W. Bradford Wilcox responds

I received this response to yesterday’s post from W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who requested I post it on the blog. I’m making it an independent post to make sure it is widely seen by Family Inequality readers.

Response to Dr. Philip Cohen

In his recent blog post, sociologist Philip Cohen accuses me, inter alia, of telling “tall tales,” playing fast and loose with divorce statistics in the National Marriage Project’s most recent report, “The Great Recession and Marriage,” and bypassing the peer-review process.

On the first point, Professor Cohen is simply mistaken. I tell no tall tales in this report, which was produced to offer a brief overview of new data related to marriage and the recession from a nationally representative survey of married couples in the U.S., the Survey of Marital Generosity, which was conducted in December of 2010 and January of 2011. Instead, I offer a brief commentary on a number of the ways in which the financial stresses and economic hardship associated with the Great Recession appear to be linked to both negative and positive outcomes, judging by data from this survey. I encourage readers of this blog to look at the report itself and see if it seems replete with tall tales. And I should also note that surveys by The New York Times and the Pew Research Center also suggest that the Great Recession has led some Americans to deepen their family ties.

Second, Professor Cohen claims that I have no basis for claiming that the Great Recession has had an independent effect on the divorce rate. It is true that the divorce rate has generally fallen since the early 1980s, and that the 2009 NMP State of Our Unions report did not make that fact sufficiently clear (as Cohen noted in earlier blog post). But the rate of decline in the U.S. divorce rate from 2007 to 2009 was steeper than the rate of decline from 1980 to 2007, according to estimates based both on the crude divorce rate and the rate of divorce per 1,000 married women. So I stand by my claim that the Great Recession has, in all probability, pushed the divorce rate down more than it otherwise would have gone down without this recession. It is also true, if history is any indication, that there will be an uptick in divorce once the recovery arrives in full.

Third, Professor Cohen also notes that this report was not peer reviewed. This is true. Although I have published more than 15 articles and books through the peer-review process, I do not think that every report written by an academic must be peer reviewed. In this case, I thought it would be helpful to convey new data to a public audience in a timely fashion. Here, the National Marriage Project (NMP) is following a convention found at other research institutes located at American public universities, from the Center for WorkLife Law to the Williams Institute.

I honestly do not know why Professor Cohen got so exercised by this modest report. Perhaps he thinks that the NMP’s devotion to marriage is blind. So let me be clear here: The National Marriage Project does not think that every marriage can and should be sustained, nor does it simply aim to increase the number of adults who are married. But, generally speaking, children are more likely to thrive when they are raised in an intact, married family, compared to the alternatives. And that is why the NMP is dedicated to monitoring the health of marriage, understanding the cultural and social forces affecting marriage in America, and identifying strategies to strengthen the quality and stability of married life.

Distorting data on divorce at the National Marriage Project

This has really gone too far.

The National Marriage Project, under the directorship of W. Bradford Wilcox, a tenured sociologist at the U. Virginia, is telling some tall tales, courtesy of a grant from the Templeton Foundation‘s “Foundations of Marital Generosity Project.”

I’m sorry I never got around to writing this, even though the report in question came out months ago, and was covered uncritically all over the place. I thought I had resolved the issue with a definitive blog post on his shenanigans in 2009, but apparently he’s still at it.

Sliver linings

To show the serious financial nature of the recession for families (and how men are better at math), the report has this clip art on the cover:

In Business Week, the story was headlined, “Recession Strengthens Some Marriages”:

“In the face of a major trauma, in this case financial, some people are hurt by it in ways that have a long-lasting effect,” said Bradford Wilcox, director of the university’s National Marriage Project. “Other people are more resilient and grow stronger. I think that’s what is happening here with marriage.”

That is what Wilcox calls the “silver lining” of the recession — actually, two silver linings.

Wilcox spent Templeton’s money on a survey of 1,197 people — which he asserts (but does not show) was “nationally representative.” Bullet point #1 is: “Many couples report that the recession has deepened their commitment to marriage.” That is, (a) 29% of married people under age 46 agreed that, “the recession has deepened my commitment to my marriage.”  Further, he reports, (b) half of those with the stronger commitment say they are in a “very happy marriage,” compared with just one-quarter of those who didn’t experience the positive boost. What to make of that?

Wilcox is sure that (a) is causing (b): “Those who have redoubled their marital commitment as a result of the recession are much more likely to be in a very happy marriage,” he says triumphantly. My first thought was that people in happy relationships make the most of hard times, so they say the recession was good for them: (b) is causing (a). But now I think we can’t tell anything from this poor-quality data, since both questions were asked at the same time, and both are so subjective.

Wilcox gets even better mileage from an even more dubious silver-lining bullet point #2: “Among those who were considering a divorce prior to the recession, a large minority of couples say the recession caused them to postpone or put aside divorce.” In other words, he says, the recession is causing couples to forestall their divorces.

