Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Getting the Girl

Picking up from my last post, I am going to tell you about one of the most interesting hypotheses that rattles around in my head over the years. At least, it’s been interesting to me. And what are blogs for but for sharing? I have not written about this hypothesis before but I’ve mentioned it in many talks over the years. Before getting into it, you should know that this is a pretty naked theory about differences between men and women (not a theory about nakedness, though it’s related). Naked theories—I mean blunt-right-out-there-saying-there-are-some-important-differences between men and women—tend to be disturbing to many social scientists. Some of that reluctance to talk bluntly about sex differences has to do with the fact that such differences are very often over-emphasized beyond all relation to the actual findings. Some of the resistance to talking about such sex differences is more ideological—coming from a desire in some to stress equivalence over differences. As I made clear in earlier posts about sacrifice and oxytocin and sex differences, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about average differences and tendencies, but any given male or female can be an exception. Okay, caveat and qualification time is over. Let the thinking begin.

First, a tiny bit of data: There is growing evidence that, in many ways, women are outpacing men when it comes to various types of achievement, including as reflected in things like the number of men and women in college, the number completing college, the number seeking and getting advanced degrees, and the number having and keeping jobs, with or without college. For example, as noted in my last post, the average college campus now has 56% to 44% females to males. The ratio of females to males has steadily gone up in the past few decades. There are more women in college than men—and more women will graduate—in most wealthy nations. Here’s an interesting little nugget: By 2001-02, the percent of women graduating with business degrees was 50% where it has been only 9.1 % in 1970-01 (see). Women have also overtaken men in graduating with honors (see). If you want to read a variety of theories about what’s going on, see one of those two links I just noted. By the way, it’s not that men are less likely than ever before to go to college; rather, it’s that women have rapidly overtaken them when it comes to things like going to college, excelling, and completing college.

A very important point before we go further here: There are very good, clear reasons why women are advancing in all kinds of ways, and that is all to the good. It’s the gains relative to the efforts of males that I’m most interested in here. The difference in motivation and outcomes has also led to a bit of crisis for achieving women: How can you find a male-mate who matches up on achievement? This is not only an issue related to college and degrees, but you can hear similar concerns raised by less educated, steadily employed women who sometimes have trouble finding men who are similarly employed and producing income. (And, lest anyone accuse me of being simple, let me just say that this last point is very complicated by massive changes in the availability of different types of jobs in our economy. But that’s not my main focus here. I’m also not touching income disparities right now. But if you want to go there in the context of these types of points, see this link and this link. But do come back, because I have an idea you won’t see in these other links.)

So, my premise, shared by a growing number of folks is that women are now outstripping men in achievement motivation. If you believe that, we’re good to go on my theory of why. If you don’t believe that, well, you shouldn’t really care why I think that may, in part, be the case.

Time for the naked sex theory (pun unintentional, but intentionally left in): Men are slowly but steadily achieving less relative to women, in part, because they no longer have to achieve like they used to in order to “get the girl.” There, I said it. And I believe it. I don’t believe this the whole story, but I believe it is part of the story. The other parts are sprinkled throughout the earlier links I gave.

Men used to have to achieve more to get a woman. They had to show drive and economic potential, and they had to step it up in terms of commitment to the relationship. It’s always made tons of sense for women to hold out until they see evidence of responsibility and achievement (like education, a steady job, a ring, marriage, etc.) because women have been more vulnerable if things go wrong (women have babies and men do not, and it seems to still be true). So, all I’m sayin is that men are, in this present day, much more able to have sexual relationships with women without putting up achievement. When he had to achieve more to “get the girl,” the average male did so.

Am I saying that males are shallow and only interested in sex without commitment? No. In fact, I don’t think of the average male that way at all. However, I believe that societal changes of all sorts are contributing to an environment where men have less motivation than in the past to achieve and commit. And, if you think about it, that would also add more pressure to women to do all the more in terms of their own achievement so that they do not have to rely on men like they used to. Again, this part is a great trend for women and their opportunities that may, in part, be related to some not so great trends for men. And, in case you already thought this far, I’m not “blaming the victim” by suggesting that women are having trouble finding similarly motivated men because they give in too much sexually. I am saying that large changes in society have conspired to put both men and women in a tight spot when it comes to both achievement, mating, and the development of commitment that benefits both. Many of the changes are good, but some changes have resulted in complex dynamics that are not good.

Alright, think that over. If you want to read more that goes this direction, try this piece by Mark Regnerus, the sociologist I mentioned in my last post. He arrived at the essence of the same hypothesis I just presented here: that men are lagging in achievement motivation because sex has become more available at low levels of effort—for men. He wrote cogently about this in a piece in the online magazine, Slate (click here).

Go ahead. Indulge the idea that there might be some differences in the sexes that matter when it comes to sexual activity and achievement.