Caryl Rivers

6 Myths About Female Ascendance in the Workplace

The following is an adapted excerpt from The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy. Copyright © 2013 by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., Reprinted with permission of Tarcher/Penguin, New York, NY.

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The Permanent Middle Class

Toss in heaping tablespoons of the philosophy outlined in a leaked Wal-Mart memo, then add more than a pinch of globalization. Fold in a few teaspoons of American hyperindividualism, and you have a recipe for something that is both very old and very new in American life: the Permanent Proletariat.

On whose shoulders will this state of affairs rest most heavily? On those of the American family, especially children.

Wal-Mart's leaked memo last year expressed concern that wages and benefits were rising too fast, so the company wants to reduce the current 40 percent of its employees who are full-time to 20 percent. (Wal-Mart is not alone -- this is the pattern many businesses are following.) As the New York Times' Paul Krugman notes, "The problem from the company's point of view is that its workers are too loyal. It wants cheap labor that doesn't hang around too long. But not enough workers quit before acquiring the right to higher wages and benefits."

More of the work force is coming to resemble those people Barbara Ehrenreich wrote of in "Nickel and Dimed," working two jobs but not able to make it, trading off paying the car insurance with eating for the week. Even people better off will find themselves working longer hours, scared to take vacations lest they lose their jobs, working overtime because their employees increasingly demand it, and always on call via their cell phones or pagers.

Our current situation and our public policies could not be more out of sync. Men's wages have been basically stagnant or declining for two decades, high-wage industrial jobs are disappearing overseas, and most families are surviving on the wages of two-income families. Seventy percent of women are in the work force, and 55 percent of mothers of toddlers are working. Harvard economist Richard Freeman reports that the U.S. economy outperformed the EU in the '90s thanks to the earnings of working women with children. The No. 1 stressor of dual earner parents -- with no gender difference -- is the search for good, affordable child care.

The low-wage/high-work world and the two-earner world are with us for the foreseeable future. As is the rapidly growing world of shift work, with mom working one shift and dad another. American families are facing enormous stress, and a reasonable society would be looking at ways to shore up the family with something other than platitudes. After all, it is the crucible of future generations, the matrix of our tomorrows.

The degree to which we are not doing this is astonishing, according to Harvard's Global Working Families project:

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Discrimination Against the Female Brain

Recently, a committee of specialists at the University of Miami found that it was not biology, hormones, child-rearing demands, or differences in ability that explained why women were not advancing as fast as they should in scientific and technical fields. It was discrimination, pure and simple. "It is not a lack of talent, but unintended bias that is locking women out," said Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and head of the committee that wrote the report. It was sponsored by the prestigious U.S. National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

This is not a new story. People familiar with the research know that for many years, studies have shown few gender differences that would account for women's lack of progress. They also know that the notion that “girls can't do math” starts as early as third grade and gets progressively worse. Harvard's Larry Summers got into trouble because -- as he candidly admitted -- he had gotten the science wrong. A quick check with some of his own faculty members could have saved him a lot of grief.

But the idea that women are uncomfortable with facts and systems dies hard. Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen ("The Essential Difference") says that males are good at leadership, decision making and achievement, while females are suited for "Making friends, mothering, gossiping, and 'reading' your partner." (He has been quoted in the New York Times, in a Newsweek cover story, in a PBS documentary and in many other major media outlets.)

Baron-Cohen bases his claims on one study (done in his lab in 2000) of day-old infants purporting to show that baby boys looked longer at mobiles, while day-old baby girls looked longer at human faces.

Elizabeth Spelke, the co-director of Harvard's Mind, Brain and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, utterly demolished this study. It has never been replicated, nor has it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, she reported. Furthermore, the study lacked critical controls against experimenter bias and was not well-designed. Female and male infants were propped up in a parent's lap and shown, side by side, an active person or an inanimate object. Since newborns can't hold their heads up independently, their visual preferences could well have been determined by the way their parents held them. Moreover, there's a long literature flat-out contradicting Baron-Cohen's study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects.

The idea that women are suited mainly for relationships keeps popping up all over the media. Best-selling author Michael Gurian ("The Wonder of Girls") claims that only 20 percent of girls have "bridge brains" that enable them to do math the way males do, a claim so unscientific it takes your breath away. Gurian also claims that girls will be unhappy if they focus too much on achievement, and that instead their primary goal should be learning to form relationships. Gurian is often cited uncritically in the media and invited to speak to groups of teachers.

The Academies' report found that female performance in high school mathematics now matches that of males. But the media focus is not on female performance, but on female hormones.

“Is chemistry destiny?” New York Times columnist David Brooks recently asked. His answer was a resounding vote in favor of sheer biological determinism. He blithely jettisoned a century's worth of research to chirp that "happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago."

Long long ago, of course, was when men were in charge of the world and women knew their place.

Brooks was citing a new book titled "The Female Brain" by Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco. The book claims that the female brain is wired for connection. But the author unfortunately makes huge, unsubstantiated leaps. Take, for example, this statement: '"Studies indicate that girls are motivated -- on a molecular and a neurological level -- to ease and even prevent social conflict.'"