He writes that “about five percent” of the respondents “say they were considering divorce or separation prior to the recession.” Of that number, he writes, “38 percent say that the recession has caused them to put aside divorce or separation.” Looks to me like that’s (1,197*.05)*.38 = about 22 people, or less than 2% of the sample. That’s not a lot to hang your second bullet point on (did they even ask what else might have caused people to postpone their divorces, or are we to assume the recession is the only possible factor?).

But what is the meaning of the number of people “considering divorce or separation” who decide to “put aside” their plans? Is that an indicator of a “silver lining”? Is that good news for marriage? If these couples are in the bottom 5% of the couple-happiness distribution, then isn’t it possible that divorce is a good outcome for them? Of course, we don’t know from the data. But it’s great news if the mission of your University-letterheaded outfit is, in part, “to develop strategies for strengthening marriage” — and you define “strengthening marriage” as increasing the number of marriages.

He goes on:

Though the survey cannot estimate the number of marriages that dissolved as a result of the recession, it appears that some, at least, have been saved for now. Moreover, the results of this survey are consistent with data from the 2010 State of Our Unions report, which indicated that divorce rates have fallen since the Great Recession began (emphasis added).

I hope the Templeton Foundation is glad they paid for a report that “indicated” this important information (and by “indicated” I mean “looked up online”) — and then another report to quote the first one authoritatively. As I more patiently explained 18 months ago, the divorce rate has fallen 25 out of the last 27 years — making this whole argument another typical case of deliberate time-axis truncation.

But back up to that 38% of the 5% who had been considering separation or divorce but backed off for now. Is 38% a lot? What if it had been 28%, or 18%? Would that have been “consistent with” the falling divorce rates? It appears Wilcox has applied the wily non-zero standard of proof: if anyone fits his preconception, the preconception is confirmed.

Business Week wrote:

Exactly how many marriages have been saved is unknown, but the U.S. divorce rate fell 7 percent between 2006 and 2009, said Wilcox, who is also a sociology professor [thanks for rubbing that in -pnc] at the university.

How helpful of him to provide that information. Wilcox might have been even more helpful by saying, “a 7% decline in the divorce rate over 4 years? Well, that hasn’t been seen since the years 2004, 2003, 1997, 1996 and 1995!”

Instead, Wilcox chose to manipulate the tendency of Americans to assume divorce rates are always going up, and the blind trust of under-trained journalists, snookered by a PhD and a university letterhead on the PDF report. He may as well have provided them with this infographic I’ve been kind enough to produce (using the crude divorce rate, scaled from 3.39 to 3.59):

Oops – that seems to be what he did really inflict on the Denver Post, which published this actual news story:

Colorado divorce rate plummets during recession …The divorce rate in Colorado has dropped to 4.2 percent per 1,000 people, a rate hit only once — in 2003 — in the past 21 years. In 2007, the year the recession began, the rate was 4.4 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

That’s right: Falling from 4.4 to 4.2 — a drop of 4.5%, which is exactly the average rate of change over the last decade — is a plummet by the time Wilcox gets done with a reporter. And he’s there, once again, with the silver lining: “For some people, the recession led them to become more aware of the ties that bind, how spouses, parents, in-laws and kids stick with you when times are tough.” Must be.

So?

By using private foundation money and taking his results directly to the media, the National Marriage Project bypasses the peer-review system — but they use the image of that system to bolster their prestige and authority. (I’m not so naive that I think peer review prevents distortion and fact-twisting for ideological ends. But I think it usually helps.)

I also write outside the peer-review system on this blog. My career status and the university seal on my letterhead, however, have been peer reviewed. My research was published through the peer review process, and my tenured appointments were approved after reviews by faculty with expertise in my areas of research at other universities. I can publish whatever I want, and claim myself as an expert — but unless what I write is peer reviewed, the reader runs the risk that I’m really an ophthalmologist performing heart surgery. So, read my blog posts critically, and check my sources if you’re skeptical. There, was that so hard?

Note: I don’t require a specific word count from my students, but I suggest what a successful paper usually requires. For my introductory course, I recommend a final paper of 1,250-1,750 words. Wilcox’s report, just FYI, is 1,387 words, and includes no references. (For comparison, this blog post report is also 1,387 words.) I could publish this blog as a PDF and call it a “report,” and I might even be able to get the University news service to publicize it, especially if it came with external funding. But I think that would be unethical. (But if you insist, here’s what it might look like.)

Pay gaps you can see

How many multiples can you see at your workplace?

I’ve got four multiples of at least four outside my window — within one organization. Is this a good idea? Is it fair? Etc. To ask these questions it’s good to make it as concrete as possible. The infographic below is here to help.

