When Countries Develop, Women Get Smarter Faster

Photo by the World Wide Web Foundation.

New research suggests that women may benefit more than men from national development. Photo by the World Wide Web Foundation.

We’ve known for a long time that economic, social, and public health conditions influence learning in ways that affect people’s abilities to perform well on memory and math tests. But until now, the impact that improving these conditions could have on men and women’s cognitive abilities was not well understood. A new study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis provides a surprising insight into this process: As nations develop, women’s cognitive performance improves significantly more than men’s does. David DiSalvo reports their findings in Forbes.

The researchers used data from The European Survey of Health obtained through interviews with 31,000 European men and women from ages 50-84 living in 13 different countries. Each country was given a regional development index (RDI). The measure of RDI included gross domestic product (GDP), life expectancy, education, and infant mortality rates. The researchers plotted changes in RDI across the life of each participant, in an effort to demonstrate the economic and social conditions the participants experienced.

The interviews also evaluated three levels of each subject’s cognitive performance. The results followed the expectations of the researchers according to gender, but that changed when RDI entered the equation.

“…when RDI was factored in, a remarkable and less expected result emerged: improvements in RDI for each country correlated with cognitive performance improvements for both genders—but significantly more so for women.”

Simply put, the researchers are saying that women get smarter faster, but the reasons why may be complicated. One possibility is that women gain more because they simply have more to gain. If women start at a disadvantage due to fewer opportunities to learn and to practice cognitive skills, changes in RDI might represent the leveling of a gendered playing field. This leveling might look like an increase for women, even if it results in something closer to equality.

While more research needs to be done to determine the reasons underlying differences in gains between men and women, this study shows the important role played by social factors in determining cognitive performance.

 

Marriage and the Market: How Economic Inequality and Gender Equality Shape Marriage Trends

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Couples who share housework and have equal levels of education are as likely to stay together as couples following traditional gender roles.

In a recent New York Times oped, Stephanie Coontz cites a plethora of sociologists in her discussion of the tug-of-war between gender equality and economic inequality over current marriage trends in America. In her piece, Coontz argues that families have become more egalitarian and stable due to increased gender equality, with women increasingly gaining equal access to education and employment. However, because of the recent recession and the increased income gap, the inequality between families continues to rise. Both forces, she argues, push and pull on the rates of marriage and divorce in American society. She writes:

Sometimes these trends counteract each other, with women’s work gains partly compensating for men’s losses in low-income families. Sometimes they reinforce each other, since the new trend for high-earning men to marry high-earning women increases the relative advantage of such couples over low-income or single-earner families. For all Americans, these trends have changed the rewards, risks, and rules of marriage.

Citing sociologists Christine Schwartz and Hongyun Han, she details how couples who share housework and have equal levels of education are just as likely to stay together as those who subscribe to more traditional gender roles. Husbands have doubled the time they spend doing housework, and the percentage of Americans who believe in the “male-breadwinner” family arrangement has declined significantly. However, these increases in gender equality are counteracted by growing economic instability among families. She cites research by sociologist Philip N. Cohen, as well as a Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, to show how, while the more educated are more likely to get married and stay married, the return on a college education continues to decrease, increasing income inequality and marriage instability. Coontz argues:

While the sexes have become more equal, society as a whole has become far less, producing especially deep losses for young men. In 1969, by the time men reached age 25, three-quarters were earning wages that could support a family of four above the poverty line. By 2004, it took until age 30 for the same percentage of men to reach this income level. And while in 1969 only 10 percent of men ages 30-35 were still low earners, by 2004 almost a quarter of men in that age range remained low earners.

Coontz then turns to sociologist Andrew Cherlin’s book Labor’s Love Lost to discuss the implications of these findings. Cherlin’s book details how two important factors have lead to a decrease in marriage rates among younger generations. First, the decrease in blue-collar work that requires only a high school diploma has significantly affected the ability of lower-income males to fulfill the historical role of bread-winner. Second, the increase in gender equality detailed above has made it so females no longer need a breadwinner in the first place, allowing them to wait for a mate with a stable income or to make that income themselves. Coontz summarizes Cherlin:

Women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling. Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry – even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expense, and even if they have a child – is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.