But as Robin Marantz Henig points out in her excellent New York Times review, the data for that statement is quite fuzzy. "The endnote lists nine scholarly articles, with no further explanation given. From the titles (which the reader has to look for in the bibliography), we can surmise that one study was on female mice, one on male and female rats, one (apparently) on female rhesus monkeys, and the other six on humans. But only one of those human studies explicitly mentions ‘sex differences’ in the title."

And long ago, "mean girls" were all the rage in media stories. What happened to the make-nice hormones in all those nasty high school kids?

The fact is that human behavior is an extremely complex mix of genes, hormones, environments, relationships, situations, drives, motivations -- a vast, churning stew. There is huge variation among individuals; often, talking about how "men" or "women" behave has little bearing on what real people do. We are all products of both nature and nurture, constantly interacting.

But bits and pieces of this extremely complicated picture are teased out and used in a very simplistic -- and very political -- way. They are employed to argue that women can't do math, shouldn't be in the army, shouldn't be engineers, aren't natural leaders, aren't natural risk takers and so on, endlessly. The more that the actual behavior of women debunks such statements, the more widespread the statements become.

As the science of behavior becomes ever more nuanced and complex, the media notions about it become ever more conservative and simplistic. We should remember that while biology is an important part of who we are, biological determinism has an unscientific -- and unsavory -- past.

Happy Homemakers

Are homemakers happier in their marriages than working women? Are wives happier when their husbands are the major breadwinners? Is too much equality between men and women bad for marital happiness?

A new study suggesting yes, yes and yes has won inordinate attention. New York Times columnist John Tierney looked at the study, and a few weeks ago concluded that women "want their husbands to be providers who give them financial security and freedom."

Around the same time, in an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Allen, co-editor of the InkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum, cited the study as proof that "the more traditional a marriage is . . . the higher the percentage of happy wives." The story also buzzed around the blogosphere and was fodder on some cable shows.

Here We Go Again
Here we go again. Last November, we looked at the weak data behind a media outburst about men not liking smart women. Before that we looked at all the guff about women at elite universities wanting to just say no to careers. Meanwhile, we seem to have the ongoing job of reminding the other news media that despite its devotion to the idea that the male of the species is an unregenerate chore boor, the actual research shows him helping out more and more around the house.

Now some in the news media are once again latching on to a flawed study offering bad news for ambitious women.

Published this month in the sociology journal Social Forces (University of North Carolina), the study by W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock of the University of Virginia is based on data from studies in the early 1990s. The findings are so atypical that the study is what's called an "outlier." As columnist Ellen Goodman reports, when sociologist Scott Coltrane of the University of California-Riverside used the same data set, he found no difference in marital happiness between homemakers and working women.

Over the past 15 years, some 20 studies have looked at the association between women's employment and earnings and their marital happiness. These studies have involved different samples of people and different methods of arriving at results. But they all tell the same story: Employed women are as happy (and perhaps happier) in their marriages as non-employed women and having an income generally improves a woman's marital happiness.

Failing Marriages an Indicator
The divorce rate is another important indicator. Do working women's marriages fail at a higher rate than those of homemakers? No. In fact, as University of Michigan sociologist Hiromi Ono found in 1998, a woman is more likely to divorce if she has no earnings than if she does in fact earn money. Other researchers find that the higher the household income--whatever the source--the higher the quality of family life and marriage.

Studies researching the same subject have drawn different conclusions. But reader beware: black-and-white conclusions can't be fairly drawn. The Virginia study found wives happier if their husbands were the breadwinners. Other research disagrees. Some 42 percent of today's married women outearn their husbands. Are these marriages falling apart? Not according to the divorce data. These marriages are as stable as those in which husbands earn more.

In the 1990s, the gap between husbands' and wives' earnings began to narrow. At the same time the divorce rate--which had been on the increase--leveled off. If Wilcox and Nock were correct, and women naturally yearn for male breadwinners, we should be seeing an increase in divorce as women earn more than their husbands. But no such trend exists.

In a 2001 analysis of data from our own study of 300 dual-earner couples, funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, wives' earnings--whether higher, lower or the same as their husbands'--had no effect on their marital happiness. (And, for the most part, men's marital happiness was unrelated to how much their wives earned.)

Yearnings in Question
The notion that women yearn for a traditional breadwinner is highly questionable, and stands in stark contrast to the large body of literature in this area. Sociologists Elaine Wethington (Cornell University) and Ronald Kessler (Harvard Medical School) found that women who were homemakers at the beginning of their three-year study and then went to work full time reported a decrease in psychological distress. In contrast, women who were employed full time and then dropped out to stay home reported an increase in distress, regardless if they had children. Women who had a child but stayed in the work force showed no increase in distress. But women who had a child and dropped out of the work force experienced a major increase in stress.

One of Wilcox and Nock's strongest findings--that men's loving attention to their wives is an important predictor of women's happiness--may be true. Or it may not be. You can't possibly know how attentive the husband is unless you collect data from the husbands, and these researchers did not do that.

"This study is troubling because it depends on wives' ratings of both their husbands' emotional support and also their own satisfaction with their marriages," Robert T. Brennan, a research associate at Harvard Medical School told us in an e-mail. "The study relies on just wives' reports of marital satisfaction, yet marriage is a two-way street where husbands and wives often don't see eye to eye."

Overall, the picture of who is -- and who isn't--happily married is very complex. Both women in paid employment and traditional homemakers may have good marriages or bad ones. But the simple scenario sketched out by the Virginia study just doesn't tell us much.

