Do women really make men better?

KATY WALDMAN
Last updated 11:57 26/11/2013
Gender

CHARITABLE APPEARANCES: Apparently men donate more to charity when a beautiful woman is watching.

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The December issue of the Atlantic features a grand roundup of studies on "How Women Change Men." The results presented will probably not explode your brain with wonder. Most of the studies basically confirm that our interactions with specific people shape our beliefs about the categories - ethnic, gender, etc. - those people belong to.

So men with lots of female colleagues tend to pick up more housework at home, likely because they view women as equal partners rather than Windex-powered service robots. Men with daughters subscribe less frequently to traditional gender roles and disagree more often with the statement, "A woman's place is in the home." (Yet men with sisters are more attracted to the old norms, perhaps because they've used macho/feminine orthodoxy in the past to differentiate themselves from their siblings.)

And men with wives who don't work bring their conservative notions with them to the office, tending to "disapprove of women in the workplace, judge organisations with more female employees to be operating less smoothly, and show less interest in applying to companies led by female executives." They also - ick - "frequently deny promotions to qualified women."

A recent Gallup poll, not mentioned in the Atlantic summary, echoed these themes: Men with female bosses are less likely to prefer working for guys. And one of the included studies is genuinely neat: It found that while "male CEOS typically pay their employees less and themselves more after having sons," "male CEOs with firstborn daughters actually pay their employees more."

This idea that a womanly presence can soften the menfolk has a long history in literature and myth - remember Pocahontas interceding before her father for John Smith's life? But it is strange - and not necessarily positive - to see it borne out by science.

But what about the other piece of the puzzle? Amid all this careful detailing of how exactly women influence and modify men, what's the word on how men amend women?

I went around searching for studies, but all I uncovered were more pieces like the Atlantic's. Did you know that, when women are around, men find it easier to run; they eat more calories; they talk more; they take more risks; and they experience more "cognitive impairment?" Did you know that men donate more to charity when a beautiful woman is watching? That men try to save money in the company of available women? That men with daughters vote more liberally? That having sisters predisposes men toward generosity?

But what about how having sons might affect the business practices of female CEOs? Might being observed by a guy make a woman run faster, take greater risks or donate more money? Information about whether, for instance, girls speak up less in co-ed classrooms is out there, but it doesn't get nearly as much play in the press - and the framing is almost always "this is how women react to their own awareness of a man's presence."

So what does this mean? Is it somehow troubling that we rarely encounter studies that use ladies as experimental subjects, and guys as inputs? Or should we embrace our status as independent variables (which sounds exciting, like a mix between a Beyonce song and a spy mission)? Does our independent variable-ness speak to our girl power, or to ongoing male power? Someone should do a study.

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