However, our very own Doug Hartmann qualifies findings that indicate a decline in marriage rates in an interview with CBS Minnesota, saying that even though younger cohorts, especially women, are waiting to pay off their student loans and build their careers before marriage, the desire to get married has not declined. Hartmann says, “When you ask people about their attitudes about marriage, their desires to get married, that doesn’t seem to be in decline. It’s just the timing of it and when it’s happening is getting put off.”

Sociologists across the country are invested in understanding the changing trends in marriage and American family life, and their research has detailed important factors contributing to these trends. Coontz ends her article with an important insight, urging us to consider the stability and equality of the marriage landscape Americans are so often nostalgic for.

If women lowered their expectations to match men’s lower economic prospects, perhaps marriage would be more common in low-income communities. But it would most likely be even less stable, and certainly less fair. Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families – at almost all income levels – than turning back the gender revolution.

See more of Coontz, Cohen, and other sociologists of family life, including Coontz’s piece on how religious affiliation affects marriage rates, at the Council of Contemporary Families’ blog Families As They Really Are.

 

Urban Planners in Zaragoza Test the Waters

The aqueducts in Segovia were one solution to Spain's need for water. But they're not the only one. Photo by Paulo Guerra via Flickr.

The aqueducts in Segovia were one solution to Spain’s need for water. But they’re not the only one. Photo by Paulo Guerra via Flickr.

Spain has always gone to great lengths to meet its high demand for water, but when faced with a shortage, the town of Zaragoza took a different approach. When severe droughts in the early 1990s caused reservoirs to dry up, forest fires to rage, and crops to wither, it became clear that the inland city would not be able to meet their high demand. Víctor Viñuales, the director and co-founder of the Spanish NGO Fundación Ecología y Desarrollo (Ecology and Development Foundation), used his understanding of sociology to devise an innovative solution. He tells The Guardian:

“Trained as a sociologist, Viñuales wondered what would happen if municipalities focused less on making sure residents had access to all the water they wanted and more on reducing demand. From that thought began a 15-year experiment in Zaragoza that has revolutionised how many in Spain – from locals to public officials – think about water management.”

Viñuales lead an ambitious project that began with a challenge to the city’s citizens to save 1 billion liters of water in a year. He used a widespread media and social outreach campaign, offered free audits to help find water saving opportunities, gave discounts on water saving products, and even changed the city’s water bills so citizens could track their changes in usage. Zaragoza stepped up to the challenge.

“Today Viñuales rattles off statistic after statistic to show how this city of 700,000 has transformed itself. Between 1997 and 2012, per capita use of water in Zaragoza dropped from 150 litres/day to 99 litres/day. The drop even sustained an increase in population; between 1997 and 2008, the city’s population grew by 12% but daily water use dropped by 27%.”

Viñuales was able to use both social and economic factors to effect the lives of the people of Zaragoza and make a huge stride forward in sustainability. While he acknowledges the success he has seen, he reminds us that “To achieve profound change – whether it be environmental, social or cultural – you have to be prepared to take it on for the long haul. Here in Zaragoza we’ve had that profound change. The population grew, but we use fewer resources than before. It’s really what needs to be achieved on a global level.”

 

 

Stephen Colbert Welcomes Trans-Caucasians

What do you get when you cross University of Minnesota Sociology professor Carolyn Liebler, census data, and issues of identity? This segment on the Colbert Report.

The Colbert Report               The Word – A Darker Shade of Pale

 

In this segment, the Comedy Central satirist pulled a quote from Liebler’s research:

“2.5 million Americans who said they were Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000…a decade later, told the census they were Hispanic and white.”

