Relax! There's no man shortage and never was

LENANN MCGOOKEY GARDNER

June 19, 1992|By Lenann McGookey Gardner

REMEMBER the man shortage?

Not long ago, the media was full of it.

According to a Harvard/Yale study, it was reported, an FTC unmarried woman over the age of 35 has a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of marrying. There were statistics about unmarried women outnumbering unmarried men. And a lot of us were surprised. Some of us got scared.

Now there's a new surprise -- one that's not receiving much coverage: The man shortage is a lie. A mistake. There are no statistics to support it.

Wall Street Journal reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Susan Faludi uncovers the hoax in her recent book "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women." It's a case study in how to get people believing "facts" that don't exist.

Consider this: Ms. Faludi writes that the hoax began with a Stamford, Conn., reporter's effort to spice up her newspaper's annual Valentine's Day story. After interviewing several men who were out buying flowers and candy, the reporter called the Yale University sociology department. She got sociologist Neil Bennett on the phone. He said he had recently completed a study of women's marriage patterns.

College educated women who put school and careers before their weddings were going to have a harder time getting married, he said, adding that his numbers showed that never-married college-educated women at 30 had a 20 percent chance of ever getting married. At 35 the odds were 5 percent and by 40, just 1.3 percent.

The Associated Press picked up the story and carried it around the world. And television, movie and magazine coverage followed.

Mr. Bennett and his colleagues, a Harvard economist and a Yale graduate student, predicted a marriage crunch for one primary reason: Historically, women have married men an average of two to three years older than they. So, the researchers reasoned, women born early in the baby boom would have to scrounge for men in the less-populated older age brackets. And women who got college diplomas first would be worst off -- on the theory that the early bird gets the worm.

Here's a problem: Federal statistics show that at the time the study was reported, first-time brides were marrying men an average of only 1.8 years older than they. But no one checked the facts, because the study wasn't published.

A demographer at the Census Bureau, harassed by reporters covering the "story," did her own study using conventional methods and the 1980 census. She found that at 30, never-married college-educated women had a 58 to 66 percent chance at marriage (three times the Bennett study's predictions). At 35, the odds were 32 to 41 percent (seven times higher), and at 40 the odds were 17 to 23 percent (23 times higher).

Later a mathematician at the Census Bureau reran Mr. Bennett's computations using Mr. Bennett's own model, but the Census mathematician corrected it for a major error: Mr. Bennett had forgotten to consider that high school women have tended to marry shortly after graduation, while college women have tended to defer marriage. With this correction, the mathematician's numbers matched the demographer's.

When the Census Bureau demographer communicated these results to Mr. Bennett and his co-researchers, they deleted the marriage statistics completely from the study when it was published, fully 3 1/2 years after the story made nationwide headlines. So the now-famous statistics were never included in any published study.

The facts? The latest Census shows 1.9 million more bachelors than unwed women between the ages of 25 and 34, and about half a million more between 35 and 54. In fact, the proportion of never-married men, as of the most recent Census, is larger than at any time since records began to be kept in 1890.

As I ponder these facts, and my easy acceptance of the "man shortage" idea when it first appeared, I wonder: Who was hurt by this, and why did it happen?

I think a lot of us were hurt -- women especially.

Reports of a "man shortage" only reinforced deep-seated fears many professional women have that doors may close for us -- doors to full emotional lives, which for most of us means husbands and children. Confronted with the "man shortage" statistics, it's reasonable to think that today's woman should get her priorities straight and put family first early in life.

The problem is, doing that can take us out of the running for the degrees and careers we might otherwise have pursued as young adults.

The reality of today's world is that most women, with families or without, need to work, for financial reasons if not for personal fulfillment. Without the right career preparation in young adulthood, the jobs many women can get are poorly paid.

Here are the facts: Nearly 75 percent of full-time working women make less than $20,000 per year. The Census Bureau says the average woman's salary lags as far behind the average man's as it did 20 years ago. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women's already vast representation in low-paid occupations is rising, their tiny presence in higher paying trade and craft posts is stalled or backsliding and their minuscule representation in upper management posts is stagnant or falling. And women still shoulder 70 percent of household duties.

Many of us are tired. We've been misled by media stories that played to fears.

But women can relax; there is no man shortage. And, one hopes, perhaps next time we'll question the media reports before we question our lifestyles.

Lenann McGookey Gardner is a management consultant who writes from Baltimore.

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