When journalists come across a study like this--that says something so radically different from other studies--they should start asking questions and not automatically embrace the results.

Girls Must Be Girls

As the 2005 holiday shopping season begins in earnest, what's out there for girls to find under the tree?

Across the spectrum of gifts and toys, most retailers have retreated to a pink-and-blue world, aiming products at the sexes as if they really did come from different planets. After a unisex phase, large toy stores have returned to boy and girl aisles because they are more profitable.

"The gulf between His and Hers sides looms like the parted Red Sea," writes Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at State University of New York, Stony Brook. "Woe to him who strolls inadvertently into Barbie-land from the land of the action figures. It's not simply those cute blue-and-pink blankets anymore. Everything is coded."

As part of this coding, girls are pretty well immobilized.

In its newspaper supplement catalog, Toys "R" Us offers no pictures of girls on its sports page. Boys, meanwhile, are seen playing basketball, riding an arcade-style motorcycle and playing an electronic hockey game. No girls are seen in two pages of action-figure toys, nor in two pages of cars and trucks.

Two pages devoted to building feature boys playing with Legos, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and a huge "tube park." Girls are offered Cinderella Castle blocks (with a battery-powered waltz) and a cheap toddler block set. On a learn-and-create page, boys play with toy trains while girls seem delighted with a "glitter dream dollhouse."

Dolls Page Is for Girls

The dolls page, of course, is for girls. There you can find items such as a Cinderella carriage, a Barbie primp-and-polish styling head for hairdos, a Hollywood party limo and scores of Barbies. No boys are pictured.

None of which is to pick on Toys "R" Us. It was just the handiest example.

The aisles of most American toy stores or toy departments have the same gender-coded sections. Just walk through a store and that becomes obvious.

Hot items in Toyland are the big-eyed Bratz dolls, sporting navel-baring tops, hooker boots and miniskirts. The Bratz dolls are even more overtly sexual than Barbie. The toy industry--along with many parents--has noticed the so-called age-compression phenomenon.

Children are outgrowing traditional toys sooner. Not so long ago, girls up to age 12 played with Barbies.

By 2000, such "tweens" were plugged into Britney Spears gyrating on MTV. This growing-up-fast syndrome may be one of the engines behind the success of the Bratz, which are becoming more popular than Barbie.

Advertising Age reports that Barbie "has lost shelf space at major retailers and has been displaced by the edgy, hip-hop Bratz." Barbie's third-quarter sales were down 30 percent in the U.S. compared to the same period a year earlier, says the magazine.

"It's not the fact that children are learning about sex when they are young that is a problem," says Diane Levin, a professor of child development at Wheelock College in Boston. "The problem is what today's sexualized environment is teaching them."

Kids are getting pulled into precocious sexual behavior for which they are not emotionally prepared.

So what's next? A "Jailbait" line of dolls that offers price lists for sexual favors when you wind them up?

Virgin-Whore Syndrome

The virgin-whore syndrome is alive and well in your local toy or clothing emporium. One new item that has already gone beyond the pale is a T-shirt aimed at teens by Abercrombie. "Who needs brains when you have these?" go the words blazoned across the wearer's chest. Female teens have already protested these shirts, calling them "degrading."

The protest started in Pennsylvania with the Allegheny Girls as Grantmakers program, which gives girls funds for projects on women's issues, and has spread across the United States.

"The shirts make it OK to be stupid," one of the protest's organizers, 16-year-old Emma Blackman-Mathis, of Pittsburgh, told the Columbus Dispatch.

Another growing trend is fantasy makeovers for girls 5 to 13 in local shopping malls sponsored by a group known as Club Libby Lu. The group is what's called an "experience retailer." This means that they don't sell just products. They package an experience together with merchandise.

Parents who want to sign up their daughters for a fantasy party purchase a "Libby Du" package. The choices are not exactly tailored to shoppers who want to inspire the girls in their lives with aspirations beyond that of fashion model.

They include a sparkle princess, a rock star, a fashion trendsetter and a drama diva complete with glittery sunglasses. Club counselors create fancy hairstyles and apply sparkly makeup to the little girls, who wind up looking like beauty pageant contestants. The fantasies being marketed are images of adult sexuality and overt consumerism.

If girls are learning sexuality from the marketplace, they are also getting lessons in passivity much earlier than we thought from what is supposed to be play.

For years, conventional wisdom had it that the play of preschool children was all about having fun. Newer research reveals that children at play are actively engaged in serious learning.

One of the things they learn is that the world abides by stark dominant gender roles. These toys teach girls who is in charge, which activities are "natural" and "good" for boys and girls.

These lessons are learned by age 4, according to Glenda MacNaughton, associate professor of education at the University of Melbourne, who has conducted extensive research on equity issues in childhood. A rash of new studies shows that boys and girls as young as 3 or 4 years of age indeed do get the gender-difference message.

In the pre-school world, boys are in charge, say a number of studies done by educators and social scientists. Boys appropriate the most active play areas, and they tell girls what they can and can't do. Boys are learning that they are supposed to be the dominant sex and that they can treat girls as submissive and acquiescent.

Girls learn early that they should be accommodating so that when they grow they will be desirable to the men they are expected to marry.

