Morning Edition on NPR gave big play to some new research. As summarized in the online transcript, “A study finds that single women are much less likely to express career ambitions compared to married women or men. Researchers believe they don’t want to undermine their appeal in the dating market.” (The research article appears to be in press but there is no indication of where it will be published. A working paper version is here.)
According to Shankar Vedantam, who was interviewed about the study in the Morning Edition segment, the study took place at an MBA program at a top university. These accomplished single women, who got into such an elite program, supposedly don’t want their classmates to know how ambitious they are because then they might not be able to get all those dates that they want. The evidence was this: When the single women filled out a questionnaire about summer internships, they claimed they wanted a smaller salary when they thought their classmates would see their questionnaires than when they thought only a career counselor would see them. Married women did not do that, and neither did the single or married men.
Those were the findings. The leap to the conclusion that women were worried about their dating prospects was an interpretation, never tested directly. Nonetheless, I don’t doubt that the interpretation is true of some single women. And I do think there are important implications for those women. For example, even if their strategy does land them a man, they may be stuck with lesser pay and a lesser job than their talents warrant. In the discussion on NPR, Vedantam mentions other implications, too.
Still, I am deeply troubled by this Morning Edition segment on many levels. First, of all the gazillions of intriguing studies out there, why did NPR decide to alight on one that perpetuates some of the most regressive messages about single women? Really, NPR? Brilliant, fully-grown single women are ambition-denying and boyfriend-crazy, almost like the stereotypes of teenage girls? This is creepily reminiscent of that infamous and much-maligned New York Times article proclaiming that women don’t get to the top because they don’t want to.
Second, once NPR did decide to cast these findings into its considerable limelight, why not interject a bit of balance into the discussion? All we got was Rachel Martin saying to Vedantam (and I am very grateful to her for this), “Of course, I have to point out that there are plenty of single women out there – I was once one – who were really ambitious and weren’t afraid to talk about their professional ambitions in a romantic setting.”
Third, why not mention some other work, based on multiple studies and already published, that offers a perhaps more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of women, work, and mate-seeking? I’m talking about recent research on the supposed “lipstick effect.” (I’ll append a detailed discussion of that research at the end of this article.) Or how about mentioning any other research at all that documents the many strengths of single women (and single men, for that matter) and underscores the ways they are living complete, fulfilling, and meaningful lives? Try “17 things no one ever told you about single people” for a start, or maybe Jesse Singal’s article in New York magazine, “The new science of single people.” And how about acknowledging that untold numbers of single people have chosen to live single. They are not pretending they don’t like icky things like big salaries so some guy will swoop in to rescue them from their MBA future and turn them into an MRS instead.
(I concede that there is a problem with the available science. Overwhelmingly, social scientists choose to focus on the supposed benefits of getting married – benefits that often don’t hold up to closer methodological scrutiny. They, like so many others, are mired in the ideology that assumes that just about everyone wants to be married, and that people who marry are better people than those who stay single.)
And finally, there are big, revolutionary demographic changes that have been unfolding for decades, changes that suggest that something much more significant, more impressive and less regressive than hiding ambition to land a man is happening in the United States and around the world. I’m talking the rise in the number of single people to unprecedented proportions. I’m talking about the fact that Americans spend more years of their adult lives not married than married – something that has been true for more than a decade.
When NPR and other media outlets throw their spotlight on small stories about some single women who are supposedly hiding their ambitions to get a date, they are leaving in the shadows some bigger, more revealing, and much more significant truths. So how about taking on the big picture next time? Can’t we have a respectful, scientifically-grounded, and maybe even celebratory exploration of what it means to be single in the 21st century?
Here’s my discussion of a series of studies that test for the “gotta get a man” perspective on single women but allow for something more ennobling as well. Guess which view won?
Beyond the Cliché of Wearing Lipstick to Land a Man: Science Finds Some Sterner Stuff
When the Twin Towers went down on 9-11, so did the economy. Spending slows when times are tough, but there seemed to be an exception. The chairman of Estee Lauder Companies, Leonard Lauder, found that after the terrorist attacks, sales of lipstick grew.
