Just in case you are running out of reasons to torture yourself, here’s a new one. Well, maybe it’s not quite so new. Maybe it’s an old story. Still, if you need to torment yourself, here it is.
It’s an anti-freedom story. It shows someone I have never heard of, by name of Ray Fisman, bemoaning the fact that men and women choose mates for reasons that do not correlate with a certain ideology.
It was a great day for human civilization when the custom of arranged marriage was replaced—in some parts of the world—with courtship. In the new regime men and women, but especially women, were allowed to choose their spouses freely.
But, what happens when people do not approve of your choice? One assumes that adult men and adult women will make intelligent choices, that they will not be led around by the stirrings in their loins. After all, your mate will become part of your family—and vice versa—so the decision requires you to exercise good judgment.
In today’s world, we have gone beyond such considerations. We want reality, especially human nature, to answer the call of ideology. As opposed to answering the call of nature or of family and community.
And ideology still insists that people can have it all. It insists especially that women must be able to have it all. Why should this be so? It is so because the ideologues promised young women that if they postponed marriage and family in favor of career they would easily find the perfect man when they were ready. And the ideologues also told young women that once they were utterly independent they would be more desirable because they would be less needy and clingy.
Obviously, it was a lie. New research has shown that ambitious and successful women are penalized once they enter the marriage market. (I am sure that you like that charming turn of phrase. It is not mine.)
Women will not admit it in public, but they know this. They tamp down their ambitions in order to improve their chances of finding a suitable and even a desirable mate.
Since life is about trade-offs and since, as we all know, you cannot have it all, this makes some sense. Regardless of whether it appeals to you, the truth is that these women have every right to choose their own life plans freely. You remember the mantra: free to choose. Why should it not apply to women who choose less career success in favor of a better shot at marriage?
We know that a high-level executive position requires that a woman spend more time away from home and less time with her children. It’s a trade off. We accept it as such and respect whatever decisions women make.
And, dare I say that men are free to choose also. If they do not find excessively ambitious and successful women attractive or if they do not find them to be good marriage material—horrifying phrase, don’t you think?—that is their prerogative.
It gets worse.
When women take positions of leadership and power in business or politics their chances of divorce increase significantly. In Sweden... yes, in female friendly Sweden.
Fisman reports on the latest study:
To identify a causal effect of taking a high-powered political job, the paper compares the divorce rates of national politicians who barely win a seat in parliament versus those who just miss getting elected. Candidates who barely won are essentially the same as the ones who barely lost—they differ just by who was lucky enough to get a few votes more or less. It’s as good as random. (The researchers follow a similar approach for comparing the marital consequences of becoming a Swedish mayor by using close municipal elections.)
Folke and Rickne find that the winners’ and losers’ divorce rates are identical before the election takes place. But immediately afterward the winners’ rate doubles relative to that of the losers. (They find a similar impact on divorce from becoming a CEO, but unlike political competition, it’s hard to discern when winning a top corporate job was as good as random.) The authors argue that the women’s sudden success puts extra strain on marriages in which men are accustomed to playing a more dominant role in the workforce. Consistent with this interpretation, they find, for example, that the effect is largest in cases in which the promotion results in the woman becoming the household’s dominant earner.
Even in Sweden, Fisman notes, ideology has not repealed human nature. In a nation that has the most generous family leave policies, in a nation where schoolboys are taught that they need to pee sitting down, lest they be sexist, men and women are still men and women.
Fisman says that this is all about the glass ceiling. Except that it is not. The sad, cold truth is that human nature cannot be wished away. As it happens, most women do not ignore human nature. They adjust their expectations accordingly.
Even in comparably progressive Sweden, legal protections and government programs aren’t enough to help women break through the glass ceiling. Societal norms still play a large role. And as these new studies emphasize, in those terms, we’ve still got a long way to go.
Social norms did not descend to earth from outer space. They correlate with human nature. Ideologues are at war against human nature and they disrespect the free choices that women (and men) make. Fisman is wrong to think that it’s just a matter of reality catching up with ideology. It’s a matter of ideologues who refuse to believe the evidence of their senses.
Ideologues like to complain that they do not live in a 50/50 world. They believe that true equality can only exist when half of the chief executives are female and when half of the housewives are male. Obviously, it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen because neither women nor men want it to happen.
That does not mean that men and women should not have the opportunity to make free choices. But it also means that we ought not to criticize them for making choices that do not correspond to an unrealistic ideology.