Here is how Adam, a middle-class 6-year-old Caucasian boy, who is well-respected by the boys and girls in his kindergarten class, put it: "Look, boys are supposed to do boy things and girls, well, they do all those girly things. That is how it is! Boys play football. Girls are cheerleaders. And we aren't going to mess with it. That is final!"

By contrast, the real world for which these children are practicing is one where most women will be in the work force and most men will be expected to help raise families.

Getting zipped into outmoded gender roles while they are still toddlers will only make their lives more fraught with confusion and conflict.

Any parents and teachers who intervene against the message of the marketplace are not being overzealous. Subverting this message can only help steer children toward happy lives.

The War on Birth Control

I was in the middle of writing about the stunning and often stealthy attack on birth control that is going on now when the news broke that Pope John Paul II had passed away.

The ensuing typhoon of coverage pointed out so many of the pope's laudable efforts, from fighting poverty and war to his early days giving courageous support to Solidarity in Poland.

Many of his efforts--at social justice, at opposing the death penalty and at reaching out to Jews and Muslims--deserve all the wide praise they are receiving.

But his policies towards women--including the denial of female ordination--seem stalled in an earlier era. Looking at the event from the perspective of what is going on in pharmacies and state legislatures and science advisory panels in this country, I was astonished to see that the Vatican's attack on birth control was skimmed over.

This is not a minor part of his legacy; it is a major part of the mix.

The war on birth control is being waged on many fronts all over the world, including right here, under our noses in the United States.

Unease on Web Sites

Log onto web sites where feminists offer opinions and you will see great unease about the fact that this facet of a very political man's history is being downplayed.

"Is it driving anyone else crazy that the pope's death is being covered without mention of the fact that he worked fiercely to prevent condoms from being distributed by international forces, thus ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people in the global south would die of AIDS?" reads a post on the Women and Media Conference web site.

Thousands of articles have been published about the pope. (Within the 24-hour period following his death, 35,000 articles were written about him, 10 times more than the number of stories written about President Bush in the 24-hour period following his re-election, according to The Global Language Monitor, an online news- and word-watcher.)

Missing from much of the coverage of the widespread grief over the pope's passing were acknowledgements of grievous parts of the Vatican story.

"Rome" was very slow to acknowledge a worldwide scandal of priestly pedophilia. (Hats off to Thomas Cahill for his op-ed piece on this in yesterday's New York Times and to Jason Berry in the Boston Globe on the same subject.) It also disseminated misinformation claiming that condoms could not stop the AIDS virus and condoned the burning of condoms in Catholic churches in AIDS-racked Africa.

Key Player in Attack on Birth Control

The Vatican is also a key player in a persistent U.S. campaign by Christian conservatives and the Bush administration against birth control.

Bills in this country have been introduced in a number of states to allow pharmacists to refuse to fill doctors' prescriptions for the emergency-contraception pill.

More and more states are mandating that only abstinence be taught in public school sex-education classes, even while misinformation about birth control is rife in such courses.

Information about the effectiveness of condoms has been pulled from government web sites.

The White House has appointed members to federal science advisory panels who oppose birth control on moral grounds.

Legislators in a number of states are trying to define all forms of birth control other than abstinence (including the pill) as abortion.

All of this is promoted and blessed by cardinals obedient to the Vatican.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaim that artificial birth control is sinful, even as they acknowledge that only about 4 percent of Roman Catholic couples of child-bearing age practice "natural" family planning. The church has also opposed bills in several states that would force health-care insurers to cover contraceptives for women.

Ominous Signs

There are ominous signs that the next assault in the war against birth control will be an attempt to remove from the market any substance--including the pill and the IUD--that might have even the possibility of affecting fertilization.

Pro-life Wisconsin, for example, calls "sinful" all types of contraception except abstinence, including "all forms of the birth control pill currently being sold," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Bills have been crafted in the state to write that notion into law.

Kim Olsen, head of the Missouri Republicans for Choice, notes with alarm that the Republican legislature recently axed the state's highly successful and cost-effective family-planning program. She sees all birth control as being in the cross-hairs of the religious right in her party.

"Reproductive freedoms are being legislated away, piece by piece, by my own party. Like many moderate Republicans, I never thought it could happen. But it has," she says.

American women of all political parties, need to understand that--as Newsday columnist Marie Cocco puts it--we are seeing a "jeremiad against women who want to control every facet of their destiny. The campaign against sex education, against condoms--and now against a tiny pill that sits in the medicine chests of millions of American homes--is a comprehensive assault on modern life."

The battle is no longer simply over abortion.

It is over the most basic rights of women to have any control over when--or if--they will bear children.

We may wake up one day and discover that our rights have been nibbled away by laws consistent with the beliefs of Pope John Paul II and others who have opposed women's reproductive freedom--and their political allies--that have a radical agenda of which few Americans approve.

What Men Want

The traditional wife is back in vogue – at least in the media.

Critics hector Teresa Heinz for not gazing adoringly enough at her husband John Kerry. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd complains, "Her attention rarely seems to light on her husband when she's at a microphone with him."

And, of course, there's the much-written-about revival of "The Stepford Wives," in which submissive, robot-like women cater to their husbands' every whim.

But, in fact, do men want robotic, accommodating women? Do women want older "provider" males who will support them in a '50s country-club lifestyle? Do women put their marital happiness at risk when they earn a good paycheck?

