Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bad News Coming in Small Bytes - A Follow-Up

From Ash:

We wrote about how a company in the U.K. fired a lot of employees via email. If you shook your head at the cold-hearted Brits, bad news, Kids. It's a phenomenon that's crossed the pond.

Today, news reports are that Radio Shack just email-fired 400 of its employees. But the employees apparently had already received an email warning them that they were probably going to fired via email. That's supposed to make it all right, I guess.

(Okay, if you knew an email like that was coming, would you open it?)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading #16

From Ash:

Here's a short list of pieces that I thought were worth reading. On the whole, it's a lighter, a little sillier list than usual, but my head's still spinning from all of the coverage about the Forbes piece – just when I'd finally calmed down from watching it – last night, my local news station did a live feed about it on the 11 o'clock news, and I got all upset all over again. I may have to take a look at some of the other research points he cited (Are you interested if I find anything?).

(By the way, the post-ASA convention, we're getting some more sociologists checking out the blog. You're very welcome, and please feel free to email / comment. I sincerely hope you enjoy what we're doing.)


In recent education news, California has already started worrying about the 54,000 seniors in high school who will not be graduating next year, because they can't pass the exit exam. The San Francisco Chronicle has a nice piece on this, explaining how the test affects students of different economic and ethnic groups, the disabled, etc. Not surprisingly, the poor, not-fluent in English and learning disabled are the ones who aren't passing. But it's nice to see the actual numbers. And if you're brave, those small graphics on the page – those are a couple sample questions from the exam: see how you do.

Meanwhile, AP reports that George Mason University, a public institute in Virginia, has become one of the first publics to dispense with the SAT. They join a growing list of schools (until now, private ones, though), dissatisfied with the testing, from what they see as flawed results to allegations of racial bias within the test itself.

These Kids Today

If you're wondering what these kids today are thinking, take a look at the annual Mindset report – which asks college freshmen what their life experiences have been with archaic devices such as a stamp. In other words, if you need to feel really old, this is a sure-fire way to do it.

Predators on the Internet? Britons Can Do Something About it

So you've been hit on in an instant message, but now what? Well, according to the BBC, if you're in the UK, and you think this isn't just an average slimeball, but could be a child predator, there's now going to be a button on the program (or something like that), that will let you report the offender.

Las Vegas – Weddings Require a Little More Planning

A word of warning from the AP, if you're planning a midnight run to Vegas to get married – the marriage license office is no longer running 24-hours. This could be an inconvenience, but on the other hand, it might just cut down on those "I got married by the doorman?" now-sober-shocked-in-morning-revelations. (Of course, I don't really know how much that happens when it isn't a sitcom. )

Burning Man

And just in case there are some of you who are packing up the hybrid, about to drive to Burning Man, the San Francisco Chronicle also has a fun little piece about how scientists will be examining the environmental impact of all those engines and bonfires, etc., and what they're trying to do about it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Response to Forbes' "Don't Marry A Career Woman"

From Ash:

On Sunday, Forbes's on-line edition published a piece by Michael Noer entitled "Don't Marry A Career Woman," in which Noer rattled off the reasons sociologists have determined that career women are bad spouses. His argument is essentially that marriages to educated, working women are unhappier, less stable, and more likely to divorce: as such marriage to such a woman is done at the man's peril.*

I've taken a close look at the piece and much of the underlying research Noer cited. I haven't looked at everything, but, in each case that I reviewed, I disagree with Noer's depictions of that research, and I found additional research that contradicted his thesis. I'll specifically explain where I disagree with Noer, but here's the at-the-top bottom-line.

Women's increased education does not increase divorce rates.

Education increases marital stability.

A woman's employment does not increase the likelihood that she'll get divorced.

Women's employment does not decrease marital happiness.

And education nor employment do not appear to increase infidelity, either.

Now, some specific instances of how I think Noer has not accurately represented the research.

Noer writes that a 2004 report by John J. Johnson finds that "Women's work hours consistently increase divorce." But that is not Johnson's finding.

Instead, my reading of the report is that there's a correlation between women's increased work hours and divorce – but that Johnson makes no definitive findings that those work hours cause divorce. Conversely, he provides a list of reasons to show that his work does not answer the issue of causation – such as it may be that wives who want to get divorced work more hours before divorcing, either to improve the marriage or give them the resources they need to leave.

A 2006 study, in the Journal of Family Issues, does answer the causation issue.

In that report, its authors find that women's increased hours at work does not increase the likelihood of divorce.

In fact, women's employment, over all, lowers the rate of divorce. Not only that, but the wives' employment has no real effect – positive or negative – on marital quality for either spouse. In other words, husbands do not have happier marriages just because their wives stay home, and they don't have unhappier marriages just because their wives are working. (What really matters is if the wife wants to work, or if she's doing it because she has to financially.)

