Tag Archives: gender

What was I supposed to do, not report the results?

In case you haven’t been following the research on this, my understanding is that there is some evidence that women in several cultures are more likely to wear red-related colors when they are trying to look sexually attractive. We know that from the article “Women Use Red in Order to Attract Mates” in the journal Ethos. That’s all well and good, but to make it really interesting, we’d like to know that women are especially likely to do that when they are in the most fertile time in their menstrual cycle. Because, you know:

Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson from Wikimedia Commons

Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson from Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, that paper from Ethos did not find that red-wearing was associated with menstrual cycles. But, Beall and Tracy were able to find that link. Their conclusion:

Our results thus suggest that red and pink adornment in women is reliably associated with fertility and that female ovulation, long assumed to be hidden, is associated with a salient visual cue.

As Kim Weeden pointed out when I mentioned this on Twitter, Andrew Gelman used that paper as an example of how researchers have many opportunities to slice findings before settling on those that support their hypotheses.

Fortunately, Beall and Tracy set out to replicate their finding. Unfortunately, when they attempted to replicate the results, they were not successful. Fortunately, they realized it was because they were being confounded by the weather. As they have now reported, this is important because in warm weather female humans don’t need to resort to red because they can manage their attractiveness by reducing the amount of clothing they wear (and then, who cares what color it is?). Thus:

If the red-dress effect is driven by a desire to increase one’s sexual appeal, then it should emerge most reliably when peak-fertility women have few alternative options for accomplishing this goal (e.g., wearing minimal clothing). Results from re-analyses of our previously collected data and a new experiment support this account, by demonstrating that the link between fertility and red/pink dress emerges robustly in cold, but not warm, weather.

And here it is. Happy, Gelman?


Confirmatory classroom exercise

Since I am teaching love and romance in my family course this week, I thought we should add something to the conversation. I only did one exercise, and I am reporting the full results here. Nothing hidden, no tricky recodes, no other questions on the survey, no priming of the respondents (it was at the start of the lecture).

I have 80 students in the class, which means 53 were there in time for the exercise, 29 men and 24 women. I gave them this two-part question:


Because red and pink are both associated with fertility (see the baboon), I combined them in the analysis (but it works if you just use red, too). And these were the results:


The statistical test for the difference between date and family event for women is significant at the level of p<.035. This is not research, it’s just a classroom exercise (which means no IRB, no real publication). But if it were research, it would be consistent with the women-wear-reddish-to-attract-mates theory (although without the menstrual cycle question, its contribution would be limited).

Most sociologists might not go for this kind of stuff. Maybe it’s a slippery slope that leads to unattractive conclusions about gender inequality in the “natural” order. My perspective is that I don’t care. Of course this is not really evidence that evolution determines what American (or, in the case of the Ethos paper, Slovak) students wear on dates. But it doesn’t refute the theory, either.

More importantly, I am confident that we could, if desired, through concentrated social engineering, eliminate the practice of women wearing reddish on dates if we thought it was harmful — just as we have (almost) engineered away a lot of harmful behaviors that emerged from the primordial past, such as random murder, cannibalism, and hotmail. After all, they did it in China:


Sorry, wrong picture:


For previous posts in the series, follow the color tag.




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Who likes public intellectuals?

One simple answer to a big question, in one chart.

Using the method of gathering demographic data described by Neal Caren, I asked Facebook for the “audience size” of an ad targeting people who “like” some famous academics, and then specified men or women to get the gender composition of the (U.S.) audience.

I started with Camille Paglia, after this old quote of hers surfaced: “Masculinity is aggressive, combustible, unstable. It is also the most creative cultural force in history.” I thought it was dumb as well as offensive, and wondered how many women like that stuff. Her Facebook “like” audience is quite small at 7,600, and it turns out 45% of them are female.

From there I tried comparing her to some feminists, and then some people to compare feminists with. Next thing I knew I had 15 scholars, 5 of them largely known for feminism (if you don’t count Paglia, the least popular person on the list). They are living people who interest me, who have academic jobs and didn’t become famous with major media jobs (like Paul Krugman) or political jobs (like Robert Reich). I seem to have forgotten about historians. And I accidentally included Barbara Ehrenreich, who doesn’t have an academic job.

