Saturday, February 05, 2005

The choices men make

Maureen Dowd has a complaint. In a piece titled “Men Just Want Mommy”, in the New York Times, she points out that successful women have a tough time finding a sucessful mate, because men who are high-achievers tend to marry below themselves. She writes:
I'd been noticing a trend along these lines, as famous and powerful men took up with the young women whose job was to tend to them and care for them in some way: their secretaries, assistants, nannies, caterers, flight attendants, researchers and fact-checkers.

Women in staff support are the new sirens because, as a guy I know put it, they look upon the men they work for as "the moon, the sun and the stars". It's all about orbiting, serving and salaaming their Sun Gods.

She gives a few examples of this from popular films – like Love Actually - and then quotes a couple of studies that are relevant to her subject:
As Dr Stephanie Brown, the lead author of the study, summed up: "Powerful women are at a disadvantage in the marriage market because men may prefer to marry less-accomplished women. Men think that women with important jobs are more likely to cheat on them. The hypothesis is that there are evolutionary pressures on males to take steps to minimise the risk of raising offspring that are not their own," Brown said. Women, by contrast, did not show a marked difference in their attraction to men who might work above or below them. Men did not show a preference with one-night stands.

A second study, by researchers at four British universities, suggested that smart men with demanding jobs would rather have old-fashioned wives, like their mums, than equals. The study found that a high IQ hampered a woman's chance of marrying, while it was a plus for men. The prospect for marriage increased by 35 per cent for guys for each 16-point increase in IQ; for women, there was a 40 per cent drop for each 16-point rise.

But why is Dowd complaining? Part of the reason for that comes because she is perhaps making the same mistake as the researcher she quotes, Stephanie Brown. She quotes Brown as saying: “Men think that women with important jobs are more likely to cheat on them. [My emphasis.]” Now, this is, at the very least, mixing up proximate causation with ultimate causation. Even if the tendency in men to avoid having accomplished women as their mates originated for the reason Brown puts forth, it is an ultimate cause for the tendency to exist, not a proximate one for the men to think that way. If men actually thought, as Brown surmises, that successful women would be more likely to cheat on them, then Dowd might be justified in castigating them for their sexism, or hypocrisy, or whatever. But people can’t help falling in love with whoever they fall in love with.

Even as ultimate causation, though, Brown’s hypothesis seems flawed to me. James Miller, writing in Tech Central Station, comes up with a more plausible one. He writes:
Although children are a blessing, they're also time sinks. Two married people can't both work jobs for 60+ hours a week and have enough time to raise a few kids properly. Realizing this, many men who intend to have several children and time-intensive jobs often seek women who are more child- than career-oriented.

Um, I’m not sure about the “realizing this” bit, and I think the tendency that draws successful men towards old-fashioned homemakers is at least as instinctive as reasoned out. Miller says that Dowd is wrong because “it's women, not men, who are at fault here.” He explains:
I teach at Smith College, an elite women's school. Almost all of my students would rather date a selfish investment banker than a nice, attractive administrative assistant. But for a Smithee who hopes to raise several children while making partner at a top-law firm, an administrative assistant might make a far better match than an investment banker. True, the investment banker would earn much more money, but what anyone with a time-consuming job and children really needs is a spouse who can devote much more effort to children than to career.

Much as I like Miller’s writing, I think he is on the wrong track here. He is criticising an instinctive choice – and the instinct is programmed by natural selection – by demonstrating that a rational choice would serve women better. Well, of course it would. But women cannot help who they fall in love with any more than men can, and judging such choices either in terms of morality, as Dowd is doing, or reasonableness, as Miller is doing, serves no purpose. We can only judge acts of volition in that manner, not who we fall in love with.

[Note: Dowd’s piece in NYT requires subscription, and in the likely event that you’re not a subscriber, you can view a syndicated copy of it here, at the Sydney Morning Herald. This would require free registration.]

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