Moreover, (supporting Johnson's hypothesis) the authors did find that already-unhappy wives do increase their hours at work – either as a way to find other interests outside of the marriage or get the resources to leave.

So working is not a cause of marital instability – it's a way of addressing the instability that already exists.

(And going to work may actually improve the marriage, since working lowers the divorce rate.)

Another problem area I cannot reconcile the research: Noer's discussion of infidelity.

First, even though this is an article about why career-women are problematic spouses, Noer never mentions the fact that the vast majority of partners who are unfaithful are men. (So that section of his article should really be a warning to why women shouldn't marry career-men.)

Instead, Noer relies on a "wide-ranging review of the ... literature" to assert that "highly educated people are more likely to have had extra-marital sex (those with graduate degrees are 1.75 more likely to have cheated than those with high school diplomas.)" and that people making more than $30,000 a year are more likely to cheat.

It's unclear who conducted the "wide-ranging review of the ... literature," but for those who might believe it's Noer's own - I believe it's the work of Adrian J. Blow, whom Noer mentions in the piece. But Noer doesn't include Blow's further points: Blow explains the education-element only seems to be a factor when there's a real disparity of education within the couple (which is consistent with the scholarship on how educational heterogamy can be an indicator of marital instability).

In fact, most of Blow's comments are from an accurate review of a 2001 study entitled "Understanding Infidelity."

In that underlying study, the authors explain that the education factor is essentially wiped out when divorce is taken into account. Blow, by the way, includes this explanation in his work, though Noer does not.

In other words, the tie between increased education and infidelity is only a factor for those couples who actually divorced. And as study after study shows: educated women are more likely to divorce if their husbands have had an affair.

So increased education has not yet been determined to be a general predictor of infidelity within a marriage. A point omitted by Noer, but made crystal-clear in Blow's review of the literature:

"We have heard people state that highly educated individuals are more likely to engage in infidelity. However, it appears that assertion is not a categorical truth, but rather a factor that may depend on the educational dynamics of partners in the relationship and history of divorce. Further research is needed in this regard." (emphasis added)

Noer's slanted use of the research on the relationship between income and infidelity - using the $30K threshold - also fails to show the real picture.

In "Understanding Infidelity," the authors did find that increased income did mean an increase in affairs. But they don't think that making money is necessarily the underlying reason for an affair. Instead, it may be that those making less money just can't afford to have one. Richer people can afford those secret hotel bills and the like.

(I'd also like to note that since, depending on the family size and location, an annual family income of under $30K could qualify you as being poor under the federal poverty standard. While he seems to advocate a return to a single-earner family, I don't think Noer really intends on advocating increasing poverty rates as the answer to infidelity. And if he is, he should know that those in poverty are at an increased risk for divorce. I'd also like to remind everyone that wealth is a source of marital stability, while, on the other hand, money problems are a frequently mentioned cause of divorce.)

What I think Noer's theory is this: if more women are in the workforce, they will meet more hot guys at work to have sex with, than they will meet at the P.T.A., so they'll have more affairs. And more affairs mean more divorces. So keep the women at home.

Noer is correct that more women are having affairs, and that this can, in part, be attributed to an increase in potential partners in those affairs. But where Noer's theory falls apart is that, if he's right, then dual-earner couples should have higher rates of infidelity than couples with only one spouse at work. Because now both husbands and wives have all those new potential sex-partners, and they conceivably both have the money to check into a hotel suite.

But the researchers found that that is not the case.

Dual-earners are not the couples with the highest rates of infidelity. Instead, the highest rates of infidelity are when only one spouse is working, and the other is unemployed. (In other words, when the men are at work, and the wives are at home.)

The scholars theorize this is because the working spouse has more power in the family and more resources with which to have an affair. And that infidelity rates drop when the power and economic structures of the couple are more equalized.

It may also be that women usually have emotional attachments to their extramarital partners, so proximity alone isn't going to result in the dramatic increase of affairs Noer fears. (Perhaps that's because he's forgetting that he's talking about women, whereas men are is more likely to have sex just for sex's sake.)

As I said, I haven't gone through all of Noer's research. Some of it probably is accurate. I know I have seen research about the damaging effects of divorce on couples and their children. I know I've seen how the changing workforce, gender roles, etc. can affect marriages. But there are a lot of components to those findings which need to be addressed. (That's why we've got the blog, actually.)

Dual-earner families are the reality for many families now. Articles like Noer's do absolutely nothing to help those families; they just provide unfair and misdirected cannon fodder into the frey.

*Within hours, with arguments about the piece were lighting up the blogosphere, Forbes reposted it as a "counterpoint," with an essay arguing why career women were good spouses, after all. Thanks to Salon for its piece about what was going on.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Would your child be better off in a private school (even if it didn’t cost you a dime)? Some surprising findings say “no.”

