Rosalind Barnett

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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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.

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.

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