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Inquiring Minds: Why Are Women Anxious?

A five-part series of notable Q&As

Caryl Rivers, a COM journalism professor, talks about women and anxiety. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In a world of round-the-clock news and information, it’s sometimes hard to get more than sound bites on the big issues of the day. Throughout the year, we asked Boston University experts some of the important questions sparked by the headlines, and we published their answers in their own words. This week’s series features five Q&As that appeared on BU Today in 2006 and 2007, on topics ranging from gender roles to genetically modified food. 

Why Are Women Anxious?
COM’s Caryl Rivers on how the news media scare female professionals

Last August, Forbes.com published an article that began with this warning: “Guys: a word of advice. Marry pretty women or ugly ones. Short ones or tall ones. Blondes or brunettes. Just, whatever you do, don’t marry a woman with a career.”

The author of the piece, Michael Noer, claimed that social science researchers had concluded that no matter the circumstances, professional women are bound to be unhappy in marriage.

“It’s totally bogus,” says Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism in the College of Communication. “There’s very little research that shows that. What seemed to happen was that Forbes.com was not getting a lot of hits and decided this story would create buzz.”

In her recently released book Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England), Rivers explores this and other examples of the disparaging ways professional women are depicted in the popular press.

BU Today talked with Rivers about the media, women, and their anxieties, real and hyped. 

BU Today: How do the media scare women?
Rivers: I think what the media seem to be doing is selling anxiety about women’s lives and ambitions the same way the media sell anxiety about women’s thighs and waistlines. The reason women are buying these stories is that it’s a changing time, a difficult time.

What brought you to this book?

One of things I noticed as I was researching a book on gender stereotypes was that the more the research was showing women moving into professions, accomplishing more, going to school more, that these women were healthy and doing well, the media narrative was the exact opposite. It was saying, if you are a woman with ambition, your kids are going to be miserable, men won’t want you because you’re too smart, you’re not going to be fertile, you’re going to have lousy marriages. It was such a dichotomy that I started to look at why this was. One of the things I concluded was that women, particularly working women now, are a desirable demographic to the media. And what sells, what creates buzz to these women, is scare stories.

How did you go about investigating these scare tactics?

What I chose to look at was what I call chain reaction stories, or the stories that would start out, say, in Newsweek, and then jump to a New York Times Magazine cover, and then would jump to a piece on the evening news.

What did you find?

There was a study purportedly showing that the higher a woman’s IQ, the less likely she is to be married. It appeared in headlines in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Atlantic Monthly under the headline “Too Smart to Marry.” But what none of the stories mentioned was that the study was done in the 1930s on women born in the 1920s. So the study has utterly no relevance to the lives of women today, and yet because it was sort of a bad-news story, it was kind of a sexy story, it played all over the place. And that’s what I found, that often these stories that became breakout stories were based on really bad science, that the research was based on tiny samples, outdated, exaggerated in its findings — not really very good research on which to hang a big story.

If the research is wrong or can be misinterpreted, why aren’t these stories attracting as much criticism as a plagiarism charge or other reporting inaccuracies?

Well, it’s not quite as sexy as plagiarism. I think in some cases it’s ignorance. You look on the Internet, you find this particular researcher, and you see that she has a best seller and that she’s been quoted all over the place, but somebody doesn’t go the next step and say, is this right? Plus, the media do not like to correct themselves. So, even when a story gets corrected, the correction gets nowhere near the kind of play the original article had.

Do these stories do any real harm?
I think what these bad-news stories do is they undercut the political will for people to establish family-friendly policies — better day care, better school policies, all of those policies that would be sane and sensible — that would make it possible for the 70 percent of working couples out there to really function.

If these headlines aren’t the reality, what are some of the real struggles women face?
The biggest struggle that women face is trying to integrate family and work. To have jobs where the standard is not to work 90 hours a week. To have day care so you don’t have to scrounge up whatever help you can and feel anxious about your child because you don’t know if your child is that well cared for. With no paid family leave, if you have a family crisis, what do you do? It’s not only women who are facing this — it’s also men. But it’s always cast as a women’s issue.

How do professional women forge ahead?

We have to start putting out new narratives. These narratives I talk about are really old, and they come from fear of change. I think they come from the fact that women are the canaries in the mines, that when women change, people think, oh my god, the world is going to hell. There’s a new story out there. It’s available. There are lots of researchers out there telling it. It’s complicated, but interesting and often positive, and we just have to get away from these old chestnuts that just seem to reappear and reappear.

While we’re on the subject, how do you think the media will cover a woman candidate running for president?
We’re going to see a lot of these stereotypes of women coming out. Looking at the coverage of Hillary Clinton, there’s an extraordinary number of references where she’s called a witch, Lady Macbeth, and all of these sorts of names that give some sort of dread about female power. I think there are two things people fear: one is that women are going to be too weak, and two is that women are going to be too strong.

I did look at a study of Elizabeth Dole, who should have been taken seriously as a candidate in 2000, but was not. And the press treatment of her was really very interesting. They talked about how shrill she was, about her hairdo. It surprised me because it seemed to me that she was the kind of person — Republican, conservative, had held high posts in Republican administrations — who would escape the stereotypes, but she didn’t, according to studies. She was very much stigmatized.

This article originally appeared on
BU Today on May 9, 2007.

Nicole Laskowski can be reached at nicolel@bu.edu.