Of course, Colbert went on to explain his version of these findings, that Hispanics were voluntarily becoming white. Colbert points out that white people live in the best neighborhoods and get the best jobs, among other things. With that logic, the pundit suggests, why not “choose” to be white?

From a sociological perspective, he might have something there. Issues of identity are fluid and ever-changing in society. Looking at such a large change in the census data provokes questions as to why this variation in identity exists. In an interview with NPR, Liebler drew a parallel to her work studying Native American identity.

 “Between 1960 and 1970, nearly a half-million more Americans identified themselves as Native American — a number that was too large to be explained by mere population growth, she said. Something else had to explain it.”

Liebler says there’s more work to be done to understand these changing numbers. In the meantime, though, sociologist-in-training Stephen Colbert wants everyone to know that anyone is welcome…to identify as white.

The Overblown Myth of the Boomerang Generation

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They don’t come back as often as you think. Photo by Paleontour via Flickr.

Isn’t it ironic that “much of our ‘independence,’ where it exists, is made possible by supports and resources that have been provided by others”? In an interview with the Washington Post, Oregon State’s Richard A. Settersten, Jr. calls attention to one important instance of this irony: the rigid tie between the “independence” of young people and leaving the home. For Settersten, Jr., common (and paranoid) misunderstandings about “permanent” and “alarming” generational trends in living at home are problematic not simply because they are inaccurate, but because they point to a misguided ideal of “independence.”

To clarify how patterns in young adult living arrangements have varied over time, he notes:

This isn’t new. If we look back over the last century, we can see that the rush out of the parental home was a post-World War II phenomenon, and proportions have been growing since 1970…. What’s remarkable about the early adult years today is not that young people live with parents but that they live without a spouse…. Marriage and parenting now culminate the process of becoming adult rather than start it.

Settersten, Jr. also clarifies who chooses to live at home and why. He indicates that men of every age group are more likely to live with parents, mentioning their higher rates of dropping out of school, unemployment, and a higher average age of marriage as possible reasons why. Individuals of disadvantaged groups also tend to live at home at greater rates—possibly because they are more likely to live in high-cost metropolitan areas or because young people in their culture are expected to contribute to family resources. Moreover, according to Settersten, Jr.,

For many families, living at home is a strategic choice that permits young adults to attend or reduce the cost of higher education, take internships, or create a nest egg. (It may also be necessary for paying down student loans.) For them, it’s not about being locked out of the labor market, but about building a more secure economic future.

So before tossing aside the “boomerang generation” as dependent “failures to launch,” consider how peculiar it is “that we expect young people to somehow strive for complete independence when those of us who are no longer young realize that adult life is heavily conditioned by relationships with other people.” Settersten, Jr. has a point.

To learn how this notion of independence is affecting older adults, check out Stacy Torres’s article on Families as They Really Are.

For a different take on the role of the economy in millenials’ living arrangements, see this article by Lisa Wade.

If you’re a teacher, here’s a great lesson by Kia Heise to start a class conversation about living alone as a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood.

Marriage or the Baby Carriage

Photo by Rob Tom via Flickr.

There are more married mothers among millenial women with college degrees. Photo by rob tom via Flickr.

Differences in education level lead to dramatically different views on when to become a parent, according to new research. John Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin shows that millennial women with college educations are more likely to wait until they are married before they have children than women without a college degree. In an interview with Sarah Kliff of Vox, Cherlin explains:

“We’re seeing the emergence two very different paths to adulthood. Among young adults without college educations, most of their childbearing is in their twenties and the majority of it is outside of marriage. That includes people who have gotten a two-year associate’s degree. The dividing line is the four-year degree. The vast majority of people with that college degree are having children in marriage. We didn’t see this 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t see these sharp differences between the college graduates and non-graduates.”

This trend concerns Cherlin, as it could lead to a more unstable family life for the children of unmarried parents with a high school education. He sees a lack of middle-skill jobs as the cause of their financial instability. This leads to their higher rate of breaking up and ultimately reinforces economic inequalities between education groups. Parents who have a college education are less likely to get divorced, since they are the couples who are more likely to have two steady incomes.