Here are the results:

who likes public intellectuals

Note that some people don’t report a gender to Facebook. People with observable numbers of gender-abstainers (the numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand) include: bell hooks 7%, Judith Butler 6%, Cornell West 5%, E. O. Wilson 4%, Angela Davis 3%, Henry Louis Gates 3%, Barbara Ehrenreich 2%, Noam Chomsky 2%, and Jared Diamond 1%.

Lots of interesting people — like, sociologists — didn’t turn out to have enough likes to register. Feel free to add others in the comments.


Filed under In the news

Can animated boys and girls be (almost) the same size?

A lot of the criticism I got for this post on Disney dimorphism was about how good animation inevitably exaggerates sex differences. (There are a lot of these comments on the Sociological Images version of the post and on the Slate re-write.) Here’s one example:

Cartoons aren’t meant to accurately portray people, EVER. They are meant to exaggerate features, so that they are more prominent and eye catching. So feminine features are made more feminine, and masculine features are made more masculine. … The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.

Flipping through IMDB’s list of the top 500 animated movies reveals that Disney is certainly not alone in emphasizing the larger size of males. But there are a few successful counterexamples as well.

Here are some good ones where the male and female characters are similarly proportioned. Note these are not just random male and female characters but couples (more or less).

From Kiki’s Delivery Service by Hayao Miyazaki:


From Dreams of Jinsha:


Even some old Disney movies have romantic moments between physically-similar males and females. The original Snow White (from the 1937 movie) was paired with a Prince Charming whose wrists were barely bigger than hers (plus, look at her giant/normal waist!):


Disney non-human animal pairs were sometimes quite physically matched. Consider Bambi and Faline (Bambi, 1942):


Or Dutchess and O’Malley from Aristocats (1970) in which their exaggerated femininity and masculinity are not conveyed through extreme body-size difference:


In other realms of animation, Marge and Homer Simpson, the most durable couple in animation history, have very similar features: heads, eyes, noses, ears. His arms are fatter and neither of them really have wrists, but I’d put this in the category of normal sex difference:


Of course, Lucy and Charlie Brown were virtually identical if you think about it:


I’m open to other suggestions.


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Disney’s dimorphism, ‘Help! My eyeball is bigger than my wrist!’ edition

(Addendum added at the end)

I can’t offer much in the crowded field of Disney gender criticism. But I do want to update my running series on the company’s animated gender dimorphism. The latest installment is Frozen.

Just when I was wondering what the body dimensions of the supposedly-human characters were, the script conveniently supplied the dimorphism money-shot: hand-in-hand romantic leads, with perfect composition for both eye-size and hand-size comparisons:


With the gloves you can’t compare the hands exactly, but you get the idea. And the eyes? Yes, her eyeball actually has a wider diameter than her wrist:


Giant eyes and tiny hands symbolize femininity in Disneyland.

While I’m at at, I may as well include Brave in the series. Unless I have repressed it, there is no romance story for the female lead in that movie, but there are some nice comparison shots of her parents:


Go ahead, give me some explanation about the different gene pools of the rival clans from which Merida’s parents came.

Since I first complained about this regarding Tangled (here), I have updated the story to include Gnomeo and Juliet (here). You can check those posts for more links to research (and see also this essay on human versus animal dimorphism by Lisa Wade). To just refresh the image file, though, here are the key images. From Tangled:

From Gnomeo:

At this point I think the evidence is compelling enough to conclude that Disney favors compositions in which women’s hands are tiny compared to men’s, especially when they are in romantic relationships.*


How do real men’s and women’s wrist sizes differ? I looked at 7 studies on topics ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to judo mastery, and found a range of averages for women of 15.4 cm to 16.3 cm, and for men of 17.5 to 18.1 cm (in both cases the judo team had the thickest wrists).

