It took Newsweek 20 years to admit that its famous cover story proclaiming that women over 40 have a greater chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married was bogus. Journalism professor and author Caryl Rivers identifies faulty studies aimed at scaring affluent, successful women and discusses why the media loves to hype horror stories.

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by Caryl Rivers

Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House and Hillary Clinton is a major contender for the presidency. According to the U.S. Labor depart, 40 percent of managerial jobs are held by women, who also fill the majority of seats in college classrooms.

But a strange paradox affects the American news media today. The more that women advance in the worlds of business, academia and law, the gloomier the news about them and their achievements becomes.

I have been tracking these major media narratives over the past decade for my new book, “Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women.”

The new message is not that women can’t achieve (except in math and science.) It’s that if women do achieve, they’ll be miserable -– as will their children.

It’s astonishing how often this message is repackaged and replayed. These scare stories become “Chain Reaction” stories — jumping from newspaper headline to magazine cover to TV nightly news to 24-hour cable.

Often the stories are wrapped in a veneer of “research,” but all too often the science is badly skewed. To an appalling degree, news stories overhype the findings of a small single study that seems to spell bad news for achieving women, or give prime news space to studies which are poorly designed, do not reflect a broad base of research, or misinterpret findings.

The result is that readers can come to believe that “science” decrees that men don’t like smart women, or that day care ruins children.

The saga of the unhappy career woman illustrates the trend perfectly. The news media are absolutely intrigued by the idea that working women, especially high-achieving women, have terrible love lives and lousy sex.

For example, in the winter of 2005, citing a pair of studies, the Chicago Sun Times headlined “They’re Too Smart for These Guys,” and The New York Times proclaimed there were “Glass Ceilings at Altar as Well as Boardroom.” Columnist Maureen Dowd chimed in, “Men Just Want Mommy” — asking whether the feminist movement was “some sort of cruel hoax.” She wrote, “The more women achieve, the less desirable they are?”

But is this true? Do men reject achieving women? Not at all.

The first study that fed the headlines showed that for every 15-point increase in IQ score above the average, women’s likelihood of marrying fell by almost 60 percent.

Atlantic headlined, in its April 2005 issue, “Too Smart to Marry?” Really bad news for bright women, right?

In fact, no. What nearly all the stories failed to report is that the study was originally done in the 1930s on men and women born in 1921; the women are all now in their 80s. The data have no relevance whatsoever to today’s working women.

The other study was done on a very small sample (120) of college freshmen males, who were asked whether they preferred a fictitious female — described as either their immediate supervisor, a peer or an assistant — as a dating or marriage partner. Surprise, surprise! The freshman males preferred the subordinate over the peer and over the supervisor when it came to dating and mating. This was hyped as evidence of what “men like” in women.

But was the study a barometer of adult male preferences — or of teenage boys’ ambivalence about strong women? Clearly the latter, given the facts about what adult men actually do. Men do not reject achieving women. Quite the opposite.

Sociologist Valerie Oppenheimer of UC Berkeley reports that today men are choosing as mates women who have completed their education. The more education a woman has, the more marriageable she is.

And Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic Policy Research found that women between the ages of 28 and 35 who work full time and earn more than $55,000 per year or have a graduate or professional degree are just as likely to be successfully married as other working women.

But this story just won’t die. Forbes.com exhumed it in the fall of 2006 in an article by editor Michael Noer headlined “Don’t Marry Career Women” and subtitled “How do women, careers and marriage mix? Not well, say social scientists.” The article was accompanied by a slide show purporting to show the “social science” on which the piece was based. Most of it either irrelevant to the issue of men’s happiness or just plain wrong.

A major new analysis of data from a study of dual-earner couples that was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health and directed by Rosalind Barnett, Ph.D., of Brandeis utterly contradicts the Forbes thesis that men will be unhappy if they marry career women.

The study, which looks at men’s marital happiness, finds that among dual-earner couples, as she works more, his marital quality goes up. Why so? Probably for a number of reasons.

Men’s wages have been stagnant or declining for nearly 20 years, so her income may be easing financial tensions and making it possible for the couple to pay their bills. Her enhanced earnings may be heightening her self-esteem, and so she brings these good feelings about herself into the marriage. He may want to spend more time with the family, and her work eases the breadwinning burden. Research tells us that men today do want more family time and are actually spending more time with their families than they used to.

But will men who marry career women have terrible sex lives? Noer seems to suggest this, though he doesn’t say so outright.

Atlantic Monthly columnist Caitlin Flanagan was more direct. She decreed that feminism was “a bust” because, today, gobs and gobs of working women are just too tired to have sex. And a New York Magazine cover story on mothers ran this subhead blazoned across a page: “Since she left the rat race, her sex life has changed: It’s definitely better.”

