Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unpleasant research on unpleasant experiences

This New York Times blog post promises to tell us "Why Women Find Their Parents Unpleasant."

If you click the link, you'll see a graph with blue and pink bars showing how often men and women have "unpleasant" experiences with their bosses, co-workers, parents, spouses, children, and friends, and when alone (as a percentage of the total time spent in each of those situations). The researchers' term for these unpleasant experiences is the "U-index," which means how much of the time people report that they "feel more stressed, sad or in pain than they feel happy."

Catherine Rampell (the author of the blog post) sums up the findings:

It’s probably no surprise that people find spending time with their bosses . . . to be most unpleasant. Almost a third of the time that women spend around their bosses feels unpleasant; for men, nearly half of the time spent around supervisors is unpleasant. It’s also probably no surprise that hanging out with friends — the people we choose to spend time with — is least unpleasant.

For most of the categories, men and women report being in an unpleasant state about the same portion of the time. But the biggest divergences relate to spending time with family, and not in the way that stereotypes of feminine domestic bliss might predict: Women appear much less happy when spending time with their children and parents than men do.
Though these findings would seem not to be very flattering to women, Rampell cleverly spins them the other way:
[W]hen women are spending time with their children, they are more likely to be doing chores and handling child care, which can both be relatively stressful activities. When men spend time with their children, on the other hand, they spend relatively more time watching television and traveling — more leisurely activities.

The biggest gap relates to how men and women feel when spending time with their parents. When men are around their parents, they are in an unpleasant state about 7 percent of the time. Women find being around their parents to be unpleasant 27 percent of the time.

Again, some of this can be explained by what men versus women are likely to be doing when they’re with their parents. . . . [W]omen are more likely to be tasked with caring for their elderly or disabled parents than their male counterparts are.
So, Rampell seems to be following my mom's rule on how to research findings on gender:
[I]f you're going to explain gender difference, you've got to assume that whatever the women are doing is good, and it's the men who have the problem.
Can there be any doubt that if the research had instead showed that men find it unpleasant to be with their parents almost 4 times as often women, this would have been reported in the New York Times in a way that would (still) praise women and criticize men?

But I'll give Rampell credit for not just going with the above politically correct explanations. She emphasizes the study's finding that
[e]ven if you control for these different types of activities — that is, even when both genders are engaging in the exact same labors or pastimes with their kin — there are still "sizable differences in the U-index between men and women when they are in the company of their parents or children."
I honestly don't know what explains this. But here's one hypothesis by a NYT reader:
[M]others are more critical and demanding of their daughters, and fathers are more critical and demanding of their sons. Women tend to outlive men, so visiting ones parents is most likely to means "visiting one's widowed or divorced elderly mother" than some other scenario. That means more misery for the adult daughters than for adults sons.
UPDATE: Lots of responses in the comments over here.


beckett said...

I wonder if there's any difference between men and women in how truthful they are in answering the survey questions. I also wonder if women might express higher dissatisfaction because the social pressure on them to love every second with family is a bit higher than for men. And did the study take into account the actual amount of time men and women spent with family? I don't know if it would make any difference, but if women spent, for instance, an average of fifty percent more time with family, it might not be surprising to see an increase in dissatisfaction (too much of a good thing).

John Althouse Cohen said...

Good points!

Unknown said...

Although I see your frustration with the fact that there is often a double standard for this kind of reporting, I also think that the author of the article does some valid reasoning as to why this gap might be the case. Especially when it comes to children, it's hardly surprising to me that women feel unpleasant around their kids more often than men do and it's common sense that it would be because they are much more frequently tasked with changing diapers, cleaning rooms, and even disciplining their kids.

As for the parents, I do think it's similar. And Beckett's point was the one I came here to make, actually... Anecdotally, I spend about ten times as much time with my parents as my brother does, and most female/male sibling pairs I know have a similar divide. And I definitely feel 'unpleasant' around my folks more often than he does: just cause they are a part of my everyday life and the stresses therein, whereas when he sees them it's basically a time for him to get fed for free and be showered with attention.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Well, Rampell says that although it's true that women spend more time taking care of children, they still have a higher U-index than men even if you just look at the same kinds of activities. So, while the time spent doing chores like cleaning diapers could explain some of the difference, it doesn't explain all of it. But maybe it's easier to enjoy fun-activity-with-kids X if you haven't been doing other less pleasant tasks at other times in the day, and this is more likely to describe men than women.

The report that the blog post is about says that women spend 1.35% of their time on "adult care," while men spend 1.15%. That seems pretty minor next to the fourfold difference in the U-index of women's vs. men's time spent with parents. Of course, "adult care" is only one type of interaction with parents, so the bigger question is how much time women vs. men spend interacting with their parents in any way (i.e. empirical data that would correspond to Summer's experience). I'd think this would be specified in the report, but I didn't find it when I quickly skimmed through (it's 85 pages).

Julie said...

When I say something like this in real life, I usually get shouted at, but here goes: I honestly think women are just more easily disgruntled than men are. I don't know why it is, though. American women in particular seem to feel sort of put upon all the time (I am an American woman, btw). Even though men and women now share about equal free time, women seem to feel increasingly rushed and harried and as if they carry the world on their shoulders. Anecdotally, I could do a quick Google and find hundreds of blog posts written by women complaining about how their husbands just sit around watching TV all the time, even though research indicates that women watch just about as much. I've also read recently that the happiness of American women is decreasing even as we have what we supposedly wanted.

So why should any of this be? Why should women be more prone to dissatisfaction? I don't know, but I do think it is so, from the evidence I've seen and from my personal experience. I'm a woman, but I'm actually pretty happy and satisfied with life and fully able to admit that my husband does his fair share around the house, and being with my kids is really a positive thing for me. So, I guess I buck the trend.

I do think you're right, though, that it always has to be written such that women are the good. Women are giving and caring, and if we had a female president there would totally be no more war. They never take any "me" time so busy are they with caring for others. It's the narrative of our time.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I do think you're right, though, that it always has to be written such that women are the good. Women are giving and caring, and if we had a female president there would totally be no more war. They never take any "me" time so busy are they with caring for others. It's the narrative of our time.

I agree, and I also wonder: isn't it a bit insulting to women to suggest that they need to have this glowing, condescending spin put on everything they do? It also marks the person doing this analysis as untrustworthy, since they're able to use any evidence to support their predetermined view of things. When I say that the data could have been diametrically opposite and the assessment of women still would have been glowing, while the assessment of men still would have been critical, my problem with this isn't just with the sheer gender bias but with the blatant unreliability of the person drawing these conclusions.