From Po:

It’s always been a fascinating question: do private schools actually teach better, or are their scores higher simply because they recruit/select/admit smarter kids?

Most people would guess that the higher test scores of private schools come from a bit of both – they admit smarter students, and then those students rub off on each other (guided by great teachers) to excel.

A recent Harris poll confirmed this general opinion. People think private schools are better than public schools at teaching reading and writing and math. Meanwhile, they think public schools are better at teaching social skills and how to get along with people from different backgrounds.

There were some interesting wrinkles to that poll data, though.

Wrinkle #1: The nation’s opinion is that a high-quality public school is every bit as good as private school – just that many public schools aren’t good.

Wrinkle #2: People think their local public schools are better than the rest of the country’s. And they seem to think this just about everywhere in the country. So it’s sort of like Lake Wobegon, where every kid is above average. Everyone thinks their schools are above average.

Now, these conventional wisdoms have been put to the test in comprehensive studies. The results are pretty provocative, directly contradicting our presumptions.

Consider these three contentious conclusions:

1. When you adjust the study body for racial and socioeconomic characteristics, private school students don’t perform better in reading and math than public school students.

2. Public charter schools are supposed to outperform regular public schools, but they don’t – they actually perform worse.

3. Private schools, which are smaller and more protected, are not better for students’ mental health. In fact, small schools of any sort are not better for student mental health.

When I read the studies, I was willing to accept #2 pretty quickly. Many charter/magnet schools are for gifted and talented students, but many others are for immigrant children or for at-risk students. These schools, when aggregated together, might not show any superiority (even if it’s inherently there).

#3 also surprised me. I think of small schools as places where teachers know the names of every student, so a child’s depression or problems won’t be ignored. I would expect that the teenage suicide rate, for instance, would be lower at small schools. But this wasn’t true. However, while this surprised me, I didn’t find myself balking at accepting the study’s conclusions.

But conclusion #1 didn’t sound right to me. I have read the study, which comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, and I have tried to contact the study’s Project Officer, Bill Tirre – but he’s never called me back. Something about it just doesn’t sound right to me.

There are about 5.2 million children in private elementary schools and private high schools in the United States. Of those, 2.3 million are in Catholic schools, and another 1.8 million are in other religious schools. Only 600,000 students are in non-sectarian academic private schools.

The study tested 4th graders and 8th graders on reading and math, drawing from both public schools and private schools. At both grade levels, the private schools tested much better. But when they adjusted for race and ethnicity and socioeconomic factors like whether those students qualified for free lunches and spoke English as a first language – the private schools’ superiority largely disappeared. 4th grade public students actually tested better post-adjustment. And 8th grade private students tested better on reading. On the whole, you couldn’t say whether private or public was better, if they both had to teach the same students.

But here’s what’s fishy. First, the 66-page study refused to cough up how they made their adjustment for race and class. They present a table for the way they handicapped the scores for disabled students, but not for other factors. That they omitted these tables is suspicious.

The data is also not as convincing as they want it to be. In fourth grade, the private schools tested 14 points higher on a 100-point reading test. If public schools did just as well as private schools, you’d expect that gap to stay steady, maybe even narrow. But in fact the gap widens. By 8th grade, the private school students are testing 18 points higher. That’s about the difference between an “A-” grade and a “C” grade.

The same is true for their math abilities. In 4th grade, private school students score 7 points higher on average. The gap widens by 8th grade, when they score 12 points higher.

So I don’t know what to think. If you had a kid on the verge of trouble, where would you rather send him? Is my bias towards thinking private schools are a little better just a myth?

For what it’s worth, keep in mind that most private schools are religious schools. 80% of the private schools are religious-themed. These schools might not be weeding out students, accepting anyone from their church or parish.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Parental Identity and Behavior - And the Difference Between the Two

From Ash:

I promised some of the additional research related to our Gatekeeper Moms piece for Time, and so, finally, here it is. (Sorry for the delay: I got waylaid – first, with our subsequent piece about technology as the bearer of bad news, and then going to Montreal.)

As we were reading about Gatekeeper Moms, both Po and I were fascinated to learn about the relationship between parents' identity as parents and their behavior – an issue particularly acute in the Gatekeeper Mom household. Po went into some of this in his post on new fathers – but he tackled a lot in that one, so, just to make sure I'm not going to lose anyone with jargon, I'm going to back up a bit.

What I'm referring to here as "parental identity" is how people are asked to list the various things that define them (e.g., husband, father, employee), then they rank them in terms of what is the most important. "Parental behavior," on the other hand, is actual participation in caregiving activities.