No, no and no are the answers.

A number of studies published in the past few years have found that while "Stepford" may be good for a few chuckles in a movie, it's far off the mark as far as most men and women are concerned.

Education Adds to Allure

In fact, if the movie were realistic, the husbands would not be turning their wives into robots. They'd be helping them finance their way through grad school. Research shows that today, the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to be married and the less likely she is to be attracted to a man on the basis of his earning power. In fact, mate selection is now more of a two-way street and men, in turn, are freer from the financial pressures that used to be the primary qualifier for any bachelor seeking a wife.

Once upon a time it was said that "men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses." In other words, a woman who was too smart and too educated would be a flop at finding a husband. That has all changed. Now, men are becoming more likely to select as mates women who have finished their education, forsaking youth for earning capacity. Men today are not prisoners of past behavior by males. They are much more flexible.

Paychecks Make Marriage Work

Men's mate preferences change when situations change. Today, a woman's paycheck may be more appealing than her perfectly baked brownies. Men's wages have been stagnant or declining for 15 years now, and the "family wage" of the industrial age has been replaced by the job insecurity of the global age.

Most couples require two paychecks to stay in the middle class, a math lesson that is not lost on men.

Judge Richard Posner, author of a book on the economics of mating, Sex and Reason, suggests, "economics is not divorced from mate selection. People change their behavior as costs and benefits change."

J-Date, the popular online national dating service, automatically requests information on women's incomes, because their male clients ask for it.

Mary Balfour, director of Drawing Down the Moon, an executive dating agency based in London, says that college-educated and professional men in their 20s and 30s now want women who match their intellect and earning abilities. "It is only those in their 50s and 60s who tend to take a deep breath when introduced to powerful women," she says.

Many Wives Earn More

Today, more than 42 percent of married women in the United States earn more than their husbands.

According to Stepford theory, these couples should be sexually frustrated (especially the men) and highly divorce-prone. Not so.

Unlike the threatened Stepford men, modern husbands are not turned off by women who can succeed at work. Women's earning power does not appear to get in the way of pleasure. Psychologist Janet Hyde conducted a year–long (1996) longitudinal study of 500 couples. She found that couples who said they had the most rewarding intimate lives were those in which both partners worked and experienced high rewards from their jobs.

If they were in the real world, married couples in Stepford would find they were paying a huge financial penalty for their hubby-earns-most-and-best approach. The median household income gap between single-earner and dual-earner couples has been steadily widening and in 2001 the two-income couples earned a staggering $30,500 more, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Despite movies such as the "The First Wives' Club" and the emergence of "displaced homemaker" as a job-seeking category to which a slight sense of desperation adheres, we still tend to think that the traditional homemaker, safely behind her white picket fence, has the most stable marriage. Not so.

A 1999 nationally representative sample – meaning it mirrors the population as a whole – of 4,405 couples found that divorce was more likely when a woman has no earnings than when she brings home a paycheck. In particular, the marriage of a woman with no earnings was more than twice as likely to dissolve as that of a woman who had a paycheck.

Having no income can be risky for a woman, and not just in the stability of her marriage. A wife who drops out of the work force and stays out for a long time will never make up that lost economic ground, even if she returns to the work force. Worse, if her husband's income starts to slip – an all too common event these days – the couple can be in trouble, both financially and emotionally.

Still, the media can't get over their infatuation with traditional women, whether the subject is the wives of presidential candidates, women at work, or the Stepford movie. The only antidote is correct information, which is sadly in short supply.

Where Have All the Women Gone?

As war dominates the headlines, journalists, scholars and others interested in public policy have noticed a growing silence: the absence of women's voices in the nation's elite media. The war has only accelerated a trend that has been brewing for some time: the Spiral of Silence.

On too many opinion pages, you find men writing the same thing over and over about Iraq, terrorism and military questions, while room just can't be found for other issues -- or even women with a perspective on international issues. Even on the topic of Affirmative Action -- an issue of extreme importance to women -- this week The New York Times and The Washington Post opinion pages had all-male line-ups. (Some papers, it should be said, manage to do better. The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, for example, display both a wide range of issues and a fair number of women writers.)

Women's voices aren't heard and that de-legitimizes women, which in turn deepens the silence.

From opinion pages to brainy magazines to journals of opinion, women's voices are more muted than they have been in years. As columnist Alicia Mundy writes in Editor and Publisher, at The Washington Post, "Op-ed pages are bulging with deep 'insider' pieces on foreign affairs to the near exclusion of more immediate issues. Second, these pages are almost entirely devoid of women." She notes that if you did a cursory search of the last two year's opinion pages, "you would be alarmed at the lack of diversity among writers and among subjects beyond foreign affairs."

At The New York Times, the same situation generally prevails. In the month between November 4 and December 4 of 2002, for example, an online search revealed that of the non-regular columns on the opinion page, 60 were by men and 14 by women. (Three bylines featured names that were androgynous, so hard to quantify.) Two of these pieces by women could be called very light, one about the perfect Christmas gifts, another by Miss Manners on etiquette. When all opinion page bylines were counted, of 92 writers, only 19 were women. And as the nation lurched into war, the situation has not improved.

