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How the Woman/Man Ratio Affects Sex, Facial Hair, and Politics

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In the 1970s, a Harvard psychologist proposed that the ratio of men to women shapes culture and politics. Her theory predicts U.S. social trends for the next 25 years.

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Kit B (276)
Friday November 9, 2012, 9:00 am
(Chart: Discover Magazine --- Ups and Downs of America's Sex Ratio)

It may be hard to believe in the midst of another contentious election cycle, but the next quarter century in the United States promises to be a period of increasing moderation and stability—at least according to a little-known but compelling theory about how the ratio of available men to available women alters our lives.

Harvard social psychologist Marcia Guttentag began formulating her theory in 1975, after watching Mozart’s The Magic Flute with her second husband, psychologist Paul Secord, and her two children, Lisa, 16, and Michael, 14. “Nothing is more noble than wife and man, man and wife, and wife and man … [reaching] to the height of Godliness,” sang Papageno and Pamina onstage. Hearing them extoll the virtues of marriage so extravagantly put Guttentag into a kind of “cultural shock,” she later wrote. These were the 1970s, after all, when millions of marriages—including both Guttentag’s and Secord’s first marriages—had collapsed in the chaos of the free love movement spawned during the previous decade.

When Guttentag returned home, she and her daughter listened to songs that were popular at the time, all of which had a “love ’em and leave ’em” theme. Why were views on marriage in these two eras—Mozart’s 1790s and America’s 1970s—so very different? Maybe, she conjectured, women were in short supply in Mozart’s day, and perhaps now, in the 1970s, there were just too many women.

That became the title of a book Guttentag began writing soon after she had her insight, which she knew was the most important of her career. For the first time in U.S. history, she soon learned, the “availability sex ratio”—the ratio of adult men to adult women who are available to marry—had dropped well below 1.0, to perhaps 0.7 by 1970. This meant that there were now 10 available women for every 7 available men, an excess of millions of women of marrying age. What had caused the sex ratio to drop so 
dramatically, Guttentag wondered, and what impact did this change have on society?

While busy directing two research centers at Harvard University, Guttentag began Too Many Women as a true labor of love. She examined imbalances in the ratio of men to women in various cultures and at various times throughout history and the effects they had on social systems. Among other things, she found that where the sex ratio was high, marriage was stable and women tended to stay home, but where the sex ratio was low (too many women, that is), 
marriage was unstable and women moved into the workplace.

The dramatic differences between Sparta 
and Athens during the fourth century B.C. drove the point home for Guttentag. Ancient Athens most likely had a sex ratio between 1.43 and 1.74 (based on a historical analysis) because of rampant female infanticide and neglect. With three men for every two women, women were kept uneducated and at home. Sparta, in contrast, was a military state in which males were removed from their families early on to be trained as soldiers. With an extreme shortage of men in Spartan society, girls received educations and even physical training similar to that of boys, and women controlled and inherited property. Fourth century B.C. Spartan women controlled 40 percent of the land and property in Sparta; Athenian women controlled no property at all.

But Guttentag’s book was not to be, at least not the way she planned it. On November 4, 1977, just five days short of her 45th birthday, she died from a heart attack while alone in a hotel room in New York City. Her husband, Paul, completed her manuscript, but the book that finally came out in 1983 was academic in nature, not the mainstream “big think” book she intended. With her death, the book deal she had made with a major publisher disappeared, and sex ratio theory stayed mainly in the obscure recesses of various academic specialties.

Biologists have looked at the sex ratio in animal populations for generations, typically just by counting the males and females in a pack or herd. The natural sex ratio for the American alligator, for example, is about 0.2, or one male for every five females. That kind of ratio makes sense when males fight a lot and female fertility is low.

To study the sex ratio in humans is more challenging, especially if your goal is to determine how the sex ratio affects social systems. Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist based in Birmingham, Alabama, has tested its power more than any other scholar. Among his recent findings: When the sex ratio is low (too many women), women are more slender; when women are in short supply, as was the case in the United States in the 1950s, women are more curvaceous, perhaps because they are trying to look the part of traditional wife and mother. Barber’s studies, which often look at patterns in 40 countries or more, have shown the power of the sex ratio in predicting such things as the rate of nonmarital births, the practice of polygyny, and even the likelihood that men will grow facial hair. The more men there are, he found, the more hair they grow to attract mates.