When asked if we could turn this worrisome trend around, Cherlin posits:

“It depends on if you think we can turn the middle of the job market around, and if we can find productive employment for high school graduates. If that happens, then I think we have a chance of reversing the instability we’re seeing in family lives. I also think that it might be a good idea to promote a message that one should wait to have children until one is in a stable marriage.”

That said, providing an alternative vision of a future where the high-school and college-educated alike can navigate the new economy could lead to greater family stability for their kids.

 

Baby-onic Plague

Photo by maxime delrue via Flickr.

Women may “catch” pregnancy from their friends. Photo by maxime delrue via Flickr.

A study coauthored by Bocconi University’s Nicolleta Balbo and University of Groningen’s Nicola Barban has unearthed a potential new contagion: babies.

The Chicago Tribune reports on the study of women’s friendships and potential child birthing saying,

…After one of the women in each friendship pair had a baby, the likelihood that her friend would also have her first baby went up for about two years, and then declined.

Balbo and Barban focus on high school friends, analyzing 1,170 women in a longitudinal study beginning in the 1990s. During the study, 820 of the participants became parents, having their first child at an average age of 27.

Balbo identifies three mechanisms that might contribute to the seemingly significant amount of influence between friends. First, she discusses social influence. This hinges on the idea that we constantly compare ourselves to people around us, including friends, and may be pressured to conform to their behavior. The second mechanism Balbo proposes is social learning. Watching a friend go through parenthood may arm prospective parents with knowledge and make them more comfortable fulfilling the parent role themselves. The third mechanism focuses on cost-sharing dynamics. Being in a similar life circumstance with friends can help reduce both costs and stress.

The study has been critiqued for not incorporating larger social networks and assuming that friendships can be studied in dyads.  Either way, I’ll think twice the next time I find a baby shower invitation in my mailbox!

Starbucks Brews Plan to Fund College Tuition

Photo by Francisco Gonzalez via Flickr.

Starbucks responds to employees’ lack of affordable education choices. Photo by Francisco Gonzalez via Flickr.

Last month, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appeared on the Daily Show to discuss a new partnership with Arizona State University that will allow workers to earn an online degree while still keeping their day jobs. Schultz was happy to announce that the coffee corporation would be the “first U.S. company to provide free college tuition for all [its] employees.”

However, ASU clarified that Starbucks won’t actually provide any money to help its employees afford their education. Rather, workers will have the chance to enroll in ASU’s online programs at a greatly reduced price, but will still have to pay for the remaining costs out of their own pockets, with student loans, or via federal aid.

The “Starbucks Scholarship” won’t be awarded upfront, but the company does plan to reimburse students after they pay for, and complete, their first 21 credits. Applying for financial aid can be time consuming and complex, and sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab argues that a “wholly online education is of questionable value for low-income students…[E]specially when such students are required to pay for those first 21 credits before they qualify for reimbursement.”

During this time, ASU online will likely make a profit off incoming students who are paying for their education with financial aid—continuing what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom describes as a “long and shady history” of companies making money off public funds.

It’s hard to be fully cynical about the Starbucks Scholarship since it will likely open the (virtual) doors for many students to earn a college degree. Nonetheless, the plan hardly addresses the structural problem of an unaffordable education system. In his interview with Jon Stewart, Schultz likened the tuition benefits to employee-provided health care—a comparison journalist David Perry isn’t keen about:

The development of health care as an employee benefit rather than a universal right has been a disaster for America, leading to high costs and poor results. Yes, the employees are much better off with health care than without, much as some workers will benefit from the new tuition policy. But if making college affordable becomes a job perk, rather than a societal goal, we’re collectively worse off.

Pantene Urges Women to Stop Being Sorry—But Were They in the First Place?

It seems that female empowerment is an advertiser’s new best friend. Just look at Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, Always’ #LikeAGirl, and CoverGirl’s #GirlsCan, each boasting millions of views: now Pantene is getting in on the action with its new commercial, Not Sorry.