It turns out that a woman's identity as a mother is tied closely to her behavior. The stronger her identity as a mother, the more stuff she does. If she doesn't have a strong identity as a mom – she also says that her career is a large part of her identity – she does less caregiving.

The opposite seems to be true for fathers.

Fathers may have a strong identity as a father, but that doesn't necessarily increase their caregiving. The two just aren't as tightly connected.

A man who always changes diapers doesn't necessarily have a stronger identity as a father than a man who's never touched a baby wipe. And, conversely, a father working an 80-hour a week may miss his children and wish he was with them – and but his absence doesn't weaken his identity as a father. In fact, it's quite common for men to see spending time at work as fulfilling the breadwinner role, and they think that's the most important part of his role as father. So a dad who spends all his time at work might even have a stronger view of himself as a father, because he sees that time as a sacrifice for his family.

If paternal identity doesn't influence a father's caregiving, what does?

The wife. It’s how a father sees himself through his wife’s eyes - that’s the key to both his identity as a father and his involvement with the kids. If he believes she thinks he should be involved in caregiving, he will be. If he thinks his wife sees him as the most inept dad since Fred Flintstone, then he’s less likely to be involved, and he’ll do less, too.

It's to the point that one sociologist sort of argued that, in order to change a father's involvement in the house, the one to go after isn't the father, but the wife. That's an oversimplification of the report, but not all that much.

Interestingly, this really only affects paternal caregiving. Dads still see themselves as breadwinners. Period. A mom's view of a father as breadwinner doesn't really effect him on that front.

Note that it is not the wife's actual opinion that counts: it's what he believes she thinks of him that counts. So if she carps all the time about how he's a terrible father, but secretly admires him, it's her carping that he responds to.

And, in case you're wondering, yes – mothers also change their behavior because of how they perceive their husbands's opinions of them. For them, fathers' perceived opinions affect both the mothers' caregiving and her breadwinning – because although it's increasingly necessary, her role as breadwinner still isn't the cultural given compared to her caregiving role.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Uncle Sam Wants You! - A Follow-Up - Our Worst Fears Confirmed

From Ash:

When we were writing our piece, "Uncle Sam Wants You!" – about job openings that would be coming because of an aging federal workforce – Po and I warned that, if these government positions weren't filled, they'd be subcontracted out to companies - which would mean that the costs to the nation would increase exponentially.

Well, welcome to the United States of Haliburton, since an article in today's New York Times has our worst fears confirmed.

According to the NYT, the IRS is now subcontracting its debt collection to private companies – hiring three companies to track down and collect the taxes owed by over 12,500 people. And that's just the start. By 2008, 350,000 people's records will be distributed to ten different companies. The IRS could just hire more staff – they asked for Congressional approval but didn't receive it.

This will cost You, the taxpayer. How much? Hundreds of millions. Eight times as much as it would if the IRS hired enough agents in house. The IRS staff only costs 3¢ for every dollar collected. But the subcontractors will keep 22-24¢ of every dollar they collect: they'll get a cool $330 million of the $1.4 billion they're charged with collecting.

Hmm. What could the feds do with $330 million of your money that they are giving away?

Well, in FY2006, the federal government is giving $80 million in federal student loans. So that could wipe out over four years of students' federal loans. Imagine letting four years of students being able to go to school federal-debt free – or the 17,000 students whose entire debt we could forgive.

$330 million is about what the Department of Agriculture is sending to aid the Sudan and other countries of Africa that are starving to death.

That would fund federal drug courts for almost five years.

And remember – this is just the start of what will be a much bigger, costly program.

Take a look at this paragraph:

"The main objection so far to the privatization program is that it is more expensive than internal collection. “I freely admit it,” Mark W. Everson, the tax commissioner, told a House of Representatives committee in March."

But costs are just the tip of the iceberg. IRS records are considered basically sacrosanct, because they have so much information about you. Do you want the run of the mill debt collector to have all that on you? Because you know that the next step from debt collection will just be normal processing. And if that idea doesn't make you nauseous: Consider that one of the partners of the new IRS subcontractors has a prison record.

And since this is a profit-making exercise - the negotiated amounts, the waived penalties you could have negotiated with the IRS won't be something the debt collectors are going to agree to. So you the taxpayer will pay more, and will get less.

I'm sorry to say it, but this is just the beginning.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention (A Reflection)

From Ash:

Sitting here at my desk in L.A., munching on the last of the pastry I bought in Montreal, I'm struggling to put what I learned during the ASA conference into some sort of context - tie it together some sort of manageable theme. It's a challenge. But in some ways, my feelings about the conference seem to be a microcosm for the entire Social Studies project that Po and I have undertaken - beginning with my getting to help Po with his wonderful book, Why Do I Love These People? to the Factbook, which lead to our blog and the Time pieces. So, we'll get to the studies and the papers in good time, but for now, a small big picture.

