Gasp! I Married a Career Woman

We have a recurring nightmare. We're standing on a mountaintop, being attacked by a huge, winged chimera with an enormous head and a mouth that keeps chanting, "Working women are miserable. Their marriages are terrible. Their husbands are miserable. Their children are wrecks."

We slice off the beast's head with a sharp sword. Instantly 20 more heads appear to take its place, each chanting, "Working women are miserable, their marriages are terrible ...."

For the media, it is the story that simply will not die. Are you as bored with it as we are?

The newest chimera's head comes from Forbes.com, in the form of an article last week by editor Michael Noer with a headline, "Don't Marry Career Women" and subtitled "How do women, careers and marriage mix? Not well, say social scientists." The article was accompanied by a slide show purporting to show the "social science" on which the piece was based.

The way this story played out tells us a lot about the workings of today's media, the Internet and the 24-hour continuous news cycle. It may also herald a major new media power source: Femalebloggers Inc.

Forbes retreats

Forbes quickly took down the slide show. The solo Noer article was repackaged as a point-counterpoint commentary with Forbes staff writer Elizabeth Corcoran. Disagreeing. Her commentary (obviously turned around on a dime) was anecdotal. So the result was a guy taking over the commanding heights of "science" and the woman offered a flimsier personal rebuttal.

Meanwhile, Slate media critic Jack Shafer weighed in, with a story headlined, "Forbes' Female Trouble: So what if career women are divorces waiting to happen?"

Shafer rightly said the original Forbes piece was largely junk and noted "the Web site entries appear to be a holding pen for crap Noer couldn't shoehorn into his overstuffed thesis." Noer included studies irrelevant to this thesis. One, for example, found that higher-income people cheat more in marriage.

But Shafer claimed he didn't understand why women got so upset over the article, saying, "I've yet to read a blog item or a protesting e-mail from a reader that convinces me that the article, as opposed to the deliberately provocative headline, really insults women, career or otherwise."

To which Jen Posner, executive director of Women In Media and News, responded: "He hasn't been convinced that the article insults women? Really? Even after all these women online and on radio have said outright that it's insulting?"

By week's end, Forbes was flooded by so many e-mails from furious women (some urging a boycott of the magazine) and heard from so many bloggers that the publication was sprinting away from its own story. Publisher Steve Forbes publicly apologized on Friday for insulting working women with the article. ABC ran the story on the evening news.

Female bloggers had made a difference.

The Times weighs in

On Monday, the New York Times moved in with a story about the possible business motivation behind running the Forbes piece. A provider of third-party Web traffic data told the Times that visits to Forbes.com had "tumbled" and were only about half of the 15.3 million a month the company continued to advertise. The story noted that the Forbes site was featuring glitzy lifestyle stories, raising the question of whether the career women story was simply a cynical attempt to get "buzz."

The fracas matters because it adds to the building myth in the media of a scientific consensus that ambitious women create bad marriages and that only by returning to traditional roles can the sexes be at peace.

We have spent more than two decades researching the lives of working women, and written four books on the subject. We can reliably report that there is a growing consensus based on solid research that if a woman has a good job, the marriage benefits.

Jack Shafer says he "won't quarrel" with Noer's advice to men that "You'll be unhappy if she makes more than you." Shafer should quarrel, because Noer's science is sloppy. Today, some 42 percent of college-educated married women out-earn their husbands. Are these marriages falling apart? Not according to recent divorce data. These marriages are as stable as those in which husbands earn more.

Noer appears to rely, for his contention that men are unhappy with career women, on a study based on data from the early 1990s by University of Virginia researchers. But this study says nothing at all about men's happiness. It reports that women can be unhappy in marriage if they earn more than their husbands, if there is an unfair division of household labor and if men fail to do the "emotional work" to sustain the marriage.

Contradicting the thesis

We have just completed a major new analysis of data from our study of dual-earner couples that was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. The data, not yet published, utterly contradict the Forbes thesis that men will be unhappy if they marry career women. Our study--which looks at men's marital happiness--finds that among dual-earner couples, as she works more, his marital quality goes up. Why so? Probably for a number of reasons.

Men's wages have been stagnant or declining for nearly 20 years, so her income may be easing financial tensions and making it possible for the couple to pay their bills. Her enhanced earnings may be heightening her self esteem, and so she brings these good feelings about herself into the marriage. He may want to spend more time with the family, and her work eases the breadwinning burden. Research tells us that men today do want more family time and are actually spending more time with their families than they used to.

Will men who marry career women have terrible sex lives? Noer seems to suggest this, though he doesn't say so outright.

Is it true? No. 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.

Will this research lay the chimera to rest once and for all? Don't count on it. The odds are that the beast will grow a batch of new heads, all of them nattering on and on about miserable working women and their miserable families.

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