I can ask two different questions about the costs and benefits of unequal pay — and I like to try to keep them separate. Most people believe pay differentials are important for motivating people to try harder, invest in education for scarce skills, and reward talent. So, one question is whether that’s true.

If you believe that’s true, you should also ask the second question: How much inequality do you need to accomplish that?

Last fall we had some news about housekeepers at UNC — the people who clean our buildings — being suspended for taking unauthorized breaks. One of them was Odessa Davis:

Without getting into the pay of individuals like her, I’m happy to say that state salaries are publicly available in North Carolina, made accessible by search tool from the News & Observer. A quick search on position title shows housekeepers usually make in the mid-$20,000s. From there, multiply that by 4 to get to a typical Full Professor (one without a special title or high-profile administrative job). Multiply that by four and you’re almost to what the University Chancellor makes.

Finally, we’ve got at least one more multiple of 4 to get to the Men’s Basketball Coach. His official state salary in the database is only $334,000, but with funds from sports promoters he’s paid a “retention bonus” that has been estimated to put him around $2 million per year.

Any of these people could be making extra money I’m not including — like a second job for the housekeepers, patent or grant income for the professor, who knows what for the Chancellor, and book royalties or endorsements for the basketball coach.

And now for the infographic: One dollar-sign equals $1,000 of annual income:

HOUSEKEEPER: $25,000
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FULL PROFESSOR: $100,000
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CHANCELLOR: $420,000
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MEN’S BASKETBALL COACH: $2,000,000
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Stop that feminist viral statistic meme

That thing you might have heard, about women’s work, income and property ownership — it’s not true. (And yes, I really am a feminist.)

If you’re a feminist you’ve probably seen this. You may have even repeated it: verbally, on your blog, on a flyer, on Twitter, in your book or an academic article. It goes something like this: “While women represent half the global population and one-third of the labor force, they receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than one percent of world property. They are also responsible for two-thirds of all working hours.”

That’s how it appeared in 1984, on page one, in Robin Morgan’s introduction to the classic collection called Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology. That’s more or less how it was tweeted by untold numbers of people a quarter-century later, on #IWD 2011 (a.k.a. International Women’s Day). And that’s how it was graphically presented in a slick Google video promoting IWD events this year.

But that wasn’t where it started, of course.

Where did it come from?

I don’t know what it is, but some concepts come to mind: meme, virus, legend. I’ll just call it it.

Usually, it is repeated without real attribution. But there are three bonafide sources offered by real scholars.

  1. A report called “World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace,” from 1980 (U.N. buffs might call it A/Conf. 94/20); or to the “Programme of Action” that emerged from Copenhagen. That Copenhagen document was released under the name of Kurt Waldheim, who (before his Nazi past was revealed) was Secretary General to the United Nations at the start of the U.N.’s 1975-1985 Decade for Women. This is not the true source.
  2. The footnote from Morgan herself says: “Statistics from Development Issue Paper No. 12, UNDP.” Produced under Decade-for-Women impetus, this was titled “Women and the New International Economic Order” (I’ve placed a copy here). Unfortunately, this is just a restatement, without substantiation. It is not the true source.
  3. The Copenhagen report contains a footnote to a 1978 edition of a Decade-for-Women-inspired journal published by the International Labour Organization, called Women at Work (1978/1). This, I now believe, is the true source.

The Women at Work reference, the oldest of the three, occurs in an editor’s introduction. Unfortunately, the sum total of what it provides is this:

A world profile on women, using selected economic and social indicators, reveals that women constitute one half of the world population and one third of the official labour force; perform nearly two-thirds of work hours; but according to some estimates receive only one-tenth of the world income and possess less than one-hundredth of world property.

There is no information on the indicators used or their sources, or what is meant by “some estimates.” That is where the trail goes cold — the oldest source, completely unsourced.

Krishna Ahooja-Patel

However, in 2007 Krishna Ahooja-Patel, the editor over whom’s initials that editorial appeared, published a book called Development Has A Woman’s Face: Insights from Within the U.N.” In that book she attributes the formula to herself, and offers an unsourced sketch of the methods used, “based on some available global data and others derived by use of fragmentary indicators at the time, in the late 1970s.”

The figures used for the formula were: women were 33% of the world’s formal workforce, and they were “only on the low income level in the pyramid of employment,” where — even in those lowly jobs, based on data from “several countries” — they earned 10% to 30% less than men. Therefore, “one could assume that women’s income is only one-third of the average income of men.” Since they were one-third of the workforce, and earned one-third as much as men, their total income was .33 * .33, or 11%. (She rounded it down to 10%.) In short, a guess based on an extrapolation wrapped round an estimate.

What about the dramatic conclusion, that women “possess less than one-hundredth of world property”? She offers only this explanation: “if the average wage of women is so low, it can be assumed that they do not normally have any surplus to invest in reproducible or non-reproducible assets.” Hence, less than 1%. That’s it. In fact, she adds, “In reality the figure may be much lower.”