Even veteran women journalists have trouble getting heard these days. Mundy writes that Pulitzer Prize winner and syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman complained to her about getting bumped too often at The Washington Post. Geneva Overholser, the former Ombudsman at the Post and a respected editor and journalist, has been writing for some time about the vanishing of women's voices on opinion pages and has noted the Post's "white male culture."

If you read many opinion pages these days, you would think that issues of poverty, race, sexism, the health care crisis, working families, stem cell research and education had simply vanished from the planet. Mundy notes that at the Post, the opinion pages are now "ploddingly predictable." She says "Several columnists are still trying to kick Bill Clinton (he's gone, guys) and most of the time they gorge on what we women sarcastically used to call 'Big - - - - Issues' (suggesting an excess of testosterone)."

At the most respected magazines and journals, the situation is not much better. Look at The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly -- once again, you will see few female bylines.

At the Atlantic, there exists what might be called a journalistic apartheid where women are concerned. If you're a regular reader of the publication, which I am, you'd think that some sort of plague had decimated the female population. Between December 2001 and December 2002, for example, I found 38 major articles by men and seven by women. Two of these women were writing with their more famous husbands; another was doing an anecdotal piece on cross-dressing. So for serious pieces, the total is 38 to 4. The essays were even worse. During this period, I found 41 essays by men and two by women. Or to be precise, two essays by the same woman. For the Atlantic, Margaret Talbot represented all of womanhood.

At The New Yorker, things are much the same. On the Web site MobyLives, Dennis Loy Johnson points out that while many -- perhaps most -- New Yorker readers are female, few of the magazine's bylines are. He said he was tipped off to this fact by a senior publishing executive and decided to make his own count at The New York Public Library. He found that 80 percent of the writing in the magazine at that point (the summer of 2002) was by men. Even worse, "The overwhelming majority of writing contributed by women was written by staffers and appeared in the magazine's back pages," he says.

Johnson notes that the woman who had published the most poetry in the magazine at the time he checked in 2002 was Dana Goodyear, the 25-year-old assistant to editor in chief David Remnick.

The situation is dire for women scholars and journalists who wish to influence the public agenda of the nation. I haven't seen it so bad since the pre-women's movement days when women were completely invisible in the media. And in journalism, the number of women gatekeepers is on the wane. Just one in five of top female newspaper editors expect to stay where they are. One in two expect to leave their company or the news business entirely, according to a 2002 report by The American Press Institute and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. A report from the media management center at Northwestern in 2002 found few women in top newspaper jobs.

"Few opportunities exist for women to make it to the top," the report concluded.

While women hold 44 percent of newspaper jobs, tiny numbers of them are in the executive suite. Women have in fact lost ground, dropping from 29 percent of executive jobs in 2000 to 26 percent in 2002. Eighty-six percent of top jobs in newspapers are held by men, the report noted.

In the Internet and telecommunications industries, a 2002 study by The Annenberg Foundation found that women hold only 16 percent of executive jobs in telecommunications and 18 percent in Internet companies. Is "new media" becoming a boys' club, as the old media was for so long (and may become once again)? And a study by The White House Project in 2001 found that women represented only 10 percent of guests on the five major network Sunday public affairs shows. As Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz pointed out, the guests on these shows "have one thing in common. They don't wear pantyhose."

Talk radio has long been the domain of conservative men and cable news is heading in that direction. MSNBC has just hired rabid right winger Michael Savage (after dumping liberal Phil Donahue, long identified as pro-feminist). The women who have their own shows on nighttime national cable tend to function as reporter-interviewers rather than as pundits -- Greta van Susteren for example. There is no female equivalent of Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, or Hannity and Combs, where the hosts are there to be very opinionated. Gerry Ferraro used to do a regular turn on "Crossfire," but now the regular hosts are all male.

What's to be done about this state of affairs? Studies and reports and complaints don't seem to have helped. Maybe women readers and viewers hold the key. Maybe they ought to simply stop buying publications or watching shows that rarely cover their issues and seem to hold women in contempt or disregard. Since women tend to be major buyers of newspapers and magazines, as well as consumers of products advertised on television, a "pocketbook action" might actually get results.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

Programmed To Love

Teen girls are the media rage these days -- especially mean ones.

They've been featured on recent cover articles in The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek and are the stars in two best-selling books, "Queen Bees and Wannabes," by Rosalind Wiseman and "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls," by Rachel Simmons. The Washington Post calls nasty girls the "teen-age crisis of the moment." Oprah has done a show on the subject, and anxious parents have been flocking to seminars on what to do about the problem.

Wait a minute. Wasn't it only yesterday that the media was claiming that girls were not aggressive enough? Weren't they wilting Ophelias (so dubbed in the best-seller "Reviving Ophelia" by Mary Pipher) lacking in self-esteem, wimpy, unable to stand up for themselves? Didn't worried parents drag their daughters off to "self-esteem seminars" for a quick fix?

Have whiners become bullies and has girl culture turned on a dime?

No, it hasn't. Any female of any age who remembers sixth grade knows all about mean girls. Girls have not suddenly become snarling she-wolves, nor were they ever as deficient in self-esteem as the alarmist books said they were. As Newsweek's Barbara Kantrowitz notes, the mean girls books and articles "rely largely on anecdotal evidence rather than new social science to prove their point." And, of course, you can "prove" any point you want by selecting the right anecdotes.