During the conference, I was fortunate enough to speak to a dozen or so of the nation's leading scholars on family issues, but there were about 5,000 attendees, so who knows who I missed out on meeting.

I heard, I'm guessing, in the neighborhood of 100 different presentations in about 25-30 sessions - but there were over 550 sessions being offered, so I barely scratched the surface.

And it wasn't that I wasn't interested in those others. It was a coin-flip and heart-ache that made me opt for a presentation on the changing time of American families over a survey of scholarship relating to the health and welfare of children. And how could I have missed the paper on why white men can't dance, or the paper on why British soccer-fans have turned hooliganism into its own sport? I mean, seriously, who doesn't want to know the answers to those questions?

I'm so thankful that we're on this exploration of social issues. I swear, every time we start chasing down a new topic, I learn enough that my entire worldview changes. I know I can't think of raising a child the same way now, than I would have before we'd done all the reading on childhood educational attainment. I can't say that my tastes in men have changed because of what I've read about marital stability - but I understand the dynamics of relationships a bit better - and perhaps that will pay off some day. Once I heard that professor just off-handedly make the observation about how we see poor time management, not as the inability to preserve a too-scare resource, but as a personal failure - if I don't think of being late in a different light, that would be a personal failing.

And as much as we have learned, I'm constantly dumbfounded with how much I'm not even aware of. (I mean, did it even occur to you that your inability to keep a dance beat might actually have implications about society as a whole?)

At the same time, I'm also ever increasingly aware of just how much of what we hear regularly, is really based on misinformation and misunderstandings. Honestly, it horrifies me. By the first day of the convention alone, I had already lost count on how many times, I heard a sociologist interrupt his presentation to make a comment about how "the media" had gotten something wrong, again, or expressing his frustration on how the right information just wasn't getting out there. Staring down at the press credential dangling from my neck, I wanted to yell, "Hey! The media's here, in the back of the room!"

I guess I just wanted to say how thankful I am to have both the opportunity and the motivation to be on this journey. Much more to come.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention (Day Four)

From Ash:

I can't believe that it was summer here when I arrived in Montreal last Thurs night, and now, by Monday, it's distinctly Fall. Sorry, I know that's not something you particularly care about, but it's a wee bit cold and raining, and I'm thinking about the long walk to my hotel.

So, anyway, today was the last day of the ASA Convention: I fly home tomorrow. But my head's already in the clouds, swirling with thoughts of everything I've heard and talked about the past few days.

Programmatically, the highlight of the day was a set of blistering speeches by Ms founder Gloria Steinem and Stanford professor Lawrence Bobo.

First was Dr. Bobo, who reviewed the way in which racial attitudes persist through the ways in which we punish -- particularly relating to imprisonment and death penalty. One of the most horrifying facts he revealed was that a racial resentment element was still clearly prevalent, even if you controlled for everything from education to economics to religious participation. And that, with an apparently unfortunately accurate perception of a race-bias system of justice, that African-Americans have a fundamental mistrust of the system. It's to the extent that, if they were sitting on a jury, 70% of African-Americans surveyed said they'd vote for a guilty defendant to be released, despite the evidence, if there was an allegation that the police (or others) had acted in racist manner towards the defense. The result, Dr. Bobo maintains, is that there must be a wholly new approach - a new framework of justice.

Ms. Steinem was no less controversial. She started off with an argument that the US's current political power structure was essentially run by the same sort of religious zealots that the pilgrims and everyone ran away from in the first place. And that was a softball she used to as an audience warm-up.

Ms. Steinem's first points, I thought, were the most effective. She argued that for too long, people's roles in society were defined by biology, meaning that biology equalled destiny -- be it racial, gender, etc. And that social scientists either went along with or even supported that premise. And the change came not from academics who should have known better, but from the lives of people, and their real experiences. She said that shouldn't be allowed to happen in this age - particularly when many religious extremists (both Islamic and Christian) were more concerned with the after life than life here on this earth. With such proponents demanding control in our political and social spheres, if we didn't have the tools to understand society, she argued, millions of lives were at stake.

While I thought that was a compelling idea (particularly in the way individuals were the key to change), she lost me with her review of Social History with a capital-S and H. Essentially, she argued that the current system of patriarchy, nationalism, etc. has only been existence for 5% of human history, and that, as such, we should consider it a failed experiment that's time has past. I don't necessarily disagree with her on the 5% part, but she went on to describe the rest of human really pre-history, as this rather idyllic agrarian society that was focused on egalitarianism between peoples and gender. That may be true for some tribes, but the degree to which she completely ignored the brutal existence of ancient peoples (including the gender) such as the Celts, the Spartans, made her argument seem more flawed than if she had addressed them. She doth protested too much. By the end, even when she made valid points, which she certainly did, I felt as if they were just too easily dismissed by a shake of "well, it's Gloria Steinem." Making, as she did, a sniping comment for every single reference to a male work - it just hurt her effectiveness in the end.