Source? “Various UN Statistics.”

Who knows?

These things are hard to measure, hard to know, and hard to explain. Setting aside the problem that the data didn’t (and still don’t, completely) exist to fill in the numbers in this famous sequence of facts — the first and perhaps greatest problem is that we can’t easily define the concepts, which is part of the feminist problem. Even in 1970, how could women own only 1% of property, when most women were married and in many countries had at least some legal claim to their families’ property? Similarly, what claim did women who worked in homes and fields have to their husbands’ cash incomes? And what about socialist countries (which were a big deal back then), where a lot of payment was in the form of in-kind transfers, and where various forms of collective ownership were pervasive?

Underneath it all, the universal problem of accounting for unpaid, and underpaid, work. (This was one of the core insights that inspired the Decade for Women, and fueled its most progressive elements.) And so on.

So it’s too simple to say the famous facts are wrong. The burden of proof is not on us (me) to show they are wrong, but rather to point out that they were never demonstrably true, so we shouldn’t use them. (I’m not sure the truth will set you free, but I’m pretty sure this won’t, either.)

As an exercise, though, consider one of the facts. With a combination of arithmetic and basic knowledge of a few demographic orders of magnitude, it’s straightforward to conclude that, whether or not women only received 10% of the world’s income in the 1970s, they receive more than that now.

Here: In the U.S. in 2009, the 106 million women who had incomes averaged $29,700 each. I think that’s $3.2 trillion. The whole world’s gross domestic product — a rough measure of total income — is $58.1 trillion. So, it looks to me like U.S. women alone earn 5.4% of world income today. Ballpark, but you see the point.

One of the potential negative consequences of this is also one of its attractions: The claim that, for all women do, they own virtually nothing, is a call to global unity for women. But it is undermined by the fact that a large number of women are — lets face it — rich. So if global feminist unity is to be had, it won’t be built on a shared poverty experience.

Why?

Why is this thing, which never had many legs to stand on, so pervasive even today, 33 years after it was devised? It has been used by legislators in South Africa, international universities, feminist NGOs, journalists, humanitarians, activists, sociologists, economists — and, amazingly, UN organizations such as UNIFEM and UNDP, speaking today in the present tense.

There is a great, much longer story here, that I hope I have forestalled investigating by getting this much off my chest. It has to do with access to information; and deference to, and cynicism about, statistical authorities — in the context of statistical and demographic (sorry to say) illiteracy; the relationship between feminism and science; and even the role of Twitter in social movements.

And debunking it won’t hurt feminism.

Ivory’s tower

The people running UNC Chapel Hill.

By race/ethnicity, the state of North Carolina is 22% Black, 7% Latino, 2% Asian and 2% American Indian. So who are the faculty and top administrators on the campus? The latest report from the diversity office provides an overview.

In his cover memo, Chancellor Holden Thorpe says he places a “high value on diversity,” but concedes that the report “reveals that we need new ideas, innovative strategies and continued attentiveness if we are to achieve our vision for a diverse and inclusive university.”

Among the faculty and administration, there is indeed little recent progress to report. In the last 4 years, for example, 4.5% of the new faculty hired have been African American. In the last year, 4 out of 107 new faculty hires were Black.

Here are the breakdowns for current top administration — vice chancellors their associates, associate provosts, deans and their associates (I added in Thorp, though he wasn’t counted in the report) — and the tenure/tenure-track faculty by rank.

The White and male skews are much stronger at the higher levels of the faculty, so that more than 90% of the full professors are White and 69% are men as well. It might appear, then, that the “pipeline” is working, so that the greater diversity at the lower ranks will filter up over time. And that’s probably true to some degree. But the unmoving numbers among new faculty hires are not inspiring for that approach.

Note also that Asians — especially men — are overrepresented as professors but underrepresented in top administration, a common pattern in which they fill the ranks of professional and managerial jobs, but not management.

Timing

As it happens, we are in the process of forming a search committee in our department, and as a potential member I am required to take a new online training which represents part of the university’s response to this challenge. It only takes a few minutes to complete. But on reviewing this article by Alexandra Kalev and colleagues, I am reminded that diversity training is the least effective of the three major approaches to managerial integration, showing virtually no benefit in promoting women and minorities to management. By comparison, reducing isolation through mentoring programs is more effective, but the most effective approach (in the private sector, at least), is one that assigns direct responsibility for diversity, and holds people accountable for the result. In other words, when diversity is “everyone’s responsibility but no one’s primary responsibility,” little is accomplished.

We have an office of diversity and multicultural affairs, so it is someone’s primary responsibility. But among our university faculty, I believe, this is largely not the case. Department chairs and faculty — who are primarily responsible for faculty hiring decisions — are not systematically evaluated or rewarded on the basis of their performance on diversity goals.