cultural success via job prestige and income (at a cost to their social and family life) and women investing more in their social and family life (at a cost to their professional achievements) is one that's seen throughout the world, and may be tied to an evolutionary predisposition related to marriage prospects and children.
Studies have found that women are more attracted to men who display outward signs that they are wealthy. This means some men might feel more pressure to achieve job prestige, to show they're capable of providing for a partner. But this pressure may also be an evolution of the economy, not just biology, as the cost of living increases.
As for the argument that women aren't given a choice in their current work lives, Geary isn't convinced -- especially in the case of the SMPY study, since the women reported being happy in general.
"People who are forced to do things they do not prefer are typically unsatisfied," he said. "If anything, men have fewer options than women -- that is, I suspect the social consequences of not being culturally successful are still larger for men, in terms of women's marriage preferences and in terms of how they are viewed by other men."
There we have the explanation for men's career focus!  It's evolution, my dears, because women are more attracted to men who are wealthy (I think women (and men) might be attracted to wealth, without being attracted to its owner but never mind).

At this point of reading the study I wanted to take off and swim after those references in the above quote, the ones which explain how women are attracted to wealthy men.  But before swimming off, let's just summarize my major criticism of the study:  It pays scant attention to social gender norms and the fact that the traditional gender expectations require a partner of the other gender with complementary expectations.**** 

What next?  How about that reference to "Studies have found that women are more attracted to men who display outward signs that they are wealthy.  The link gives us another Huffington Post article titled "Do Women Want Rich Men?" from 2011.

That one is so much fun!  It addresses three studies (or study-like things) to make the point that women indeed might fancy rich men (not their money, but the men who own the money).  The first is a Porsche study, of all things!  Here's what we are told that it found:

New research by faculty at Rice University, the University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA) and the University of Minnesota finds that men's conspicuous spending is driven by the desire to have uncommitted romantic flings. And, gentlemen, women can see right through it.

The series of studies, "Peacocks, Porsches and Thorstein Veblen: Conspicuous Consumption as a Sexual Signaling System," was conducted with nearly 1,000 test subjects and published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"This research suggests that conspicuous products, such as Porsches, can serve the same function for some men that large and brilliant feathers serve for peacocks," said Jill Sundie, assistant professor of marketing at UTSA and lead author of the paper.

Just as peacocks flaunt their tails before potential mates, men may flaunt flashy products to charm potential dates. Notably, not all men favored this strategy - just those men who were interested in short-term sexual relationships with women.

"The studies show that some men are like peacocks. They're the ones driving the bright colored sports car," said co-author Vladas Griskevicius, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota.

According to the researchers, women found a man who chose to purchase a flashy luxury product (such as a Porsche) more desirable than the same man who purchased a non-luxury item (such as a Honda Civic). However, there was a catch: Although women found the flashy guys more desirable for a date, the man with the Porsche was not preferred as a marriage partner. Women inferred from a man's flashy spending that he was interested in uncommitted sex.

"When women considered him for a long-term relationship, owning the sports car held no advantage relative to owning an economy car," said co-author Daniel Beal, assistant professor of psychology at Rice. "People may feel that owning flashy things makes them more attractive as a relationship partner, but in truth, many men might be sending women the wrong message."
Hmm.  What do you think?  Did women go for men with the flashy cars or not?

Duh.  The other two references in that 2011 Huffington Post article are even more fun:

How money plays into sex, dating and marriage is an often-studied topic. A report by Dr. Catherine Hakim released in January showed that women are choosing richer husbands, or "marrying up" more today than they did in the 1940s. And a controversial 2009 study found that while several factors affected a woman's reported enjoyment of sex, the most influential was her partner's income. 

Are you ready?  Catherine Hakim didn't do any kind of study on women choosing richer husbands that would have been released in January 2011.  She wrote a report arguing that, on the basis of a book she published in 2000 which used data from the early 1990s and before.

This is even better:  That controversial 2009 study was retracted by its author due to a methodological flaw.  When the flaw was corrected, the results did not find any correlation between a woman's orgasms and her partner's income.

What's happening here?  You were given a proper link to research which proves that women really fancy wealthy men.  But the link gave you three studies, one of which suggests that women don't want to marry the Porsche guys, one of which is not a study at all (certainly not a recent study) and one of which is a retracted study.  Properly done studies on this topic may exist, but those are not among them and shouldn't be used to justify that particular argument.

These swimming trips are always worthwhile.  Either you learn the studies which are the foundation for some argument or you learn that they don't exist at all or that they say something different.  My apologies for the water splashes.

*Here's what the article says on that:

So what's behind this divide? Are women forced to define success more broadly because they have less opportunity in the workplace? A portion of the survey addressed this question. When participants were asked how much they'd be willing to work if they had their "ideal job," the results were telling: Thirty percent of women were unwilling to work more than 40 hours per week in their dream career, while only 7 percent of men felt the same way.
"[These women] know they could be making a lot more money, but they have other things in their life," Lubinski said.
Or put that in reverse:  The men expressing willingness to work very long hours might also have those other things in their lives, but also have someone else taking care of them.   What would have clarified this part of the study is data separately on people who still have children to care for or elderly parents to care for etc.  How much more one would be willing to work for some goal doesn't only depend on the desirability of the goal but also on those other obligations in life.

**As far as I can tell, the study doesn't cover same-sex couples or treats them as not married.

***I would have wanted to see that data in greater detail than in just averages, given that the women, say, who didn't have careers at all would have given meaningless answers to all career questions.  Were their answers omitted?

I was also rather surprised by the great happiness of the study participants.  The average happiness levels seem to hover right near the tops of the scales which were used to measure happiness.

****The study is very sparse on basic descriptive statistics and cross-tabulations.  It's difficult to know what the standard deviations are etc.  That's a complaint I've had of many recent studies I've read, by the way.