New Book Claims Girls' Brains Don't Measure Up

But more worrisome than the tomes that say girls are mean or lacking in self-esteem is a new book by a best-selling author that says that girls' brains just don't measure up.

The new book that's selling briskly, "The Wonder of Girls" by Michael Gurian, makes this latter claim. Gurian believes that nature intends girls primarily for having and nurturing children, and that, if they put too much emphasis on achievement and careers, they will suffer lifelong misery.

In January, Gurian told an education conference in Canada that no more than 20 percent of girls can aspire to be engineers or architects, and that women lack natural technical ability. He proffers a theory he calls "bridge brains" to document this notion. He says that only girls with brains that work like boys' brains can understand spatial concepts such as math and sciences. He claims that the structure of most girls' minds make it too hard for them to grasp subjects like calculus and physics. News report on the Canadian conference said that teachers were "lining up" to buy his books.

Gurian, a family therapist, is only the latest addition to a dismal list of people who try to use brain "science" to make sweeping statements about human nature. Most of the time, such statements turn out to be dead wrong.

Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould described how 19th century scientists took skulls, packed them full of lead and weighed and measured them. They concluded that blacks and women had tiny, immature brains and were thus not capable of the higher intellectual functions achieved by white men.

Today, nobody argues that women have tiny brains that make them unfit to go to college. Women fill more college seats then men. But they are being told that their brains are suited primarily to motherhood and relationships and that their whole lives should be geared towards this end. Misery is the price to be paid if they deviate from this path. Gurian presents 30 studies that he says "prove" his thesis that women's brains are utterly different from men's.

But few scientists would agree with such ideas as "bridge brains." Neuropsychologist Doreen Kimura, a researcher based in British Columbia, told the Christian Science Monitor that there are indeed structural differences in the brains of some men and women, but "in the larger comparative context, the similarities between human males and females far outweigh the differences."

Debates over Brain Science Usually 'Prove' Boys Rule

Anyone familiar with the debates over brain science in the past few years may feel like he or she has been watching a ping-pong match. Various theories about brain function were announced with fanfare and then were rapidly abandoned. The left-brain/right-brain debate captured a lot of media attention. Which side of the brain was most important and which side did men and women use?

Of course, whichever side was in favor at the moment, men were said to be better at using it, as psychologist Carol Tavris pointed out in her groundbreaking book, "The Mismeasure of Woman."

Tavris notes that traditionally, the left side of the brain was thought to be the residence of intellect and reason, while the right side was the home of passion and criminality. "Guess which sex was thought to have left-brain intellectual superiority?" Tavris asks. "(Answer: males.)" But in the 1970s, science rediscovered the right brain, now suggesting it was the home of genius, creativity and imagination. Guess which sex was suddenly thought to have better right brains? Men, of course.

The science of the brain is a field where we are early pioneers, and we really don't know that much about this amazingly complex organ. The more we learn, the more we understand that we should not make sweeping generalizations. There is no such thing as a female "bridge brain." Women are not inherently unsuited for math. A recent and well-designed overview of thousands of studies finds that once you take the relatively few male math prodigies out of the mix, women actually outperform men in mathematics.

Girls are not so uniquely wired for nurture that they will be miserable if they delay marriage and children to order to pursue careers and education -- or if they don't marry. Major studies show that single women, especially those in good jobs, are high in self-esteem and happy with their lives. Nurture is critical to the lives of both men and women, but it is hardly the only ingredient of good mental health.

In fact, if we give girls the message that they must be so preoccupied with nurture that they should scale back their dreams and ambitions, we may be setting them up for future problems. Full-time homemakers, for example, report much higher levels of depression and anxiety than do working women. Women are not one-sided creatures who only need to love and relate to be happy. They also need to learn, to accomplish and to achieve, just as men aren't one-dimensional creatures who don't need relationships, but can be satisfied only with achievement.

What happens, one wonders, to the teachers who buy Michael Gurian's book? Will they pay less heed to the academic talents of their female students that to those of the boys, having bought the notion girls are suited mainly to nurture? And will parents discourage their daughters from high achievement, fearing that the price will be an unhappy life?

Pop psychology can be dismissed by scientists as silly, trivial, and inaccurate, but it can have real-life -- and unhappy -- consequences, especially for girls. Seminars about mean girls or about heightening self-esteem are probably harmless, maybe even helpful. But making sweeping statements about female brains is dangerous. As Carol Tavris warns, such misinformation "is silly science and it serves us badly."

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

Pro-Feminist Media Bias?

A new book about the news media's allegedly liberal bias suggests that journalism is too "pro-feminist." A review of recent reports on women proves quite the opposite.

That's the charge made by former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg in his new book, "BIAS: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News." He says the big newspapers and the networks are full of lefties, and they have a decidedly pro-feminist bias.

If the elite media had a pro-feminist bias, women and their issues should be everywhere on the news. Are they? Decidedly not.

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz notes. "Most of the officials, lawmakers, experts and political figures who parade their opinions on Sunday morning television have something in common. They don't wear pantyhose."

Women represent barely 11 percent of guests on the five major network shows, reports The White House Project, a group dedicated to getting more women in politics. Since Sept. 11, pictures of Afghan women in burkas have been seen more often on American television than female talking heads.