‘Then I found this awesome anthropometric survey of U.S. Army personnel from 1988. In that sample (almost 4,000, chosen to match the age, gender, and race/ethnic composition of the Army), the averages were 15.1 for women and 17.4 for men. Based on the detailed percentiles listed, I made this chart of the distributions:


The average difference between men’s and women’s wrists in this Army sample is 2.3 cm, or a ratio of 1.15-to-1. However, if you took the smallest-wristed woman (12.9 cm) and the largest-wristed man (20.4), you could get a difference of 7.5 cm, or a ratio of 1.6-to-1. Without being able to hack into the Disney animation servers with a tape measure I can’t compare them directly, but from the pictures it looks like these couples have differences greater than the most extreme differences found in the U.S. Army.

*This conclusion has not yet been subject to peer review.


Filed under In the news

Why I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction

Or, the sex/gender distinction which is not one?


(This post includes research from my excellent graduate assistant, Lucia Lykke.)

Recently I was corrected by another sociologist: “Phil – ‘female’ and ‘male’ refer to one’s sex, not gender.”

Feminists — including feminist sociologists — have made important progress by drawing the conceptual distinction between sex and gender, with sex the biological and gender the social categories. From this, maybe, we could recognize that gendered behavior was not simply an expression of sex categories — related to the term “sex roles” — but a socially-constructed set of practices layered on top of a crude biological base.

Lucia informs me we can date this to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. In 1949 she wrote:

It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.

Later, she added, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” And this is what Judith Butler put down as the root of the gender/sex distinction, calling it “the distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation”:

The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny… At its limit, then, the sex/gender distinction implies a radical heteronomy of natural bodies and constructed genders with the consequence that ‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sort of being.

In their famous article, “Doing Gender,” West and Zimmerman report making the sex/gender distinction in their sociology classes starting in the late 1960s. I’m guessing this really started to catch on among sociologists in the 1970s, based on this ngram of “social construction of gender” and “social construction of sex” as percentages of all uses of “social construction” in American English:


The spread of this distinction in the popular understanding — and I don’t know how far it has spread — seems to be credited to sociologists, maybe because people learn it in an introductory sociology course. As of today, Wikipedia says this under Introduction to Sex/Gender:

Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. Gender is the perceived or projected component of human sexuality while sex is the biological or genetic component. Why do sociologists differentiate between gender and sex? Differentiating gender from sex allows social scientists to study influences on sexuality without confusing the social and psychological aspects with the biological and genetic aspects. As discussed below, gender is a social construction. If a social scientist were to continually talk about the social construction of sex, which biologists understand to be a genetic trait, this could lead to confusion.

Lots of people devote energy to defending the sex-versus-gender distinction, but I’m not one of them. It’s that dichotomy, nature versus culture. I got turned on to turning off this distinction by Catharine MacKinnon, whose book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State I have used to teach social theory as well as gender. In her introduction, she wrote (p. xiii):

Much has been made of the supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’ I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.

From another perspective, Joan Fujimura argued for mixing more social into that biological scheme:

My investigation is an argument for broadening our social imaginaries—our definitions and understandings—of the material, the natural. A critical sociomaterial view of sex integrates sociocultural and historical investigations of the production of the material (e.g., the complexities and variations of sex physiologies and genetics) with diverse social imaginaries about sex and bodies proposed by feminists, queer theorists, intersexuals, and others. In this approach, we study and juxtapose the actions and interactions of social activist groups, social theorists, biologists, bodies, and genes in order to understand the collective, contentious, contradictory, and interactive crafting of sex in humans.

… [D]emonstrations of the sociomaterial production of sex, the Möbius strip production of sex, are useful for maintaining our awareness that natural categories are also social categories. Further, even as our current language of analysis maintains the division between the natural and the social, the point of a critical sociomaterial approach is to move in the direction of a language where there is no division, where we are always conscious that the natural and the social are not separated.

For example, we need to think of the categories male and female not as representing stable, fundamental differences but as already and always social categories. They form a set of concepts, a set of social categories of difference to be deployed for particular purposes. Ergo, what counts as male and female must be evaluated in their context of use. The categories male and female, like the categories men and women, may be useful for organizing particular kinds of social investigation or action, but they may also inhibit actions.

In that West and Zimmerman article, you may remember, they argue that “since about 1975 … we learned that the relationship between biological and cultural processes was far more complex — and reflexive — than we previously had supposed.” To help smooth the relationship between sex and gender, they use “sex category,” which “stands as a proxy” for sex but actually is created by identificatory displays, which in turn lead to gender. As I see it, the sex category concept makes the story about the social construction of sex as well as gender. For example, their use of the bathroom “equipment” discussion from Goffman’s 1977 essay is also about the social process of hardening sex, not just gender.

