Thursday, April 12, 2012

An EP Study On The Scarcity Of Men And Women's Career Choices. Part I

EP stands for a particular type of evolutionary psychology, the kind which offers an almost cartoonish interpretation of human psychology, one based on a few simple models and whatever can be extrapolated from them, one which has essentially no reliance on historical or archeological evidence and one which doesn't have much use for any competing theories at all.

If that sounds harsh it is meant to be, because studies under that sub-title of evolutionary psychology anger me greatly. Here is a recent example which I wish to take apart for your entertainment and education:
Many factors can influence a woman’s choice of career. Cultural, or family, traditions. Her specific skill set. Her interests and passions.
And whether she senses an abundant supply of available men.
That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which finds the mating market, not just the job market, impacts the way women pick their professions. The finding, which is rooted in evolutionary biology, has fascinating implications given the rapid rise of women both on college campuses and in the workplace.
“Does the ratio of men to women in the local population influence women’s career aspirations? Real-world archival data and a series of laboratory experiments suggest that the answer is yes,” writes a research team led by Kristina Durante of the University of Texas at San Antonio. “A scarcity of men leads women to seek out more lucrative careers.”
The paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, begins with a little-known historical fact: “A substantial portion of women in Northern Europe achieved economic parity with men during the late 12th century.” This “relatively short-lived” phenomenon (it had largely faded away 100 years later) occurred during a period when there was “a scarcity of marriageable men,” the researchers write.
You may already guess that this is about those sad and deluded educated women who will never able to marry or have children. And that, indeed, is the final message of the paper. But before we go there, and to the paper itself, let's look at the above description a little more closely. There are two points I wish to make about it:

First, the paper begins with that same anecdote about an era of equality, based on the shortage of eligible men for marriage, which once existed but was relatively short-lived (quote from the paper):
Recall a time in history when women began to assert their economic independence. After years of holding the near-exclusive role of homemaker, many women ambitiously entered the male-dominated workforce, successfully climbing up the economic ladder. If this description sounds like an account of the latter half of the 20th century in Western culture, it’s not. Instead, this account describes a period in Medieval Europe. A substantial portion of women in Northern Europe achieved economic parity with men during the late 12th century (Guttentag & Secord, 1983). Although the Middle Ages are rarely associated with women’s independence, many women in this time and place “became independent entrepreneurs and formed labor unions that were almost exclusively female” (Guttentag & Secord, 1983, p. 66).

Historians do not attribute this medieval shift in women’s economic aspirations to changes in government policy, education, or any kind of social movement that directly favored women. In fact, the change was relatively short lived; a century later, the number of female entrepreneurs and guild leaders diminished. Demogra- phers note that rather than reflecting a change from above or a grassroots movement from below, this time period was characterized by a specific shift in the European population: a decrease in the ratio of men to women, which produced a scarcity of marriageable men (Guttentag & Secord, 1983).
Is this anecdote intended to make us draw similar conclusions about the current era of increased gender-equality as based on an imbalance of men and women in the population? That it will also be short-lived, leading us back to a status quo of something varying between today's Afghanistan and the 1950s US? The researchers, including Kristina M. Durante and Stephanie M. CantĂș, are silent on that question but the answer does seem to be in the affirmative. Perhaps Kristina and Stephanie see themselves as dinosaurs in the making?

I like the way the five authors (Kristina M. Durante, Vladas Griskevicius, Jeffry A. Simpson, Stephanie M. CantĂș, and Joshua M. Tybur) note that the late 12th century experiment in gender equality was "short-lived" without telling us anything about how it ended. It's as if all the women just packed up their bags, relinquished their high-paying jobs and went back to their kitchens all voluntarily.

But an alternative interpretation of the end of women's guild memberships and professional success exists. There's plentiful evidence that women often left those jobs (at least during some parts of the Middle Ages) not voluntarily but because they were forced out.