Enough of the flashy keynotes, and a little on some of the presentations that I will be mulling over on the plane home tomorrow.

Today's really interesting session was about how people with social status consume cultural goods, such as read a book, see a movie or a play, go to a gallery. It turns out that it isn't your imagination. There are people who do and see everything, and those who do and see little if anything at all.

And odds are 2-to-1 that what makes the difference - on either end of the spectrum - is their social status. That's true even if you remove social class from the picture.

So what's status then, if not class? Obviously, class and status are intimately connected, but essentially, class is the definable element of your economic situation: your income, your savings, whether you live paycheck to paycheck or off your rich uncle's trust fund. Status is how you relate to people: who your friends are, who you consider an appropriate mate, etc.

Not terribly surprising is that, in the US, the majority of us fall in the middle: we read the occasional book, see the occasional movie -- and that those who do nothing outnumber those who do everything (because of finances, family obligations, etc.). In other nations, even those with a more economically stratified culture, such as Chile, the status is still the key factor -- but there, the vast majority of people would be in the "inactive" category, while those who are culturally active really are the few and far between.

So while I go search Old Montreal for that cafe I found that served crepes and fondue, go to a movie, read something, or see an art exhibit, and become one of the world's cultural elite.

Bon soir, mes amis! I'll be home soon! Oh, hey, is someone gonna pick me up at the airport . . . ?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention (Day Three)

From Ash:

En Montreal.

Today is hard to capture in terms of an overall theme, but I learned a few fascinating facts that I can pass on.

Role-playing in Sex:

No, not that kind of role-playing. (Well, at least not in the session I went to today.)

What we're talking about is how expectations of gender-roles aren't just limited to housework, child care and who mans the barbecue for the last summer party. Instead, well, sex roles play out in sex. And this may be one of the things that will change the least, in our "post-gender" society.

Studying young adults, 18-26, in a partnered relationship (either marriage or cohabiting), a sociologist from the University of Texas, Austin, determined that traditional sex roles still were operating, even for these young ones who have been raised in a post-feminist, more egalitarian era. These youngsters will think that men are still supposed to be the aggressors, the initiators of sex, the women are more submissive and passive. Not only did they think that, that's what most of them were acting those parts.

And that was the case, even for the women who had more egalitarian views about everything else. They even thought housework, for example, should be a shared task, and they were sharing it.

Cleaning house= equals. Playing house= boy's still in charge.

Of course, they're not sure why this is. One theory is that your sex life is less visible, and thus susceptible, to public opinion. Your friends may notice who is regularly doing the vacuum, and they'll tell you what they think about that, whether or not you really wanted to hear what they had to say. And there's a certain pressure to conform to their (and the larger society's) expectations.

But you have to tell them about what you're doing in bed, only if you're willing to, and, if you don't like their response, you can either stop discussing it or lie. So you can much more easily ignore or evade any potentially disapproving influences.

Another theory: sex roles really are sex roles. Ideas about sex and gender are so entrenched in us to the very core: ideas of who does what during sex are supposed to define manhood and womanhood. And, in this most intimate of relationships, it's awfully difficult to separate sex from sexual stereotypes.

Since I'm here, uh, I'd feel remiss not to mention that women who had more egalitarian ideas about gender, including sex, had more orgasms. I'm just saying.

Social Security:

First, right now, about 60% of women who receive benefits do not get those benefits because of their work history. Instead, they get benefits based on the work history of their spouse, because you get the higher of the two. (Of course, if you were a full-time stay-at-home mom or housewife, that's the only basis that you could have, or you wouldn't get anything at all.)

And that 60% isn't likely to change in the coming years. This seems to be a fundamental issue when considering the possibility of Social Security reform, but according to sociologists who have studied the matter, not a single outlet (media or policy) really has addressed this fact when they talk about Social Security reforms. So the next time the issue comes up, ask how individual investment accounts are supposed to compensate the majority of women.

Child care and Welfare Reform

Another scholar reported on welfare reform's requirements forcing women to work to maintain their eligibility, and the obstacle to work for many on welfare who wanted work -- they had children and couldn't afford any care for them. So as part of the reform, funds were allocated to help the women pay for child care. Were the mix of requirements and funds for child care successful?

Yes and no. Prior to reform, 96% of those interviewed considered child care to be a problem - and a major one at that. Post-reform, that response was down to 40%. Somehow, the majority have figured out a way to have someone watch the kid.

