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Misogyny dressed up as research is still misogyny.

“Daughters in general have long been linked with divorce.  But a new paper gives more specified insight as to how”.   The tweet from @TheEconomist promoted the article’s emotion-triggering title, “Daughters provoke parental strife.  But only when they are teenagers”   That’s right, girls are responsible for destroying families.  Contributing to the breakdown of society.  […]

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“Daughters in general have long been linked with divorce.  But a new paper gives more specified insight as to how”.  

The tweet from @TheEconomist promoted the article’s emotion-triggering title, “Daughters provoke parental strife.  But only when they are teenagers”  

That’s right, girls are responsible for destroying families.  Contributing to the breakdown of society.  They are so difficult, so out of control, so unreasonable, that they have the power to destroy a previously close, loving and supportive relationship between two adults.  Teenage girls are the worst.  Vicious.  Hormonal.  Unbalanced.  

Of course.  Who is surprised?  Female power is terrifying.  The mere glimpse of the female ankle has been known to incapacitate men at many points in history, across cultures, the idea embedded in many religions.  Female power is terrifying.  And if it’s not female power, it’s female weakness.  Women’s minds and bodies are just not resilient or robust, they need protecting.  It all feeds into the 5,000 years of promoting the patriarchy-defending fear that women and girls are dangerous and women are at fault.  For everything.  Except when they are too weak in mind and body to be in charge, in which case they are also at fault.

And it’s all backed up by research.  Because research is serious.  Unbiased.  Stripped of emotion.  Research results in data.  We should always listen to research.  Right???

There is a gaping flaw in that logic.  Every single human being is biased.  We are all products of our society, our period in time, our education, our culture.  Researchers are not immune to this bias.

Researchers decide what to study.  They form a hypothesis.  They choose what resources to examine.  They formulate the survey questions.  They analyze the focus groups.  They trawl through the other research.  Good researchers come a whole lot closer to uncovering reasons and rationales than some random person voicing an opinion, but they are still biased.  The best researchers intentionally set up obstacle courses in their research, analysis, and review processes to identify and eliminate their inherent bias, but I suspect this practice is the exception, not the rule, at least not to the level needed to eliminate entrenched bias. 

This article is the most blatant form of bias in research and a case study in how research and journalism can create and support damaging social norms.  

The first glaring problem was the misrepresentation of the research by @TheEconomist.  They highlighted the fact that the (male) researchers found that their original research shows that it’s not all due to what researchers speculate is a “son preference” (see, it’s not a problem with bias towards boys!), but instead points to “surveys confirming that teenage daughters and fathers, in particular, get on each other’s nerves, that parents of teenager daughters argue more about parenting than do parents of sons, and mothers of teenage daughters report significantly more disagreements with their partners over money, and become more open to the idea of divorce.” 

I contacted the researchers and asked for a list of the questions they used, and if I’m wrong  I’ll happily publish a mea culpa apology.  (Update:  They sent me the research paper.  No apology, I stand by my statements, but some caveats at the end of the article)  However, I’d bet $1 that they asked the wrong questions.  I’ll bet they asked questions skewed towards reinforcing damaging societal norms.  

Based on my personal knowledge, of having been a teenage girl, and of spending a lot of time around teenage girls, let me put forth a different hypothesis to be tested.

By the time girls are teenagers, they are experiencing all the ways society is conspiring to hold them back and they are angry.  Rightfully angry.  Frustrated.  Fighting against the unfair barriers.  These girls know their worth and they are livid at the restrictions being put on them, especially when they see boys held to totally different, easier standards.  (to start, ask any teenage girl about school dress codes)

Here’s some of the research which supports this hypothesis:

  • 72% of girls feel that society limits them.
  • 1/3 of 7-10 year old girls believe they are judged on their appearance and 25% feel the need to be perfect
  • 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime
  • 15% of sexual assualt victims are age 12-17 and 54% are age 18-34. This statistic totally ignores the daily comments, catcalls, and varying levels of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse which most women endure from a very young age.
  • On average, women working full time in the U.S. are paid 82 cents to the dollar earned by men, women hold nearly 2/3 of outstanding student debt in the U.S., and women have only 70% of retirement income, despite living longer 

In other words, the deck is stacked against them.  Girls face a lifetime of violence, discrimination, and potential poverty.  I’d say teenage girls have reason to be angry, and to be vocal about the injustice.  And yet, despite this, teenage girls are overwhelmingly joyous, strong, ambitious, vivacious, curious, loyal, engaged, caring, and resilient.

And what about teenage boys?  They face any number of challenges, including being discouraged from talking about their emotions, indoctrinated into a culture of violence and silence, all while riding the same hormonal rollercoaster as girls.  The throwaway final line of the article may be the real story.  “one type of couple who seem immune to the daughter effect:  those in which the father grew up with a sister.  Having seen things somewhat from a sister’s point of view may act as a sort of social inoculation.”  

Indeed.  

So why isn’t the headline article, “Fathers who grow up with sisters are more likely to have long-lasting marriages.”?  Why is the blame shifted back to the teenage girls?  Why are males not part of both the problem and the solution?