Page 2 ---

In a study of divorces in the U.S. from 1896 to 1992, Barber reports that the divorce rate could be predicted remarkably well from the sex ratio. The success or failure of marriage, in turn, ripples though social systems, affecting prevailing values. When there is an excess of available men—as was true during most of U.S. history because most immigrants are male—marriage is generally revered and values are conservative. When available women outnumber available men, women are set free of the home, and values shift toward liberalism. But a low sex ratio also lowers the living standards of women and causes turmoil in relationships, mainly because men typically have more power in society, which they tend to exercise crudely when there are extra women around.

The chaos associated with low sex ratios has been confirmed by several other studies, including a 2010 college-campus investigation by sociologists Jeremy Uecker of Baylor University and Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin. In a survey of about 1,000 college women, the researchers found that on campuses where women outnumber men, women date less, criticize men more, and are less likely to have a college boyfriend, even though they are also more active sexually.

One kind of chaos that seems to flow from a low sex ratio is counterintuitive. In multiple studies that examine this issue both across countries and over time, Barber has shown that a shortage of men is associated with higher rates of rape, violent crime, and assault. When women are in short supply, men compete for resources like good jobs and fancy cars that make them more attractive to potential mates. But when there are too many women, factors such as an absence of fathers from the home and conflict between the sexes act to raise the level of violence.

The sex ratio is pushed up or down by many factors, including environmental influences in the womb. A 2010 study conducted in the U.K. found that babies born to two nonsmokers were more likely to be male (birth sex ratio of 1.14), whereas babies born to two smokers were much more likely to be female (birth sex ratio of 0.77). Worldwide, the birth sex ratio is generally above one, about 1.07—nature’s way, perhaps, of compensating for the higher mortality rate of males throughout life. By the time people are in their eighties, however, the sex ratio drops to 0.7 or less. Men are in short supply among the elderly.

The sex ratio that is most important in influencing social systems is the one that applies to men and women of mating and child-rearing ages—the availability sex ratio. The fact that women usually prefer marrying men who are slightly older can shift the availability sex ratio up or down almost overnight. This is because the number of people born each year can change dramatically when a war ends or a recession begins. It is this phenomenon, which demographers call the “marriage squeeze,” that led to the enormous excess of available women in the U.S. in the generally liberal 1960s and 1970s.

Because of sharp increases in the number of births in the years following World War II and the Korean War, women born two decades later were typically seeking older partners born in years when far fewer babies were born, hence the big drop in the availability sex ratio. So a woman born in 1957, when births were numerous, would, in 1977, be seeking a male born a few years earlier than she—say, in 1954—when far fewer males were born. That’s the “squeeze.” Conversely, birth patterns in the 1970s created an excess of men in the 1990s. In other words, the nationwide shift toward conservatism, and even the election of George W. Bush in 2000, was predictable from sex ratio data.

A host of effects produce differences in sex ratios around the world and between racial and ethnic groups. The highest sex ratio in the world right now—4.15—is in Qatar, where thousands of men have immigrated to work on construction and oil projects. The lowest sex ratio—about 0.79—is in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, where an unemployment rate of 40 to 50 percent has forced men to emigrate.

Here in the U.S., African Americans have had a low sex ratio since the era of slavery, in part because they have a low birth sex ratio and in part because many black males are in the military or incarcerated. The absence of men keeps many black women living in poverty, bound to the welfare system. Hispanic Americans, on the other hand, have the highest sex ratio of any ethnic group in the country—over 1.5 for people in their twenties—mainly because far more men immigrate than women. The high sex ratio should make that community politically conservative, yet Hispanics generally support liberal politicians, perhaps because liberal politicians are perceived as more pro-minority and pro-immigrant, overriding the sex ratio influence in this case.

In Asian countries, particularly China and India, the ratio of males to females has remained stubbornly and artificially high, causing concern among government officials. Because male offspring are preferred in many Asian cultures, sonograms are now being used to identify female fetuses, which are then aborted in large numbers. The birth sex ratio in China is now an alarming 1.13. The fear in some circles that an excess of men will lead to cultural chaos is actually inconsistent, though, with the views of Secord, Guttentag, and others. Barber’s research suggests, for example, that a high sex ratio generally leads to less violence toward women. But the excess of men in China and India has led to new kinds of abuse—women being abducted from Bangladesh, for example, to serve as brides for single males in India, as well as the trafficking of young women within India.