The problem is now that that "someone" is often proving to be wholly unreliable. The women interviewed who had child care reported cases of the caregiver's neglect, even cases of abuse and molestation.

So the issue now is not just the mere use of child care, but a need to improve its quality. So child care is still a problem, but in a much different way. The issue isn't "if" they can get care for their children, but "what" the care is and what it can be.

One more day! A bientot!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention (Day Two)

From Ash:

A brisk, feels like Fall, day in Montreal.

Today was another fascinating round of discussions - my two favorites being a discussion of familial wealth, and single mothers' use of time. Which it turns out, are surprisingly related, in a macro- world-view sort of way.

In the wealth session, the presenters detailed how marital couples fair so much better, financially, than do those who are divorced, widowed, separated or never married. The data on this seems pretty clear. What isn't so clear is the causation. Well, for divorce, the causation is usually the division of assets. But there's the threshold question if, on a personality level, the people who are likely to be married are the same ones who will have a better control of their finances, etc. to begin with.

This lead to some fascinating remarks by a University of Chicago professor, who really questioned the role and importance of wealth, in an individual family, and in our large society. In some ways, we disdain wanting to address the issue of wealth, but as he pointed out, it shapes family dynamics more than we'd like to admit. It's money that often keeps us up at night, and it's just as likely as what we're still fighting over at the breakfast table. It's not just a resource, but indicative of our place in society, our relationship to past and future generations, an insurance policy for the future. And wealth can have an independent existence quite apart from one's personal income.

A rich topic, indeed.

The fact that most single mothers are financially so far behind than - well, everyone else - made the paper on their time use all the more interesting.

In that paper (again, still in a development phase), professors at Ohio State University have challenged the commonly-held belief that single mothers are the most "time poor." This is the idea that single moms are the most overscheduled and have the least amount of leisure because a two-parent family can tag-team parenting and other responsibilities.

But according to this study, once you take a look at the reality of single mothers' living arrangements and marital history - from a divorced woman who is cohabitating to a never married woman living on her own - the picture is quite different. It turns out that single and married women do vary slightly in their child care and housework, but in small amounts - around 15 minutes a day. But single, never married mothers who live on their own have more leisure - about an hour more a day - than the married ones do.

Who knew?

But I think it was the insight in the discussion afterwards that really showed me the value of being here, the difference between reading the paper and hearing from its authors. Following their principal presentation, they acknowledged that there were still questions yet to be addressed: for example, is the reason that single mothers on their own have more leisure time - but it's more television watching - because that way they are still available for their kids, when the other mothers can get out of the house. And what constitutes "leisure" in the minds of these mothers. There are specific activities that are formally classified as leisure, such as volunteering - but that could actually feel like an obligation to the woman (e.g. mandatory hours of service at her kid's school), not "leisure" at all. And there may be some women who consider sleep "leisure" (including the presenter, she admitted abashedly), when they wouldn't classify that as such.

And the comment from the floor, from another OSU professor, observing that for many of us, we consider poor time management to be a personal failing - a lack of character, rather than an inability to manage a scare resource.

All of which bringing us back to the question of the day - regarding the nature of wealth - be it time savings or that which in the bank - what it is and what it represents.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention

From Ash:

Montreal, Canada.

Po and I often agree that we don't want third-hand information. Instead, we go straight to the source, and, as I like to put it, "Ask someone who knows." So that's just what I'm doing for the next few days, since I've just finished attending the first day of the annual convention of the American Sociological Association -- hundreds of sociologists attending over 500 presentations by speakers from everyone from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Gloria Steinem to Ruth Westheimer.

Today was Ginsburg's keynote, and I'll hit the highlights of her speech right away, since the Washington Post reporter's probably already filed his piece on it. (There are a handful of reporters here, but very few.)

The Justice spoke on how women have entered the legal field - with what can only be described at as a mixed success. In reflecting on the historical reticience to women in law, she observed, "A sense of humor is essential for those who would advance social change." (A line that I love and will likely post over my desk.)

Justice Ginsberg touched briefly on her own experiences: she graduated from law school at the top of her class, but she couldn't get a single NY job offer. Because the firms didn't see her as a stellar student, but a mother of a young child. Since then, there have been women who have made partner in law firms, become professors, judges and even justices.

But she cautioned that there was still much more work to go, explaining how few women are Article III / federal judges.

In fact, rather than believing that the progress made since she was a law student will continue, she feels the opposite.

The Justice opined: "The picture today is not promising." Rather poignantly remarking that "I have been alone in my corner" of the Justices' bench since her "dear colleague" Sandra Day O'Connor had retired, she also explained that twice as men and women entered the Supreme Court bar this year, and twice as many men as women are clerks for the Justices. Next term will be even worse for the clerks' demography: 30 men and seven women -- a new low for the decade.