And when women do appear on network "ideas" programs, on op-ed pages and on cable shows, ultra-conservative women are more likely than feminists to give the female perspective. The Washington-based conservative Independent Women's Forum opposes Title IX, affirmative action, the Violence against Women Act, and funding for day care--positions few American women support. But the Post notes that the group's members get quoted and invited on talk shows with "astonishing regularity" despite the fact that the group has only some 600 members.

In 1995, The New York Times published six opinion pieces by forum leaders, the Wall Street Journal published five, and the Washington Post three, reports Fairness and Accuracy in Media. During that period, those same papers chose to publish no commentary on any subject by anyone from National Organization for Women (275,000 members) or the Feminist Majority Foundation (more than 60,000).

Overall, when the media covers feminism, it focuses on how dead the women's movement is, when it died, and how it will never rise again. One Time magazine cover showed the demise of feminism as running in a straight line from Gloria Steinem to Ally McBeal.

The truth is that the major tenets of mainstream feminism have been largely absorbed by young women, who now fill more college seats than men, run marathons, join the Army, play contact sports and seek out good jobs. But most of the media ink is devoted to how "post-feminist" women have rejected the movement.

Good News Ignored, Bad News Exaggerated

And bad news about women gets consistently overplayed. Women are endlessly shown as facing grave risks if they are too "ambitious." Such articles are often based on bad science, but they get huge play and as a result, flawed data becomes immortal. It gets repeated over and over again for years, often migrating from the leads of news stories to the "background" paragraphs, where it is presented as undisputed fact.

For example, an obscure study of the marriage habits of baby-boom women in 1986 led to screaming headlines--and covers on People and Newsweek. The stories claimed that women who weren't married by 35 had as much chance of being wed as they did of getting killed by a terrorist. (That idea even ended up as a line of dialogue in the film "Sleepless in Seattle.") The underlying message, of course, was that if women put off grabbing a guy to get more education or advance in their careers, they risked becoming "old maids."

This "factoid" just won't die. It still gets cited today. What were the true facts? A baby-boom woman who would only marry a man two or three years her senior would have a small pool of males as prospective mates. But if she would marry someone her own age, or younger, there was no man shortage at all. The story was completely bogus, but the careful refutations got no headlines or cover stories. In fact, new research shows that the more education a woman has, the more marriageable she is. You almost never see that reported.

Another bad-news scenario is the coverage of day care. A pro-feminist media--by definition--would be ecstatic about day care and its benefits. The reverse is true. The federal National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is conducting an ongoing, very large and very sophisticated study of children in day care, with a control group of children at home. When the first results of this major study were announced in 1996, finding that children in such care were firmly attached to their mothers, this important news was largely ignored by most media. A database search I conducted just after the release of the data turned up a mere 12 stories--and half of those I wrote myself, with my frequent co-author, Dr. Rosalind Barnett of Brandeis.

On the other hand, when one researcher claimed in 2001 that the institute's study showed that children in day care were more aggressive than kids at home, the media ran wild with stories that day care was making bullies out of kids. While "bullying" got all the ink, reports from the same study that kids in days care had better cognitive skills than those at home did not make the headlines. And the "bullying" stories were wildly overblown. Only 17 percent of kids were labeled "aggressive." And what sorts of things did they do? Here's some of the actual behavior that was cited: bragging, arguing, showing off, talking too much, being loud. This is normal, boisterous kid behavior. But it got lumped into the "aggressive" category.

And despite the gains women have made in the press, ancient myths still color media coverage. Two of the most potent are the Myth of Female Weakness and the Myth of Female Strength. In one, a woman is a sniveling, small-brained, hormone-racked creature so filled with anxieties and chemical twitches it seems a miracle she can get out of bed in the morning. In the other, she's Wonder Woman and Medusa combined, able to reduce men to besotted fools or emasculate them with a glance. Women are still "the other," prone to be judged by archetypes about Woman rather than by individual qualities.

Senator Clinton Labeled a Witch

Hillary Clinton, for example, was portrayed either as a strong-willed Amazon or a weak, pathetic wronged wife. In the pre-Monica days, when Strong Hillary was in vogue, I tracked no less than 50 mentions of her that used the words "witch" or "witchlike." When she moved her office into the West Wing of the White House, forsaking the first lady's traditional East Wing quarters, it became a major story. You'd have thought Rasputin was moving in. One story compared her to the murderess Glenn Close played in the film "Fatal Attraction." On the other hand, after Monica, she was called a weak-willed woman who was actually aiding and abetting her husband's bad behavior by her passivity. Either way, the descriptions tended to be over the top.

Male political figures may be called mean and nasty names, but those words don't usually reflect superstition and dread. Did the press ever call Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, or Clinton warlocks? Or compare them to movie murderers?

Anita Hill was another woman who fell prey to archetypes. She was pictured either as a naive, silly female being used as a pawn in a political battle, or as a "scorned woman" whose pleasure lay in destroying men. In the latter incarnation, Hill apparently spent her time prowling through old copies of "The Exorcist" looking for obscure references to pubic hairs, or doing a little light reading of Oklahoma obscenity cases to come across the porno star "Long Dong Silver."

All in all, media coverage of women may have improved since the days when a lady could expect her name to appear in the paper only when she was married or when she died, but we have a long way to go. Pro-feminist stories in the media are, unfortunately, still an endangered species.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.