In relatively stable societies like the U.S., the most powerful factor determining the balance of men and women is that marriage squeeze, and birth patterns over the past 25 years make it possible to estimate the availability sex ratio in the U.S. through the year 2035. The trick here is to determine whether the different numbers of people born each year between 1986 and 2010 are likely to cause marriage squeezes in the future.

My computations suggest that we are unlikely in coming years to run into either the liberalism of the ’60s and ’70s (when there were too many women) or the conservatism of the late ’90s (when there were too many men). Instead, we will be trending toward a balance between men and women, and therefore, a prolonged period of moderation in all things political and social: a stable divorce rate, reasonable satisfaction in relationships, and greater gender equality.

Absent major natural or human-made disasters that are sex-selective or extreme changes in immigration patterns, the next quarter century should be a time of relative calm. Marcia Guttentag would be pleased.
Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, provided original research for this piece. --- Discover Magazine|


Kit B (276)
Friday November 9, 2012, 9:02 am

Often if you are not subscribed to Discover Magazine only part of the full article is available for the reader. So I decided that if you want to read the full article, it is posted in full.

Jae A (316)
Friday November 9, 2012, 11:18 am
Thank You for another great read Kit......ah yes...a quarter century of calm is upon us. For those of us in our late 60's and older this comes at a good time :-).

Kit B (276)
Friday November 9, 2012, 11:43 am

I find studies into the societal behaviors of humans fascinating. Had Guttentag lived, I have no doubt that her book would have had, may still have strong influences on society.

Yvonne White (229)
Friday November 9, 2012, 2:25 pm
From what is in the article I have several reservations & I think she would've done a much more in depth job of it.. for instance, I think when sexes are artificially unbalanced that homosexuality becomes more acceptable (we all know about those Greeks bearing Trojans..;) Sorry..just couldn't help myself... and how does Overpopulation in general in any country affect the society there? It FEELS like the world is more violent today against women, but is it because the media reachs more people? I doubt women in Victorian England were safer than present day, but were they? More questions than answers with that article..but interesting any way!:)

Lois Jordan (63)
Friday November 9, 2012, 4:35 pm
Noted. It is an interesting theory, but since she died in 1977, and the book came out in 1983, there's nearly 30 yrs. more of information that could be added and perhaps give more credence to some ideas, and adding some other statistics.

Kit B (276)
Friday November 9, 2012, 5:03 pm

Of course, it is an article and not a book. Homosexuality is no more prevaent now then in the past, when it was more accepted by society. Over 450 species of mammals have been studied and shown to have direct and active sexual intercourse with the same sex.

. (0)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 10:16 am
Noted. Nice line Yvonne. lol

Stephen Brian (23)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 10:50 am
I wouldn't put a huge amount of faith in predictions based upon gender-ratios. Like just about the entire rest of the literature of the social sciences, this article ignored confounding factors.

For example, until fairly recently (in historical terms), a larger population meant a richer, more powerful country, and one more likely to survive the next war. This alone would explain why, historically, women, the bottleneck of population-growth, were kept "barefoot and pregnant", especially when their numbers were lower than one would expect from the total population. Now, with non-muscle-based energy-sources and other modern technology, that correlation of population, military strength, and economy, is no longer valid. This is why I would hesitate to trust any predictions based upon the behaviour which it drives (or, with higher numbers of women, does not drive). That said, those conditions did apply for a long time on an evolutionary timescale, so the traditions would take a very long time to disappear and changes in behaviour may actually be hardwired into humanity.

The same goes for the violence when there are too few men: Traditionally, the major gender-selective cause of death was war. After war, the gender-ratio was pretty extreme, the population had to rebuild as fast as possible, and the available resources would support fast growth (if the food-supply was not destroyed in the war and, as that was often the object over which the sides fought, it would not be). This could be hardwired into us, or it could be a result of modern politics, with proponents of conservative "family-values" on one side and those of women's rights on the other. In democracy, where Progressivists are dominant, the most effective forces for suppressing violence may be those getting defeated. In the second case, the correlation may break down anyways as politics and culture shift.

Kit B (276)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 11:20 am

I wonder, Stephen is there anything that YOU are not an expert on? Any thing that you don't have all the answers?

Mary Donnelly (47)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 1:44 pm
Thanks Kit--interesting read.

One way of solving some of the problems is for women to marry men younger than themselves when the ratio is negative, or vice versa when the ratio is positive.

In Australia, from 1788 to 1976 the sex ratio was positive; since then it has been negative. In my forty years in the credit industry 1960--2000 I was surprised by the number of women who were older than their spouses when they applied for loans.