The ad challenges women to stop apologizing reflexively. In general, viewers have reacted positively, but, as one article in The Atlantic suggests, there may be more to the story of “sorry.” The author suggests:

“One of the major problems with all this—besides the one embedded in the insistent equation of apology with weakness, and stubbornness with strength—is that “sorry” is, at this point, pretty much meaningless.”

So, is “sorry” meaningless or misunderstood? Take sociologist Erving Goffman’s characteristics of an apology: “expression of embarrassment or chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct has been expected and sympathizes with the application of negative sanction; verbal rejection, repudiation, and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self that so behaved.” The Atlantic points out that these qualities aren’t present in the average, off-hand apology, like the ones featured in the video.

Of course, the author continues, the reflexive apology may just be an additional use of the word, rather than a constant expression of patriarchal oppression. In 1997, Deborah Levi proposed four types of apologies:

  • “‘Tactical” (acknowledging the victim’s suffering in order to gain credibility and influence the victim’s bargaining behavior)
  • “‘Explanation” (attempting to excuse the offender’s behavior and make the other party understand that behavior)
  • “Formalistic” (capitulating to the demand of an authority figure)
  • “Happy-ending” (accepting responsibility and expressing regret for the bad act)

Still, Pantene’s commercial doesn’t seem to show any of these kinds of “sorries.” Instead, one New York Times article specifies these apologies as “gestural.” Linguist Deborah Tannen tells The Times,

“Language almost never means what the dictionary definition says; it’s used the way others use it — as a ritual. But those who don’t share the ritual tend to take the words literally. Since American men don’t tend to use ‘sorry’ this way, they mistakenly take women’s use of it literally, as an apology.”

It seems sorry might be misunderstood by both apologizers and the recipients of those apologies—heartfelt or tossed-off. Ending women’s casual response apologies might promote empowerment, sure, but the very concept of the over-apologizing woman may actually be nothing more than a stereotype,as The Atlantic asks, is the notion of women as being overly apologetic could be “yet another label, yet another double standard that sticks, stubbornly, to women?”

A Tornado’s Aftermath: Predicting Community Change in the Wake of Natural Disaster

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Tornadoes don’t discriminate. Photo by Marsmett Talahassee via Flickr.

The slew of tornadoes that recently hit the midwest nearly destroyed the small Nebraska town of Pilger. Twin tornadoes took out the town’s post office, fire station, and dozens of homes and businesses. Pilger is known for its slogan “The little town too tough to die,” but the devastation caused to this small community of 378 residents has the Omaha Herald looking to rural sociologist Randy Cantrell for answers to the question of this town’s survival. From the Omaha Herald:

Businesses and families in Pilger will decide what’s in their individual best interests, said Randy Cantrell, a rural sociologist at the Rural Futures Institute. Nothing else — including a community’s geographic location or population — matters as much in determining whether a place lives or dies, he said.

Cantrell goes on to argue that the aging population of Pilger is an important variable to consider, saying that almost one-third of the homes damaged in Pilger were owned or occupied by single people over 65. “That probably makes it iffy whether they rebuild or return,’’ he said. Speaking of the whole community, the article summarizes Cantrell:

Residents of all ages have many things to consider, Cantrell said. Among them are the age of their damaged houses, how much of an insurance payout they receive, where other family members reside and whether their jobs remain in town. Businesses pondering their future will consider that if they moved they would be starting over in a new market with no guarantee of success.

The residents of Pilger and nearby towns expressed confidence in the town’s ability to rebuild, citing the successful recovery of another small Nebraska town, Hallam, that was similarly devastated by a tornado in 2004. Given that no factor matters more, the community’s determination to rise from the wreckage may prove that not even a tornado can kill the tough little town.

For more on the sociology of natural disasters, check out this Sociological Images chart detailing how humans cause tornadoes and this SSN brief on how to better respond to natural disasters.