Is it true that achieving women and their partners have terrible sex? No. One longitudinal study of 500 couples by the University of Wisconsin’s Janet Hyde found that for both men and women, the highest sexual satisfaction was among couples who both worked and experienced high rewards from their jobs. A good job, it seems, is good for your sex life, whether you are male or female.

Since this storyline about the unhappy achiever is almost always untrue, why do the news media keep falling for it? Because the new media climate is a marketing climate, and editors need to create “buzz” around stories in a hyper-competitive arena.

Today, one of the most desirable demographics among news customers is affluent women, and stories that create anxiety over women and achievement sell well to that demographic. The news media today sell anxiety to women the way that advertising sells insecurity about their faces, bodies and sex appeal.

Will this change? Probably not. After all, it took Newsweek 20 years to admit that its famous cover story in 1986 claiming that women over 40 have more chance of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married was absolutely bogus.

Critics at the time said that the story misread the study it was based on. But the “terrorist” line showed up everywhere, even in dialogue from “Sleepless in Seattle.” It is still immortal, living forever in the inner recesses of the Internet.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston university and the author of “Selling Anxiety: How The News Media Scare Women” (University Press of New England, 2007)

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  • Carolyn Hahn May 16, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Christina, I think you said it better than I did–it’s hooey, it’s a fantasy that these articles exploited and it all comes down to this, circa 1987: a woman’s desirability is OVER at 40. So if she’s not married then, she really may not exist at all. What happened over the last 20 years is, women realized they might not stop existing at age 40, and they might have a shot at defining themselves (hey, I make a living, I have friends, why do I have to be “married” to exist in society’s eyes?).
    I must be a freak–my mother died at 39 and I lived every year till then under a little cloud. The second I passed the magic age, I could relax–I was living, and every year after that was a year she didn’t have, but I did. I was so grateful (my brothers, it turned out, felt the same way, but of course society doesn’t judge men’s age the same way).

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  • christina May 12, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Have we seen a study on how good the sex is for married couples where the woman is not high-achieving (however absurdly achieving is defined)? I can imagine a man (or lots of them) who is not a creative lover believing his wife’s career is the reason he isn’t getting any. The real reason: she’s bored and work is, at least, interesting. Statistics can be used to tell any tale the teller wants told. Perhaps the reason women who are high achievers don’t get married is less about her work and more about her confidence. She knows she can throw a party and wear any dress she wants so she isn’t so driven by that white dress fantasy. And that leaves out one big motivator to marriage. Without that, why marry if you don’t feel the bite of love? I’m married (not b/c of the white dress) so maybe not the best judge but what’s wrong with single exactly? All that possibility and privacy. I agree with you all though, the premise of these articles is just hooey. More about getting readers than making a point. Plenty of women get married in their 50s, 60s, 70s if that’s what they want to do. I have a great Aunt who got married (to a man 15 years younger) at 82 because that’s when she fell in love. She outlived him. Life is what you make it.

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  • Carolyn Hahn May 7, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    That stupid article appeared when I was in my early 20’s, and it freaked me and everyone else I knew out. More chances of getting killed by a terrorist than of getting married after the advanced age of 40.
    Fortunately, by the time I hit my late 30’s, I realized some of it was me. People who want to get married…do.

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  • eric May 4, 2007 at 10:32 am

    Recent research suggests that marriages are increasingly taking place between people of similar socioeconomic status and educational achievement. While this may lead to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it hardly implies that women are more likely to find mates if they avoid college and don’t rise above the secretarial level.
    Poor women, especially African American women, are the ones less likely to marry because of a diminished pool of eligible men caused by the high rates of premature deaths, incarceration, and unemployment and under employment of a large percentage of minority men. I would also hazard to guess that highly successful African American women are less likely to find mates of comparable status.
    To the extent that women are attending college in greater numbers than men it is probably due to the fact that the percentage of African American women attending and completing college is far greater than amongst African American men. This can only be corrected by establishing policies and programs designed to increase the educational opportunities for minority men.

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  • Katie May 3, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    It’s always amazing to me what TV news chooses to hype. A discrimating viewer starts getting queasy just from a teaser that she can tell is going to blow something way out of proportion.
    The problem is that we lack an accessible discourse of science in America. What we need is to have scientists on these programs explaining/justifying their methods — rather than having talking heads grab whatever research fits their needs at the moment.
    The same is true for discourses of politics and culture in America. Instead of getting professional academics to break down the issues of the day, we get photogenic pundits who are talented only in the soundbite and the hype.

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  • Jessica May 3, 2007 at 11:42 am

    That Forbes.com column was the most outrageous piece of drivel I think I’ve read in a year. If you go to the link now, you’ll see a counterpoint column, but that wasn’t the case when it was first published. Only after Forbes heard from crowds of women (many of whom blogged this story) did it bother to include another perspective.

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