From A History of Women. Silences in the Middle Ages:
Women dominated certain crafts, particularly those related to cloth and clothing production; they carded and spun wool, prepared flax, and worked as tailors, furriers, bag- and belt-makers, and gold spinners and embroiderers. Women in the last-named trade occasionally formed their own all-female guilds, as in Paris and Cologne. (p.300)

One of the oldest guilds to grant men and women equal rights is that of the furriers of Basel, from the year of 1226. Once accepted as members, women were permitted to work, buy and sell under the same conditions as men. (p.300)

In many other crafts women could be admitted to guilds and open their own workshops; many were wives or widows of male craftsmen; but single women appear as well. Normally they were required to serve the usual apprenticeship of several years. As guild members they then worked under the same conditions as their male colleagues, with the same rights but also the same restrictions and communal obligations, such as night-watch and military duty. In the last case a woman with her own workshop was required to supply a journeyman or pay a fee in lieu of service. (p.301)


In addition many women worked outside the guild system in unregulated professions, such as the gold-spinners of Nürnberg, who do not appear in official records until 1526 and had previously worked without any system of regulation. In Strasbourg the large number of female wool-weavers operating outside the organized weavers' guild were the subject of repeated protests to the city council by the (male) guild members. The male weavers demanded that women either stop competing or buy into the guild and pay dues. something many of them could not afford to do. A later regulation kept women's workshops small and uncompetitive by forbidding them to hire apprentices. These strategies were successful in driving women out of the city or into other trades. (p.302)

"No female may lawfully practice a trade, even if she should understand it as well as a man." This sentence from Adrian Beier's 1688 book on craft laws appears to show that medieval developments ultimately led to the complete exclusion of women from crafts and trades.

Much does indeed point to a growing hostility toward women and the suppression of independent female-led workshops near the end of the Middle Ages, particularly in guild ordinances. The trend can be observed in conflicts that began at different levels as early as the start of the fifteenth century: between journeymen and female apprentices, between trained artisans and untrained women day laborers and maids, and between master craftsmen in guilds and women competitors outside them. By the end of the sixteenth century men dominated the previously all-female guild of silk-workers in Cologne.


This observation has led many historians to conclude that the late Middle Ages saw the beginning of a process of "women's exclusion from professional life" that led more or less directly to female dependency and the confinement to the domestic sphere typical of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This interpretation overlooks a number of factors, however, such as the fact that for women merchants engaged in both local and long-distance trade the decisive phase of exclusion occurred not in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but -- if it took place at all -- in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. For example, the ordinance for fish merchants in Nürnberg, passed in 1300, permitted a woman to run a stand only temporarily, in her husband's absence. (pp. 303-304).

I quote from this source so extensively for three reasons:

First, it adds tentative flesh to the skeleton of the Durante et al. medieval anecdote which has been stripped of that for their purposes.

Second, it serves as a reminder of the existence of alternative disciplines which could have been applied to a particular question instead of the sole use of evolutionary psychology.

Third, when we get to the paper itself (in my second post) it reminds us of the fact that the way women worked in the past cannot be simply deduced from some evolutionary psychology model which concludes that they did mostly childcare and housekeeping. In reality most women have worked not only in caring for children and the elderly or in cooking, cleaning and laundry services for their own families but also in the kinds of jobs which we now regard as belonging to the labor market: The manufacture of clothing, the growing of food, the brewing of beer for sale and so on. And when they did not it may have been because they were sometimes not allowed to.

My second point in this introductory post has to do with one teeny-weeny word in the above quote:
The finding, which is rooted in evolutionary biology, has fascinating implications given the rapid rise of women both on college campuses and in the workplace.
Can you guess the word? It's "biology." Evolutionary psychology is not evolutionary biology. I checked the qualifications of all five authors in the study. Four of them have doctorates in psychology and one expects to have that psychology doctorate by 2014. None of them seems to be an evolutionary biologist.

This doesn't mean that the study might not be based on evolutionary biology in the sense of the animal studies the authors refer to in their paper. But their own analysis is pure EP. Despite that, the paper itself always refers to evolutionary biology. I'm not sure what to make of that though I have a few theories.