Believing that the practice of law has benefitted from the diversity of its members, and that it suffered from a previously too white, too male population, the Justice agreed with Justice O'Connor's earlier observation that the first step to change was visibility, and then an impressive show of accomplishment. She hoped that both would lead to solutions for the problems of the system.

If that hadn't been challenging enough, her speech was followed by that of Deborah Rhode's speech on the development of laws on sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence, which were almost too awful to bear hearing about for any sustained period of time. And which I'll save for a later blog.

There doesn't really seem to be any press besides me attending the seminars, at least I haven't yet run into anyone, so here's the report that probably won't be in the newspapers tomorrow - but probably should be. A study out of the University of California, Irvine, on educational attainment that will likely grab eventual headlines - and strike terror in the hearts of both parents and policywonks.

The research's still in progress, and there's no official paper on it yet, but the presenter announced that she has determined that- contrary to popular belief - increased educational attainment of a parent does not automatically translate to the child's own educational attainment. If the parent's a college grad, that doesn't mean that the child will equal or surpass that degree. Instead, it depends on ethnicity. For whites, mothers' increased education does mean increased education for their daughters. But that isn't the case for African Americans. Similarly, white girls seem to benefit from a society-wide increase of educational attainment - but blacks (female and male) and white men are not having the same gains.

Race also plays a factor in the other end of educational attainment: women drop out of high school less than men, but the rate varies depending on the ethnicity of the students.

And here's a twist on the gender gap issue of college campuses: women's increased entry into the labor force is seeming to have a negative effect on men's educational attainment.

Why are these true, she doesn't yet know. But I think everyone in the room was visibily startled by her findings.

I can't wait for tomorrow, and I have a couple hundred pages of reading I should do tonight.

But . . . I think it's time to leave the computer and the papers and do a little sightseeing.

Bon soir, tout le monde! A bientot!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Are We Forgetting How To Be Honest in Person? (Read our new essay at

From Po:

This essay started when Ashley and I were talking about the SCRAM ankle bracelet.

36 states have adopted the SCRAM ankle bracelet to monitor DUI offenders. The bracelet tests ankle sweat for traces of alcohol, and if you have one drink, it relays the results back to a computer in Colorado. The local police are notified, and your license is suspended immediately. It sounds like a good idea, but we were particularly interested in how this technology automates punishment. There's no chance to please forgiveness. If the SCRAM senses alcohol in your sweat, you're busted. No exceptions. But we also started thinking how nice this technology is for the friends of the offender, who no longer have to be in the constant role of policing their buddy. And many of the offenders have said they actually like having the SCRAM as a legcuff. Why? “It gives me a golden excuse to avoid peer pressure to party,” said one. They no longer have to utter those uncomfortable words, “I don’t want to.” They get to say, “I can’t.”

We need an excuse, it seems, more and more. We need a way to soften difficult conversations. We need some way of introducing ourselves to strangers, and we need a way to complain, and we need a way to be brutally honest. New technology happens to be very good at filling this need. We rely on it, more and more, to assist in a variety of difficult conversations.

But it comes with a cost. The more we rely on the gamut of technology (called ID, voicemail, email, SMS, Tivo) to avoid having direct contact when delivering tough news, the more we forget how to have these same conversations face to face. We particularly worry for youngsters, who might never hear or see these conversations modelled.

The SCRAM bracelet, which started off our train of thought, never made it into our essay. But I hope you like it anyway. Click here to jump to Time and read our essay. Comments still aren't enabled at, but we welcome them back here on this site.

Friday, August 04, 2006

WDILTP Wins Parenting Gold Award

From Po:

I learned last night that Why Do I Love These People? is a winner of the National Parenting Publications' Gold Award for Best Books of the Year. This is a wonderful honor to receive, especially because I know darn well that the committee had to go out of their way to crown WDILTP - it's not a traditional parenting book.

They actually mentioned this in their commendation, which reads:

"While not a typical parenting resource, this amazing book recounts the struggles and joys of real families who have shown incredible resilience. Every member of every family has experiences that they have never spoken about, or perhaps have never even allowed themselves to think about. This book can lift the weight of those secrets by offering a deep and caring look into the tensions that threaten to pull families apart and the bonds that hold them together, even in the face of terrible injustice, hardship or suffering. You may not agree with all of Bronson's assumptions or conclusions, but chances are good that this moving and beautiful book will change how you think about yourself, your own family and all families."

I hope this helps bring the book to more parents. I am working with Random House right now on the plan for the paperback edition of the book, which will land in bookstores January 2007. The book will have a new jacket image, looking like this:

We went with this jacket because as we, the audience, is walking in that door to that house, we understand who "these people" are - the people in the house, the family we're going to visit, and whatever trepidation or anticipation we might be feeling.