John D (48)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 1:57 pm
Interesting article and some very interesting posts...

Michael M (60)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 4:16 pm
1. On confounding factors:
Social psychology is one of the most sophisticated statistical sciences , along with ecology. Those who merely deny what they don't understand may be in error. Discover Magazine is a medium for public consumption and most definitely NOT a peer-reviewed source.The author is speaking in a language for the general populace.

2. Yes, the summary contains what we may call politically correct rhetorical usage - evolutionary psychology literature is much more concise.

3. This study and encapsulated history traces largely one cultural line, as I'll explore below.

Women anatomically had certain division of habitat/social duties, as it were. When young, everyone does best in any species by being strong, fleet, and other characteristics. This is due to the young not being strong evaluators as those who had had more time to learn. One of the anatomical characteristic, for instance is differences in iliac shape.
In short, grown women were the gatherers while men ranged farther often as hunters. Women cognitively preferred skills having to do with shelter and fine work. Even their memories differ due to important reasons.
Since worldwide similarities exist, we can hypothesize heritability of both physical and psychological traits.

But! my point. In many cultures women were the keepers, eventhe owners of the home.
While the line of history I mentioned above stemmed from a certain confined area of the world, it is the lineof much present world culture.
So we see the sequestration of Medieval and Islamic cultures as common, and even followed in immigrant North America, a different definition of women occurred in matrilineal societies.
I won't deal with violence here,although the article does, but instead just
repeat that while married women in the US voted more for a violent repressive leadership (which trait can easily be accounted for through evolutionary psych), when women are more properly in charge of general society, the result has always been greater tolerance within that culture.

Commentors would do well to work on anthropology studies, and various subdisciplines of psychology: some need to explore the sophisticated power of difficult statistical tools before casting judgment (Their failure to do so is well-researched in social psychology! Answers have been consistently reached by extremely contentious and differently opinionated researchers.)

A mild metastudy-type look at diminution of violence and general trend toward civility is offered in Stephen Pinker's newest book.

Finally for this long comment and long column, EVERY individual is different, and availability heuristics load up comments; the tides and seasons come and go, as generations respond to role modeling. I think the cynical Ecclesiastes had something to say, but we have the advantage in being aware of the psychology of optimism.

Thanks Kit! for posting the article. Humans need to be exposed to complexity of both the universe and of thought (otherwise they believe and do great evil.)

Lisa Wolfe (2)
Saturday November 10, 2012, 6:52 pm
I agree that this is a fascinating article and topic. I also feel skeptical of such clear-cut conclusions. In the case of Sparta vs Athens, couldn't it be true that the poor conditions women faced in Athens had more to do with the cultural attitudes that led people to kill female infants in the first place? Which came first?

Stephen Brian (23)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 9:27 am
Hi Michael :)

Statistics can be perfect, but they would still fail to catch systematic error, and they could still only ever draw correlations, not lines of causation. The interpretations are also subject to error due to interpreters' preconceptions, confirmation-bias, and a selection-bias in publishing of scientific literature (which favours counter-intuitive results, and especially politically correct ones).

The confounding factors to which I referred above would appear as systematic error in the data. Some condition which had been true for all of human history ceased to be so recently. With limited data since the change, as researchers gather more data, they necessarily must look at statistics from when the condition still applied. As a result, the more data researchers gather, if that change in condition is important, the more error they introduce into their analysis. Until such time as enough data can be gathered both before and after the industrial revolution (when unemployment, rather than labour-shortage, became an issue), the shift becomes statistically significant, the error would not be visible no matter how well the statistics are handled.

The trouble with correlation vs. causation appears in your comment: When women have a more prominent role in societies, those societies tend to be more peaceful, but it is not necessarily as a result of women playing a more prominent role. The causation can run the other way, or the two may share a common cause. I believe that the causation actually runs the opposite direction: Historically, in the pre-industrial era, peace would logically have been needed for women to take a role of greater power. Men did the fighting when there was fighting to be done because they could die without reducing the size of the society's next generation. If you had a job, like a soldier, where your life was on the line everyday, how willing would you be to take direction from someone who doesn't know your business? Without some other source of legitimacy of leadership, military leaders then almost always had to be male. Political leadership, in the end, comes down to who holds the loyalty of the armed forces. The Maiden of Orleans claimed legitimacy from religion and U.S. commanders in chief claim legitimacy from election, both forms of legitimacy that stem from soldiers' beliefs in their civilian lives. Somehow, I suspect that back when the death-rate in war was much higher (as described by Pinker in his TED talk) and we saw those matriarchal societies, soldiers would have been no room for any sort of legitimacy except that stemming from expertise in keeping them alive. That would have meant that, under conditions where a society faces war more than very rarely, it would have become male-dominated. (I believe that is where classical sexism originated.)

