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The Scicurious Brain


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The more feminine you look, the more children you want. It must be science.


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Friend of the blog Cackle of Rad was the first person to send me this paper, and when I first tried to read it, I got…pretty angry. Being a rather obsessively logical person, I know why I felt angry about this paper, and I worked very hard to step back from it and approach it in a thoroughly scientific manner.

It didn’t work, I called in Kate. That helped a little.

In the end, it’s not a bad paper. The data are the data, as my graduate advisor always says. But data need to be interpreted, and interpretations require context. And I think what’s missing from this paper is not data or adequate methods. It’s context.

Smith et al. “Maternal tendencies in women are associated with estrogen levels and facial femininity” Hormones and Behavior, 2011.

And Kate agreed to cover the paper with me! Make sure you head over to her blog and check out her thoughts on the subject.

Scientists have always been interested in what makes women women, and what makes men men. Not just from a physical perspective. What gives rise to behaviors that we generally associate with masculinity or femininity? Are these behaviors rooted in biological differences? Is the way we view men and women more than just a result of upbringing?

In this particular case, the scientists were interested in how biological expressions of being “female” correlated with things like desire to have children, and how many children women wanted. So they grabbed a large number of women, and asked them how many kids they wanted. They took blood levels of estrogen (for four straight weeks to get in cycle variations, good going there), as well as rating how FEMININE the girls’ faces were.

Now you might think, how can we determine whether a face is feminine? Well there are certain facial features which correlate with high levels of estrogen during puberty. Things like a small and pointy chin, larger and wide set eyes, a back set brow ridge, full lips. See here:

They found in a series of two experiments that higher levels of estrogen correlated with an expressed desire for more children, and higher ratings of facial femininity correlated with an expressed desire for more children. High levels of biological feminization correlate with an expressed desire for kids.

Now, correlation is not causation. So let’s keep that in mind. Doesn’t mean less “feminine” ladies are going to want fewer kids ALL the time and vice versa. When you keep that in mind, this paper’s not really a big deal.

What bugs me about it, and other papers of its type, is that there are so many sociological factors that are never taken into account. For example, are women with more feminine faces expected to behave in ways that are more socially acceptable? Are they told more often that they would be good mothers? Are they punished more often for behaving in ways that are less “feminine”? Are they rewarded for more feminine behaviors?

After all, as the authors note themselves, women who appear more feminine tend to achieve lower overall rank in the workplace. They make less, they possess fewer “masculine” traits. But is this all due to a desire for teh babiez? Is it due to them just being biologically GIRLY and they just can’t HELP it?!

I don’t think so. Correlation ain’t causation. I looked for studies but had a tough time coming up with anything, but are women who are more “feminine” looking perhaps PERCEIVED as less effective in the workplace? Are young girls who look more feminine encouraged to be compromising and passive as opposed to developing more “competitive”, “masculine” traits? Maybe this is as much to do with how feminine features are PERCEIVED, and thus how these women are encouraged to behave, as it does with blood levels of estrogen. Heck, maybe more.

So I wonder if the authors should make more effort to look into sociological factors. How does the intense pressure on women to become wives and mothers change as a function of how feminine the girl looks? I think you can’t separate any of this from this whole “women with higher estrogen want to be mothers” idea. This is why papers like this bug me, because they try to sell this as a evolutionary thing, without really acknowledging how much sociological pressure goes in to making women want to be mothers. And of course now I read them and I instantly get bristly, because what I see is people making assumptions about what I want, and what I must feel like, based on a few aspects of my physiology. It can be of value scientifically…but I don’t want it to apply to ME. I know it might be science, but I also find it more than a bit insulting.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. kclancy 7:08 am 10/11/2011

    Yay Sci! I love your post, and I love our tag-team duo.

    As I was rereading this, I remembered that Krystal D’Costa recently covered a paper on birth versus married names in women, and that women who take their husbands’ names are seen as less intelligent, care less about their careers, are more conservative, etc. I know this is getting at your question sideways (the one about whether there are papers about perceptions of femininity) but it might be useful to remind our readers of the post: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/2011/09/07/whose-name-is-it-anyway/

    Link to this
  2. 2. Patrick Clarkin 12:05 pm 10/11/2011

    Thank you, Sci, for this thoughtful post. I think you and Kate both raise the key issue, which is context. It’s interesting that biologists such as Lewontin were big proponents of the idea that there is no such thing as an organism without an environment.

    Even cloned plants will grow differently, depending on ecological conditions. We shouldn’t expect human phenotypes (esp. behavior) to respond any differently.

    On another note, it’s fascinated me for a long time that humans can actually override the drive for reproduction. We have 3.5 billion years of ancestry behind us, who were incredibly successful at leaving behind copies of their genes, yet some people manage to opt out of this pattern – fully or partially, consciously or not (or both?). In Steven Pinker’s words on his decision not to have children:

    “By Darwinian standards, I am a horrible mistake… But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in the lake.”

    It’s pretty amazing that we got to that point.

    Link to this
  3. 3. KDCosta 1:01 pm 10/11/2011

    Hey Sci! This study makes me uncomfortable too … primarily because I “feminine” face – what does that *mean*? I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of the ways femininity is socialized and constructed. Like Kate, I’m a bit worried about the media spin on this story, but I think between the two of you, you’ve done a fantastic job raising questions about culture.

    Link to this
  4. 4. gmperkins 10:06 am 10/12/2011

    “But is this all due to a desire for teh babiez?” – hah

    I’d like to know how correlated. If the correlation is small, I would think the higher estrogen might cause some minor changes in a women’s pychology. Like with tests showing women better at remembering objects on a table (verse men). The difference is significant but only mildly.

    The social point is correct but probably very hard to account for. The paper should be careful though, how awful would it be if ‘feminine featured’ women didn’t get hired because of the fear that they might take alot of leaves of absence to ‘make teh babiez’? There is enough idiotic bias in the world, I really think the authors should shelve this line of work and pursue more useful endeavors (really can’t think of anything good coming out of this work, only problems).

    Link to this

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