As for the reason why more women are likely to argue about money and be more open to the idea of divorce.  What if these women are tired of seeing their bright, vibrant, intelligent daughters diminished?  What if they want their sons to have fulfilling and satisfying relationships, which research suggests occurs when male and female roles are more balanced?  What if they have realized that how their own power has been siphoned off through financial discrimination and they want better for their children?  Research has shown that single mothers spend more on they children’s health care than themselves when family income declines, while two-parent families are less likely to make changes.  What if the problem lays with the men who aren’t stepping up in a relationship?  A staggering statistic last week:  45% of men with children under 12 said they were managing most of schooling during the pandemic, but only 3% of women agreed.  There is a serious disconnect in the perception of equality at home and in the workplace and it rarely tips towards women having the advantage.  The majority of jobs lost during the pandemic have been from women, especially women of color, laid off or crushed from the demands at home and at work that are double or triple of those put on most men.  What if women look at the relationship that society has told them is the ultimate goal and realized that they don’t want their sons and daughters to think that is the norm?    What if women look at the relationship that society has told them is the ultimate goal and realized that they don’t want their sons and daughters to think an imbalance in wealth, power, and influence  is the norm?  We’re seeing that dynamic play out in China, magnified by decades of policies favoring boys, leaving a shortage of women to marry.  Women who aren’t willing to step backwards from their education and achievements.  Where were the questions asking whether there was emotional, mental, or physical abuse that prompted the decision?  Were there any questions that even explored the role that men might play in marriages ending in divorce?

Yet the click-bait headline and the gleeful endorsement of the respected @TheEconomist means that these questions will not be raised.  Too many people will nod their head and put another ‘fact’ in their belief that girls, and women, are a problem to be solved, or controlled.  The researchers were disappointed in how The Economist portrayed their research, but it’s up to them to apply pressure to change the headline, or look closely at their research to see what prompted the headline, otherwise they are just as guilty.  Research does not exist in a vacuum.  Research goes out into the world and influences people.  Researchers have a responsibility, just as journalists have a responsibility. 

Another textbook example of the damage caused by biased research is the widely debunked research that Blacks can’t swim because of heavier bones and “hardiness”, which dehumanized an entire race and dressed racism up in it’s Sunday best.  “I’m not racist, it’s just that “they” aren’t human like me”.  It’s no surprise that reams of similar research came out after slavery and through the Civil Rights Movement.  Research was racism’s handmaiden.  (those darned women again, it’s always the handmaidens causing problem)

We see the damaging outcome of biased research. 

For 5,000 years we have seen what happens when women are minimized and stripped of power.  From the Salem witch trials to the violent abuse of suffragettes to forced rape as a weapon of warfare to the constant, unrelenting abuse and unwanted attention that finally sparked millions of women to say #MeToo.  

The restrictions which hold women back have nothing to do with women and everything to do with the fear of some men and their increasingly desperate attempts to keep the patriarchy intact.  Janet Yellen is currently the Secretary of the Treasury, yet until 1974 a woman could not hold her own credit card.  Pretty clear that it wasn’t that women were capable of handling financial matters, it’s just that controlling women’s access to money also meant they had to stay in abusive relationships – whether romantic or professional.  

How to solve the problem of biased research?

Humans are biased, so research will always have some bias, but there are steps which can be taken.

  • Actively create a pipeline of researchers which is more representative of demographics.  It will take years, since 70% of researchers are male.    The bias continues into various areas of study.  The research was conducted by two economists, a field that is predominately male.
  • Require that reviewers include representatives from the groups being studied before any research is published.  Elicit pushback against ingrained bias.
  • These days it’s easy to pitch a click-bait article in non-academic publications that can go viral and do far more damage than firewall academic publications, so when you see something that sounds like there is inherent bias, and you have some research or background experience to back up your arguments, fight back.  Speak out.  
  • Finally, don’t take research at face value.  Do a bit of checking on your own. 

As for me, my fury has not abated one bit in the time it has taken to write this blog.  That uncomfortable (for others) female rage is burning hotly.  I am offended to my core at the insult to all the brilliant young women I know and right now I wish dueling were still in style, because I’d be slapping my glove across the face of those researchers for impugning the honor of the roughly 1.1 billion young women in the world.  

Misogyny masquerading as research is still misogyny.

Note:  when I tried to find a stock photo of strong, fierce, complex and amazing teenage girls, all I got was alluring poses.  Add that to my list of grievances.

*The full title of the article on the Economist website is:  Parents of daughters are more likely to divorce than those with sons.  But the difference only emerges when the children are teenagers.

UPDATE:  @JanKabatek, the lead researcher, kindly sent me a copy of the research paper.  Again, I place blame on The Economist for sensationalizing and misrepresenting the research, but still have concerns.  Yes, there is a modest increase in the divorce rates of parents of teenage girls.  For parents of first-born girls, the increased rate of divorce when the children reaches 18 years is 0.36 percentage points.  The study looked at couples in the Netherlands and the U.S.  The effect was almost double in the U.S.  I’d like to see an exploration of the social network in place between Dutch women and American women.  After all, the U.S. spends significantly less than other advanced countries on families and children.  One of the most influential factors was lower education level of the parents and parents with mixed immigration status, which appeared to link with more dissimilar gender-role attitudes.  The study noted that the rate of divorce went back down after the girl was 19, at which point they likely had left home for much of the year, for either work or university.  The study did not note that girls mature, on average, 2 years faster than boys, so that by the time that the boys had reached the level of emotional maturity to comparably push boundaries they were closer to moving out and gaining more financial and physical independence, which could have minimized comparable tension.

Circling back to the primary premise of my blog, the first question I have is, what are the researchers hoping to accomplish with their research?  How do they envision the research being used?  Who will benefit?  Who will suffer?  After reading the paper, my conclusion was that if the goal is fewer divorces, then more effort should be made into changing attitudes and behaviors on gender roles, with the specific goal of moving towards more gender role equality, in perception and in practice.  It is, emphatically, not acceptable to place the blame on teenage girls, or to even imply blame.  

Finally, I hope the researchers force The Economist to publicly retract their misrepresentation, and I hope all researchers will begin thinking through the real-world implications of their research, including how it may be misrepresented.

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