The U.S. Census Bureau says, “For the purpose of Census Bureau surveys and the decennial census, sex refers to a person’s biological sex,” and their form asks, “What is Person X’s Sex: Male/Female.”

But that explanation is not on the form, and there’s no (longer) policing of people filling it out — like race, it’s based on self-identification. (Everything on the form is self-identification, but some things are edited out, like married people under age 15.) So for any reason anyone can choose either “male” or “female.” What they can’t do is write in an alternative (there is no space for a write-in) or leave it blank (it will be made up for you if you do).

So its words are asking for something “biological,” but people are social animals, and they check the box they want. I think its eliciting sex category identification, which is socially produced, which is gender.

This all means that, to me, it would be OK if the form said, “Gender: Male/Female” (and that’s not a recommendation for how forms should be made, which is beyond my expertise, or an argument for how anyone should fill it out). I’m just not sure the benefits of defending the theoretical sex/gender distinction outweigh the costs of treating biological sex as outside the realm of the social.


Filed under Me @ work

Parents live in the gendered world of their children, too

I did a little research hinting at the way gendered childhood might affect parents – by looking at how the gender of their children affected their favorite colors.

Because gendering – especially around consumption – is so fierce, I figure that’s got to be the tip of the iceberg. I thought of that walking to the kids’ school the other day:

Maybe the mothers dressed to match the kids because it was the first day of school. Or maybe they have more matching clothes so that coincidences like this happen more often at random. Who knows?


Filed under Me @ work

Opting out and jumping in

Because the opt-out revolution was a myth, it’s hard to know where to start talking about what became of the the “opt-out generation.”

The historical story could be shortened down to this: Women’s employment rates — and those of married mothers with young children in particular — rose quickly in the 1970s and 1980s, but that growth stalled in the 1990s. Since then, the trends are mostly flat. No successful attempts to impose grander themes on the more recent trends come to mind, but feel free to reference them in the comments if you know of any.*

I’ll show one older chart before showing you what’s new, inspired by the Judith Warner cover story in the NYTimes magazine last week. Back in 2007 I made the following graph to contribute to this briefing paper. Using the March Current Population Surveys, it shows the employment rates for married mothers of young children divided into four groups according to how much income their households had apart from their own earnings:


Wives with access to little other income (who need jobs most) and those with access to lots of other income (who need them least) have the lowest employment rates. But the similar shapes of these curves reinforces the take-home message: regardless of economic need — as represented by other income in the household — married mother’s tendency to be employed peaked in the mid-to-late 1990s and then stalled or tapered downward into the 2000s. That’s not a revolution (for most people nothing changed after the mid 1990s), and it’s not about rich professionals, but it is a serious divergence from several decades of rapid increase. Since then, this narrative has strengthened, and we now have a full-blown situation with stalled progress toward gender equality (for many posts on this, see also the Hanna Rosin tag).

However, we can be more specific to capture Lisa Belkin’s and Judith Warner’s opting-out and jumping in concepts. Let’s use these definitions:

  • Opting out: The movement from any employment in one year to being out of labor labor force in March of the following year.
  • Jumping in: The movement from no employment in the previous year to being in the labor force the following March.

To approximate the groups that inspired the NYTimes, I apply these definitions to 25-54-year-old, married, college-educated women with children, using the March CPS from 1976 to 2012, to get these trends (shown with approximate timing of recessions):


One can see long-term and short-term trends in the figure. In the long run, opting out has become much less common, dropping from nearly 18% in a given year to less than 3% in 2012. In the long run, the opt-out revolution is a bust. And the tendency to jump in for those who weren’t employed in a given year (I don’t know if it’s back in, with these data), has been pretty flat at between 8% and 10%, with increases after most recessions.