There is actually a good example of the error in interpretation in your comment: A lot of Republicans actually see Democrats as the more repressive ones, and ones whose leadership is more conducive to a violent society. (I know that may seem crazy to many posters here, but I am talking about their perceptions, not yours.) As a result, one cannot conclude from the voting-pattern that married women prefer a more violent and repressive world or leadership. Here we can see correct data and statistics, but still room for error.

Then there is the lack of a proper "Journal of Predictable Results", where people can check for confirmations of null-hypotheses. We want to avoid this problem, which I believe arises in scientific literature often when there is no working single accepted model for the field:

Stephen Brian (23)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 9:33 am
Hi again Michael :)

I just realized that one point in my previous comment was unclear: When I referred to error in interpretation in your comment, I meant it in the statistical sense, as in "possibility of deviation from perfect precision and accuracy", not in the usual sense. Married women may be more inclined towards more repressive and violent leadership, but there is potentially a reason why voting-statistics would not tell the whole story.

Jelica R (144)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 6:45 pm
My two cents: this might be crucial: "While busy directing two research centers at Harvard University, Guttentag began Too Many Women as a true labor of love." Her work ended in less than 3 years when she died, before the book was finished. Being a scientist, Guttentag might had planned to use her book as a bold thesis to get funding for further research. She obviously had to collect data for woman/man ratio to cover numerous societies over hundreds of years. Director of "two research centers at Harvard University" would know what it takes to even start a research like this. To complain that some historical factors were not included in the preliminary thesis is philistinism and says more about the critic than about the author. Guttentag didn't even finish her book and we can not know what kind of book she would have written.

On the light side; using unscientific method, a.k.a wild guess, I have concluded why Europe and USA have different forms of capitalism (European cuddly and US cut-throat). We kept exporting our excess of men to you so we can have peace at home, without men who make a mess, pester and fight. Less testosterone, more harmony.

Stephen Brian (23)
Sunday November 11, 2012, 8:56 pm
Hi Jelica,

Guttentag might have known what it would take, but she might also not. The failure to account for confounding factors is so rampant even in peer-reviewed literature of the social sciences that doing so might just not be in the academic culture. Far more likely, though, she realized that there would be other factors like you say she would, but because no relevant working model exists, had no idea how to remove their effect from the data. She probably would have couched her final work in phrases like "all things being equal" and concluded with "Further work on the matter should concentrate on determining the effect of the following related issues" (and listed confounding factors). Like you said, we don't know. What we do know is that without a reliable working model, there is usually no way, in the social sciences, to account for all significant relevant conditions in data-sets, alternative possible causes of an observed effect, etc.

The sad part is that while you recognize that your approach was unscientific, after looking through some journals I could totally see the theory making into peer-reviewed literature with no more support than a comparison of gender-ratios (0.97 vs. 0.92) and, maybe, some discussion of male and female role-models in Western culture (with white males more encouraged to climb the corporate ladder). As a side-note, I think the differences in forms of capitalism come at least in part from different structures of government. (Infighting and divided interests within the system of checks and balances makes for a very inefficient public sector.)

Here is an example from the first social psychology journal that I found on a Google search:
"Modern Racism Attitudes Among White Students: The Role of Dominance and Authoritarianism and the Mediating Effects of Racial Color-Blindness" in "The Journal of Social Psychology" available at Taylor Francis Online. The study-sample (245 women, 97 men, all white) was taken from a single university, so any cultural issues specific to that university would confound the study. Then the assessment of "Right-Wing Authoritarianism" was whether the students agreed with the statement "Our country needs a powerful leader in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in our society today”. I have seen this often here, but where the leader in question was someone like Obama and the immoral currents were the religious right and other right-wing groups, not exactly "right-wing authoritarianism". Then there was a major focus of the study, racism through non-discrimination, a concept that seems questionable on its face. (Apparently it is now racist to oppose racially discriminatory affirmative-action, such that the correlation between race and assistance would be determined only by that between race and the need for assistance).

Christopher M. (4)
Wednesday November 21, 2012, 2:57 am
If more women and fewer men means more opportunities for men I don't notice. :-)
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