The translation of research into public information is a tricky one. I personally am a bit terrified of the day a reporter decides to write about one of my studies—it seems all too common that such articles are rife with misunderstanding (or possibly intentional misinterpretations) of a study. I understand that reporters cannot possibly be experts on every field they write about, so I try not to judge them for misinterpreting a finding or not recognizing the limitations of a study. I also realize the reporters want to tell a compelling story and may highlight the things that will create the biggest stir. When I am reading a newspaper article that is summarizing the results of a recent study I try to keep these things in mind. If I am being especially diligent (which I will admit, I am not always so) I find the original article and read it myself. Unless I read the original study or report, I don’t completely trust the way it is presented in online. Call me a skeptic.
So earlier this week when a colleague posted a link on Facebook to an article in the Washington Post he was interviewed for, I was interested in learning more. Right away I had some concerns about the conclusions the article was making. The title read:
“A woman’s success damages a male partner’s ego, says a new study”
Why would I possibly have any problems with that?
Here’s the thing—in addition to not expecting reporters to be experts in psychological research, I also understand that they will often write sensational headlines to try to click-bait the reader. I get it—an interesting headline can grab someone’s attention (um…did you see the headline for this blog?).
But honestly, that headline is not all that exciting or new, at least probably not to most women in the USA. I have been hearing some version of that line for much of my life. And it is not just me. In my research with adolescent girls, many of them have told me that girls in their high school “act dumb” because boys don’t want to date a girl who is smarter than them.
But, I read the article anyway. And it became clear that the headline is not only trite, it is just plain wrong—that in fact is not what the study found.
I know, because I read the actual study, which reported on the findings of five experiments comparing men who imagined (or were told about) their partner's success on some task with those who partner's supposedly failed.
I won't dive into a full critique of the study and its findings, but I will summarize some important points. In all 5 experiments, there were no significant differences in the explicit self-esteem between men who were told their partners failed and those who were told their partners were successful. Meaning the title could have just as easily read "Men's self-esteem is unaffected by female partner's success, according to new study." Of the five studies, three of those that reported differences in the mean implicit self-esteem of men who thought about their partners being successful compared to men who thought about their partners failing were barely or marginally significant (p=.08, p=.04, p=.048). In study 4 and 5, men who thought about their partner succeeding had a lower implicit self-esteem than the overall mean and men who thought about their partner failing had a HIGHER implicit self-esteem than the overall mean. Why wasn't the title "Men get a secret kick out of their partner's failures, says new study"? Finally, none of the experiments actually examined a change in self-esteem as the Washington Post implied. Really they looked at two different groups of men. In study 5, they included a control group and found that the men who imagined their partner's success differed from the men who imagined their partner's failure--but neither of these differed significantly from the control group.
Before I begin to sound too critical, let me just say that research studies always have limitations--even a study which included five experiments. The reporter also did a lot of things right. She included information about the study's methods and interviewed a number of experts who commented on the findings. Dr. Rochlen and Dr. O'Neil are well respected in the field of psychology of men and masculinity and helped to provide some context in which to understand the (supposed) findings. Some men may indeed feel threatened by women's success if they embrace traditional stereotypes about gender roles.
But ultimately, the title (and the take home message) presumed something that the study did not even find. Which is problematic because people trust research, they trust respected news sources, and they especially trust respected news sources that report about research. Sometimes more than they should. Heck, if we read an article in the Washington Post titled : "A martian is eating your brain right now and you don’t even know it, says a new study" we might pause and wonder. Is a martian eating my brain?
That ridiculous analogy aside, an article that misrepresents research in such a way that confirms social stereotypes is much more dangerous. People are less likely to question the article if it fits with assumptions they already hold or stereotypes they often hear from others. These kind of stereotypes are bad for women and men. The idea that men's egos are damaged when their female partners succeed is used an an argument to prevent women from having access to power and to discourage men from (vocally) supporting women. As Rochlen points out in the Post article, pressure to conform to rigid traditional masculinity norms (such as believing that men should be more successful than women) has been associated with a number of physical and psychological consequences for men. And while there certainly are some men who adopt such ideas there are plenty of men whose self-esteems are in no way damaged by their partners' success. But as long as researchers and reporters focus only on telling new versions of the same old story, stereotypes will be continually perpetuated and other perspectives and experiences will be minimized, ignored, or suppressed.
Just for a change of pace, I thought it would be useful to give those men's voices a little representation. I asked men who support their successful female partners to share their thoughts with me. These statements are just a small representation from a (very) convenient sample and I am in no way arguing that these men's feelings are the norm. But they do exist and deserve to be heard.
But you don't have to just take my word for it. Here is a sample of quotes sent my way:
"I am very happy for my wife's success in multiple areas. It helps her, it helps me, it helps us as a partnership when one or both of us is doing well and supporting each other."
“I love it. It makes me happy both because it makes her happy and it demonstrates that she is being recognized for her professional development. The challenge we often find is that, when looking for new jobs, one of us will have to make a sacrifice in our career. So as we job search our stated goal is to go wherever the best job is. If she gets a good job, I'll follow her, and vice versa. But that means one of us will likely struggle in a new place, or we can't go someplace that doesn't provide opportunities for both of us. That is what happened to her when we moved here and it really bothers me. Overall I want her to have success and I could care less if she is more successful than me.”
"The article has a very particular conception of success... I would argue that [my wife's] success far surpasses mine. The article's conception of success diminishes her by defining success very narrowly."
"I love that my wife is successful, in many respects, including financially, more so than myself. I am glad that all her hard work is paying off and she is an example to me. When I feel like work or life in general is hard or tiresome, I just look at her example, if she can do it, so can I."
"As a family, I feel we both celebrate the successes in our lives."
“Yeah, um, no. Sorry Post, my wife's kicking ass, taking names and (to the chagrin of others) my ego is completely intact.”
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.