Notice some short-term trends, however. From 1995 to 2003, the opt-out trend stopped heading downward. That happened again from 2006 to 2012. And over the 2000s there was a modest increase in the jump-in rate, from a low point of 6.4% to over 10%. These fluctuations contribute to the overall trend of labor force participation for 25-54-year-old, married, college-educated women with children, which fell from 1997 to 2003, and then rebounded some until 2009:


Note that opting out and jumping in aren’t the only things that matter. A woman who starts employment at 24 and never leaves till 65 — or one who never has a job — wouldn’t contribute to either trend.

The opting out and jumping in stories aren’t crazy, they’re just exaggerations of fluctuations in the trends, and they distract us from the bigger picture. That said, there are good stories to be told in here, and both of these provided fodder for improving our understanding.

In the long run, the long-term trends matter more. And that is pretty clear: big increase in labor force participation for this group of women from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, stall since. The fact that opting-out shows a continued decline, however, is an interesting wrinkle I’m not prepared to explain.

UPDATE: Reeve Vanneman sent along the figure he describes in the comments below. The definitions are a little different (not just college educated mothers, employment instead of labor force participation), but the trend goes back to 1963, showing the increase in jump-ins and drop in opt-outs in the 60s and 70s. Note, however, that where Reeve et al. found exits plateauing by the early 2000s, my figure above shows opt-outs started declining again after that.


*For background, I recommend Pamela Stone’s book Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home; a Council on Contemporary Families briefing paper from 2007; and the paper by Christine Percheski in American Sociological Review from 2008, “Opting Out? Cohort Differences in Professional Women’s Employment Rates from 1960 to 2005.”


Filed under In the news

Fact pattern: Women’s life expectancy advantage

Women live longer than men in all but a small handful of countries. Is that “natural”?

A future post will deal with this more. But here’s a preview.

It partly depends what you think is a “natural” fertility rate. It’s hard to find societies with really high fertility rates nowadays — hardly any countries have 6 or more children per woman. But where fertility rates are higher, women’s advantage in life expectancy is less (click to enlarge).


Why? Some women die in childbirth, but that’s not a huge factor in life expectancy anymore, thankfully. In sub Saharan Africa about 400-600 mothers die for every 100,000 births, about half of 1%, which isn’t going to drive overall life expectancy that much. Still, those places are rough places to be a woman, apparently.

Some distinctly unnatural elements are at work — besides war, murder, accidents and suicide — especially smoking, which has enlarged the female life expectancy advantage in the U.S. and Europe dramatically. The World Health Organization has smoking rates by sex for 133 countries or so. The differences are huge. Only Austria has more women than men smoking. The average prevalence gap is 21 percentage points, and in Indonesia the smoking gap is 64% (67% for men versus 3% for women). In a bunch of Arab countries almost half the men smoke, along with almost no women.

The effect of the smoking gap is not apparent in the recent cross-sectional data, however. It takes a few decades after men take up smoking at higher rates (peak female advantage for the U.S. was in the 1970s). But this could be an important factor in the world’s life expectancy gender gap for decades to come.


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Football, military, occupational segregation: Rape culture

Originally posted on TheAtlantic.com as “The Problem With Mostly Male (and Mostly Female) Workplaces.”


More than a quarter of Americans work in jobs that are almost entirely single-sex. This has implications for how men view women.

 NPR has a new brutal but important story about rape in the military. “Dozens” of women told NPR “about a culture where men act entitled to sex with female troops.” One woman, repeatedly assaulted by her superior officer, recalled:

“I finally asked his secretary that when he called me and closed the door, [to] please knock on the door. And she said, ‘Sabina, it happens to everybody.’”

This story comes after this week’s conviction of two football players from Steubenville, Ohio High School for raping an intoxicated 16-year-old girl.

One connection between these two stores is obvious: High school football and the U.S. military are two venerable male-dominated sub-cultures that prize conformity, places where boys will be boys, where male supervisors break in young male recruits, helping them become cogs in the machine.

But what struck me further about both NPR’s story and the Steubenville rape case is the casual assumption of entitlement to women’s dehumanized bodies. There seemed to be no soul-searching or empathy in either setting, just the taken-for-granted notion that, when presented with the opportunity to use women’s bodies sexually, well, what else would one do?

