Do Single Women Pursue Careers Because There Are Too Few Men?

Briefcase vs. baby vs. bull.

Posted Apr 25, 2012

The title of this post refers to the “briefcase vs. baby” research you may have heard about in the news. The authors claim to have shown that when men are scarce, single women, especially the unattractive ones, lose confidence in their ability to land a man and therefore pursue careers instead.

Previously, I summarized the methodology and results of the four studies and invited readers to offer their critiques. (Thanks for the insightful comments that have already been posted.) I also gave a few examples of the play the research was getting in the media. Here, I’ll answer the question, “So what’s the problem?”

There are lots of problems with the research. You probably already recognized a number of them just from reading my brief summary. I won’t go through every shortcoming, but will instead focus on what’s most important: The authors never seriously considered any interpretations other than their own, not even to dismiss them. They also did not recognize some of the most serious limitations of their work.

A.    The author’s explanation is not the only one

So how else could we explain the findings that a scarcity of men is linked to a greater tendency to favor career options among single women?

The authors seem to assume that all single women want to marry, and they pursue their booby prize of a career if they do not think they will succeed at attracting that man. That might happen, the authors argue, if there are not many men around relative to the number of women, and if the single women in question are not all that attractive.

I start with a different assumption. Some single women (and men) really want to be single. For them, single life is the most meaningful and authentic life. They are single at heart. (I’m trying to learn more about people who are and are not single at heart with this survey, which you can take if you’d like.)  

What all single people realize, though, is that other people expect them to want to marry. After all, here we are in the year 2012, and the authors of a paper in a highly competitive academic journal just assume that what all single women want, more than anything else (such as a career), is to become unsingle. It is a myth I busted in my book, Singled Out.

Sadly, it is not just high-powered academics who are mindlessly perpetuating the mythology of marriage and family. As 28 other writers and I documented in Singlism, prejudice and discrimination against single people is rampant in the media, in politics, religion, the workplace, the marketplace, the college classroom, and in everyday life. Singlism is even built right into American laws.

The “briefcase vs. baby” authors seem to believe that what motivates single women is their wish to marry and their fear of not being able to land that man. I think that for single women (and men) who are single at heart, what they really care about is the opportunity to pursue the life that is most meaningful to them, with the least resistance from the badgering masses who keep thumping them over the head with their mindless mythologizing about marriage and family.

Under what conditions are other people likely to lay off the nudging about finding a man? When there do not seem to be many available men. Which single women are most likely to get a pass from the annoying ones when there are not many single men around? The ones who, as the lead author put it in one of her interviews, are not like Angelina Jolie. (At least she did not come right out and say, the ugly ones.)

The challenge for single people who want to be single is that no one believes them. Other people are always assuming that they are just telling themselves that they want to be single, or that they have “issues.” It can be wearying to keep trying to explain, to the relentless skeptics, that no, you do not want to escape from your single life, you like your life just the way it is. It is easier to pursue your most meaningful life if other people think they understand why you are not married (oh, there are no good men around, and anyway, it is not as if she is Angelina Jolie). Then they won’t ask if you are married because they think they already know.

I remember when online dating was beginning to become popular. To those who actually wanted to “find someone” or just date for fun, it was a wonderful innovation. Now you could scan hundreds of possibilities, rather than just a few faces at a bar. You weren’t limited to the same people you run into day in, day out.

For those who liked their single lives, though, online dating was still another obstacle to the pursuit of the lives they really wanted to live. Before, they could say, “oh, there just aren’t any available men around here” and everyone would nod and leave it at that. No need to make the case for being single at heart, and deal with all of the skepticism and rude questions and comments. Now, though, you are expected to cheerfully pursue all the catches you can reel in with a manufactured profile and a few mouse clicks.

I also object to the authors’ premise that single women pursue high-paying careers so they will have enough money to support children without any contributions from a husband. In assessing what women wanted in a job, the authors asked only about the importance of the potential to make a lot of money. The participants in the research had no opportunity whatsoever to say that they wanted a career that suited their passions and their values (not always incompatible with high pay). The authors also seemed oblivious to other prospective research showing that high school students who would stay single valued meaningful work more than their classmates who would eventually marry, and that the students who lived single continued to value meaningful work nearly a decade later.

B.     The ‘briefcase vs. baby’ authors do not seem to recognize the diversity of humans and their motivations

It is standard practice in the top academic journals to acknowledge the limitations of your research. For example, if you include only men or only women in your study, you explain why. You don’t assume that everyone has the same sexual orientation, for example, or that the only people in the world are white people.

In an article premised on the desirability of finding a different-sex partner, the authors never acknowledge that there is such a thing as a sexual orientation other than heterosexual.

The authors believe they have addressed the question of why they are studying only single women, but consider an example of what they have to say on the topic:

“Unlike most men, women must decide whether to juggle both parenting and a demanding career or focus more on childrearing.”

You read that correctly. A group of academics, in the year 2012, proclaim that women must decide whether to juggle parenting and career or just focus on parenting. There is no room in their minds for women who have no struggle at all, because they are interested in only one of the two options. There is no possibility of considering both and then deciding that career matters most, not because you see yourself as a loser who won’t find a mate anyway, but because your interest in a career is genuine.

Why do men get a pass on childrearing? The authors say that women “tend to invest much more in offspring care, well beyond gestation and lactation.” So since women are already doing more than their share, the authors seem to be suggesting, there is no need for men to worry about juggling. That’s women’s problem.

Consider, too, the next example. It is a bit more subtle, perhaps, but still should not be beyond the intellectual prowess of a group of Ph.Ds:

“…our core prediction is that a female-skewed sex ratio (a scarcity of men) should lead more women to pursue lucrative careers and to delay starting a family.”

The problem is the assumption that all women want to start families. The only alternative the authors can imagine is to delay starting a family, rather than doing it right away. The literature on women who do not have children is now quite compelling. The authors, apparently, know nothing about that.

Finally, in the very last paragraph before the conclusions section of their article, the authors acknowledge a limitation of their work:

“Participants were female undergraduates in the United States, and many of them have (or at least perceive) the option to pursue a high-paying career as an alternative strategy to acquiring paternal investment for offspring. Women in other settings (e.g., impoverished neighborhoods in the United States; rural villages in Asia; foraging societies in equatorial regions) may not have this ‘career’ option and may instead pursue other alternative strategies. For example, they may form closer intersex alliances or they may rely more heavily on extended kin for childrearing.”

Note first that the authors are not saying that their undergrads can pursue careers because they want to have a career and are not even interested in the family part. They are instead saying that the high-paying career is a hedge, a way to support kids in case no man gets snagged to help pay the bills and maybe change a diaper or two.

Can you decode the jargon in the last sentence of the quote – the parts about “closer intersex alliances” and extended kin? They are alluding to a point I explained in Singled Out (and others have, too) – that single women (and men) are not necessarily raising their children single-handedly. They have friends (“closer intersex alliances”) and family who help. They have social networks and communities of people who care about them and have sometimes been in their lives for decades.

The authors are sort of acknowledging those possibilities, but they are making them seem exotic. Sure, if you live in a foraging society along the equator, you might have help from friends or family. American undergraduate women, though – they either get a husband or a high-paying career.

These have been just a few of the reasons why the publication of this article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in the way it was written, made me feel embarrassed to be a social psychologist, an identity I usually embrace.