Women Act Rationally, and Somehow That Was Newsworthy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The other day The New York Times and a few other outlets ran with a story that was unusual, maybe even unprecedented, for highlighting a social science study that failed to show any sort of irrationality or self-delusion in its subjects. There were no signs that mysterious, unconscious cues were wreaking havoc on people’s decision making.

The study, a survey of women who had recently had eggs frozen, revealed decisions that were well-informed, reasonable and rational. The women were single for the most part, and wanted to increase their odds of getting pregnant if they found a suitable co-parent in the future. Stories about people acting reasonably don’t often make headlines, but the appeal here was that the research countered a stereotype often attached to women with careers: that they’re postponing having families so they can advance up the corporate ladder.

And why not use science to contrast reality with stereotypes? This seems particularly important in medicine. Stereotypes have caused lots of bad medical decisions – including contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis. In reporting on the roots of the problem, I learned from addiction experts that susceptibility to addiction does vary from person to person, but many doctors wrongly assumed they could tell who was likely to become addicted based on patients’ jobs, economic status or skin color. They couldn’t. Stereotypes once cast a stigma on women who used contraceptives, and there’s a continuing stigma surrounding assisted reproduction, as if it represents some sort of failure.

The lead author of the egg freezing survey, Yale University medical anthropologist Marcia Inhorn, said she and her colleague conducted 150 in-depth interviews with women in the U.S. and Israel who had used egg freezing. The survey was a very qualitative kind of social science. Inhorn and her colleagues talked to their subjects for an hour, or longer, she said. They wanted not just ticks in boxes but stories.

Since 2012, when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine declared egg freezing no longer just an experimental procedure, more women have used it each year. The technique doesn’t always work, and experts can’t yet give good odds of success. But they do agree that freezing eggs at 30-something can improve a woman’s odds of getting pregnant once she’s in her mid-40s. Reliability should continue to improve, and the practice should become more widespread.  

More than 80 percent of the women surveyed said they didn’t currently have a suitable partner. Most were single, and hoped to wait for marriage or at least a secure long-term partnership with a man who wanted to have children. A few were married or in relationships, but of those, most reported that their partners weren’t committed to the relationship or weren’t ready to have children. Only two women mentioned careers as the primary motivation.

“There is a stereotype of the selfish career woman,” Inhorn said. It’s a notion she sees promoted in the media, especially after Apple and Facebook offered egg freezing to their employees in 2014. There was a big backlash in the media, with critics slamming the companies, the technology and women.  Some critical media accounts were correct to point out that the technology isn’t perfectly reliable. They were wrong, however, in assuming those tech industry women were so naïve as to consider egg freezing an easy way to postpone having kids while building careers.

Inhorn’s survey, done with two collaborators, revealed a very different mindset – women weren’t exactly postponing childbearing so much as deciding that they’d prefer not to be single moms. Even those who did mention careers aren’t necessarily being naïve or selfish. People want to be able to provide for their kids, and careers are a good way to make money.

Inhorn said that for the most part, the subjects reported that they worked hard at finding a partner. “Most were trying to date,” she said. “There was a ton of online dating.” Many had had serious relationships that didn’t work out; some had recently divorced. A few were in the military and facing a long overseas deployment. Nothing in these accounts was counterintuitive or shocking, but it was enlightening nonetheless. It showed people taking major life decisions seriously.

And so, too, maybe there’s also an unfair media stereotype surrounding social science. It’s so interesting to examine the weird results that got big publicity and turned out to be wrong – dissolving into random noise once proper statistical techniques were applied. But there are also plenty of well-conducted studies that help people understand each other. Funny that some of those don’t show anything weird or counterintuitive or embarrassing. Some, like this survey, reinforce what’s readily apparent, once we get past stereotypes and assumptions and start to really listen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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