That was the shocker of Steubenville, but it shouldn’t have been. If we really grasp this, we put the lie to the facile declarations of women’s parity with men. For me, this dehumanization of women underscores the importance of such seemingly banal statistical measures as occupational gender segregation, the separation of men and women into different jobs.

Of course, the gang rapes of Steubenville or the military (also described in the NPR story) don’t happen to everybody. But to understand the relationship between culture and behavior, you have to consider the possibility that extreme behavior is the tail end of a long distribution. It’s not always, but in this case I think it’s justified. Most men don’t act like the convicted Steubenville football players or the military rapists decribed in the NPR piece. But what feminists have been calling “rape culture” produces a drifting cloud of sexual objectification and entitlement, the leading edge of which includes these heinous cases. What is the difference between those Steubenville athletes and the military rapists of tomorrow? Age and experience.

As sociologist Sarah Sobieraj writes, the “broader rape culture … promotes male aggression and trivializes women and the violence against them.” To balance the unusual glimpse into the rapists’ perspective we got from Steubenville (from the tweets and text messages revealed in the trial), the NPR interviews with military rape survivors show this culture from the women’s perspective. We can only imagine what the military’s rapists say to each other in their boastful moments, when no one’s looking, or when whoever is looking can be counted on to stay silent. (Like the friends of the Steubenville victim who turned on her, and the other women who allegedly threatened her after the verdict, the culture forces people to choose sides.)

Occupational segregation by gender reinforces the different worlds of men and women. Twenty-six percent of workers are in occupations that are 90 percent single-sex, from truck drivers to registered nurses. Among the merely very-segregated, 69 percent of workers are in occupations that are at least two-thirds single-sex, from janitors to elementary school teachers. When you look closer—at individual workplaces instead of occupations, the segregation is great still. Most Americans today work in almost entirely single-sex peer groups. And segregation has barely budged in the last two decades.

This separation seems to help make possible many men’s simple assumption that women don’t really exist as people. That silent assumption is very different—and harder to change—than looking a real person in the eye and saying, “I don’t like you because you’re a woman, so I’m going to hire someone else.” The power of segregation is people usually don’t have to do that. This partly explains why sexual harassment is so common in male-dominated workplaces: The women there are perceived as outsiders who threaten the normal routine. And just like peer culture can prevail over parents’ grownup interventions when it comes to socializing adolescents, workplace culture spills over into family life, as men in male-dominated jobs (such as police officers) or female-dominated jobs (where their masculinity is threatened) perpetrate violence at home.

In their new book Documenting Desegregation, sociologists Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey make the observation that, when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, there was nothing to study about job segregation—it was universal. Now it varies from industry to industry and office to office, so we can learn from observing how it differs from place to place. What we see is that jobs are devalued when women hold them, that male managers do more segregated hiring than female managers, that firms subjected to more legal oversight segregate less—and that through it all, white men’s overrepresentation in management jobs (that is, compared to their share of the workforce) is virtually unchanged since 1966. One measure they use is revealing: For the typical white man in a private-sector workplace today, the co-workers at his level in the organization are about 70 percent white men as well, and that level of “social isolation” at work hasn’t changed in three decades.

The men in these stories—the football players with mothers and sisters, the military officers with wives and daughters—have normal daily interactions with women, too. But interactions are very different when they take place in different settings and with different audiences.

Here’s an example of very gender-specific behavior in the workplace. The other day, acting on a tip from another lunching sociologist, I hung around watching the white male job recruiters for a large window replacement company at our student union. In 20 minutes, as dozens of people walked by, the recruiters approached 18 men and 0 women, asking them, “You guys looking for a job?” (or, in the case of a black man, “Hey man, you looking for a job?”).

Here is their “Now Hiring” sign, showing openings in the categories of door-to-door sales guy (“Do you like the Outdoors?”), event-promoter-guy (“Interact with Homeowners”), and sales-support-girl (“No Manual Labor!”):

cohen_poster.jpgHad these recruiters secretly discussed approaching men only, or did it just seem self-evident to them that men were their potential co-workers? How did they see the women who walked past them? Something in their environment or experience was triggering a completely gender-differentiated kind of interaction.

Is tying this to Steubenville and military rape a stretch? Yes. And stretching is how we try to understand complex things like “culture.”