Were women treating themselves to small indulgences when more expensive products were beyond their reach? That was one explanation.
A group of social scientists had a different idea about this “lipstick effect.” They thought it was about the psychology of women. During times of economic scarcity, women realize that there are fewer men available who are in good financial standing, so they buy more products that “enhance their desirability to mates.”
There has been some skepticism as to whether lipstick sales really do track economic conditions in the way that Lauder suggested. So the authors first analyzed twenty years of monthly unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, linking those data to retail spending on items that enhance physical appearance (cosmetics, personal care items, clothing and accessories) as well as items irrelevant to appearance (furniture, electronics, leisure/hobby products). As unemployment increased, spending on items unrelated to appearance decreased. But spending on items that enhance appearance increased.
To see whether economic anxiety would increase women’s interest in buying products that make them appear more attractive, the authors, in a series of studies, upped the economic concerns of half of their participants. In one study, for example, they showed the key participants photos of home foreclosure signs, unemployment lines, and empty office buildings. (The other participants saw slides of students trying to meet challenging academic requirements.) The women concerned about a dire economy were less interested in buying products that had nothing to do with their appearance (laptops, laundry detergent) but they were more interested in buying products such as make-up and fitted jeans. They were also more likely than the other women to say that a potential marriage partner’s financial status was particularly important to them, and that concern seemed to drive their interest in buying products that would make them look more attractive.
Maybe the researchers should have asked the women about more than just their interest in husbands. Maybe they should have also asked about their interest in attaining their own financial security, by getting or keeping a job. In the article “Strategically stunning: The professional motivations behind the lipstick effect,” Ekaterina Netchaeva of the Bocconi University in Milan, and McKenzie Rees, of the University of Notre Dame, did just that. The women in one study were asked to indicate the extent of their agreement with items such as “I want my partner to have a well-paying job” and “I want a well-paying job.” The women with more economic concerns were more likely to want a partner with a well-paying job – but they were also more likely to want their own well-paying job. Wanting more economic resources – either through a partner or a decent job of one’s own – was linked to a greater interest in buying products such as lipstick, nail polish, and dresses.
Perhaps, then, when economically anxious women buy more appearance-enhancing products, their interests are professional and not just personal. The authors tested that idea, too. They stirred up economic concerns in half of the women by asking them to read an article about the poor economy (instead of the article the other women read, about a flu outbreak). Then all the women were asked about their interest in two tutorials, one on “appearance-enhancing strategies for appearing more attractive to men” and the other on “appearance-enhancing strategies for appearing more professional.” The women with greater economic concerns expressed more interest in the tutorial on appearing more professional but not the one about appealing to men.
What if the women had to choose just one goal – appearing more professionally attractive or more romantically attractive? In one last study, women were asked about two kinds of lipstick: “Pouty Pink Lipstick: It may not get you your dream job, but it will get you your dream man” and “Professional Pink Lipstick: It may not get you your dream man, but it will get you your dream job.” The women who expressed greater economic concerns were especially likely to choose the Professional Pink Lipstick over the Pouty Pink.
In the studies conducted by the first set of researchers, who believed the lipstick effect was about women trying to make themselves more attractive to potential mates, all the women recruited to participate in their research were unmarried. Netchaeva and Rees, though, included both single women and women who were married or in a committed romantic relationship in all their studies. Tellingly, marital status never mattered. Economically insecure single women were no more likely than economically insecure married women to want a partner with a well-paying job. They did not express any more interest in the tutorial on appearing more attractive to men, nor did they prefer Pouty Pink Lipstick to Professional Pink.
As the authors concluded, “…there are alternative means of adapting to economic hardships outside of attracting a partner – such as holding a job – that may be preferred by women.”
[Note: Thanks to Lisa White for the heads-up about the NPR story.]