Filed under In the news

Why taller-wife couples are so rare

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

It’s not just because women are, on average, shorter than men.

kidman urban.jpg

Keith Urban and his wife Nicole Kidman arrive at the 2009 American Music Awards. (Chris Pizzello/AP Images)

Men are bigger and stronger than women. That generalization, although true, doesn’t adequately describe how sex affects our modern lives. In the first place, men’s and women’s size and strength are distributions. Strong women are stronger than weak men, so sex doesn’t tell you all you need to know. Otherwise, as retired colonel Martha McSally put it with regard to the ban on women in combat positions, “Pee Wee Herman is OK to be in combat but Serena and Venus Williams are not going to meet the standard.”

Second, how we handle that average difference is a matter of social construction: We can ignore it, minimize it, or exaggerate it. In the realm of love and marriage, we so far have chosen exaggeration.

Consider height. The height difference between men and women in the U.S. is about 6 inches on average. But Michael J. Fox, at five feet, five inches, is shorter than almost half of all U.S. women today. On the other hand, at five-foot-ten, Michelle Obama is taller than half of American men. So how do people match up romantically, and why does it matter?

Because everyone knows men are taller on average, straight couples in which the man is shorter raise a problem of gender performance. That is, the man might not be seen as a real man, the woman as a real woman, if they don’t (together) display the normal pattern. To prevent this embarrassment, some couples in which the wife is taller might choose to be photographed with the man standing on a step behind the woman, or they might have their wedding celebrated with a commemorative stamp showing her practically on her knees—as the British royals did with Charles and Diana, who were both the same height: five foot ten.

height1.jpg height2.jpgBut the safer bet is just to match up according to the height norm. A new study from Britain—which I learned of from the blogger Neuroskeptic—measured the height of the parents of about 19,000 babies born in 2000. They found that the woman was taller in 4.1 percent of cases. Then they compared the couples in the data to the pattern found if you scrambled up those same men and women and matched them together at random. In that random set, the woman was taller in 6.5 percent of cases. That means couples are more often man-taller, woman-shorter than would be expected by chance. Is that a big difference? I can explain.

For illustration, and to compare the pattern with the U.S., I downloaded the 2009 Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a U.S. survey that includes height reported for 4,600 married couples.* These are the height distributions for those spouses, showing a median difference of 6 inches.


Clearly, if these people married (and didn’t divorce) at random we would expect the husband to be taller most of the time. And that is what we find. Here is the distribution of height differences from those same couples:


The most common arrangement is the husband five to six inches taller, and a small minority of couples—3.8 percent—are on the left side of the red line, indicating a taller wife.

But does that mean people are seeking out taller-husband-shorter-wife pairings? To answer that, we compare the actual distribution with a randomized outcome. I made 10 copies of all the men and women in the data, scrambled them up, and paired them at random. This is the result:


Most couples are still husband taller, but now 7.8 percent have a taller wife—more than twice as many.

Here are the two distributions superimposed, which allows us to see which arrangements are more or less common in the actual pairings than we would expect by chance:


Now we can see that from same-height up to “man 7 to 8 inches taller”, there are more couples than we would expect by chance. And below same-height—where the wife is taller—we see fewer in the population than we would expect by chance. (There also are relatively few couples at the man-much-taller end of the spectrum—at 9 inches or greater—where the difference apparently becomes awkward, a pattern also seen in the British study.)

Humans could couple up differently, if they wanted to. If it were desirable to have a taller-woman-shorter-man relationship, it could be much more common. In these data, we could find shorter husbands for 28 percent of the wives. Instead, people exaggerate the difference by seeking out taller-man-shorter-woman pairings for marriage (or maybe the odd taller-woman couples are more likely to divorce, which would produce the same result).

What difference does it make? When people—and here I’m thinking especially of children—see men and women together, they form impressions about their relative sizes and abilities. Because people’s current matching process cuts in half the number of woman-taller pairings, our thinking is skewed that much more toward assuming men are bigger.

* I must note that Dalton Conley and Abigail Weitzman have a forthcoming paper for the 2013 Population Association of America conference on height differences, which also uses the PSID data, as well as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. I haven’t seen the paper, but the abstract is here.


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