A few years after moving to Manhattan, I decided to upgrade my social network and maybe also meet a girlfriend by joining a local Ultimate Frisbee league. One thing to love about Ultimate, in addition to its weird mix of injunction against physical contact alongside the constant threat of deadly headfirst collision by face-forward vault for the same ten-inch plastic disc as several other fast and forward-moving athletes, is that every team on which I have ever played, first in Beijing, then in Seoul, and now in New York, has been co-ed. This, of course, does not mean that all Ultimate teams are free of gendered shackles; USA Ultimate, for example, offers both co-ed and single-sex leagues at the club level, while the master-level league is only single-sex [1]. But more so than any other common team sport in mind (with the possible exception of softball), Ultimate brings back happy school-age memories of running around like a maniac in physical education class with both halves of my similarly maniacal peers. 

Co-ed is good. Ultimate is co-ed. Therefore, Ultimate is good. At least, it would seem, in theory. Alas, “living in a world where nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently,” perhaps I should have spent less of high school running around like a maniac and more heeding the English-class wisdom of Thomas-Johns Hardy and Irving. At least it would have saved me some acidic disappointment in my summer of playing Ultimate more than once as the token woman of five to six teammates per lineup. Where were the other women?

The previous year, I had toured a few Meetup events in Manhattan—namely, hot yoga and drawing—with an acquaintance visiting the city from overseas. While the sex ratio of free yoga classes available at any given time on YouTube would seem to imply the former an excellent means of meeting women, alas, it was not: While the instructor was, indeed, of the (presumably, though biology can take surprising turns) double-X persuasion, most of the students in the room were younger or middle-aged males. The same for the group drawing adventure: One would be hard-pressed to allege that something as simple as using a pencil to freehand the images on one’s mind could somehow be associated with maleness. And yet, there I was—poring over my notebook in a cafe in Midtown, on one end of a table occupied by six or seven men.

Beyond these adventures in Ultimate, hot yoga, and drawing, further examples of this phenomenon abound. The gym that I frequent in non-virus times is three-quarters men. The scientific panel on which I presented my research a few weeks ago was otherwise all men. Almost every time I wander into a bar in Midtown or the Village with one friend or another we observe roiling oceans of men in jackets and button-downs ebbing and crashing against the rare scattered woman who shines through the crowds like a beacon at sea. Some excuses of varying validity can be made for these circumstances. But surely some activities would attract a disproportionate—or at least equitable—collective of female in addition to male participants. What about foreign languages, for example? What could be inherently gendered about passion for assimilating a semantic network that represents the collective experiences of all people, regardless of sex, in a particular culture? With this in mind, some weeks ago I accepted an invitation to a virtual workshop for Duolingo event leaders around the world—and found myself, once again, the sole woman in a sexual monoculture of six to ten men.

In fact, I can think of only a handful of times that events not explicitly for females, e.g., on the order of lesbian night at the local gay club, have yielded a large showing of women: A ballet class. A free yoga series on the Upper West Side. A small Swedish- and Norwegian-language social meetup among friends who already knew each other. A sparse scattering of instances, albeit from one person’s own constrained set of experiences, over several years in a massive internationalized urban space. Where, gode Gud, where are the women?

I once posed this question over lunch to some colleagues and found that many of them shared these pressurized frustrations about the seeming absence of women in many public spaces. “Not in bars, that’s for sure,” one of them complained. “Maybe they’re at the grocery store,” another suggested with some tongue-in-cheek irony. “Perhaps women just spend more time at home drinking wine and watching Netflix,” it was additionally offered. The conversation quickly turned to how the ubiquity of catcalling and street harassment, especially in a place like New York City, might deter many women from even leaving the house.

Leaving aside for now anecdotes to the same rhetorical end, the statistics on catcalling may indeed support this hypothesis. One survey of 2,009 people across the United States, for example, found that 65% of women, relative to 25% of men, reported having experienced some kind of verbal harassment in public; this is only a part of the 81% of women, relative to the 43% of men, who reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault more generally [2]. Aside from highlighting the idea that we as a people just need to learn to leave each other alone regardless of sex, these statistics also present a female : male differential that is undeniable. Oh, but that is just one study! might cry the ever-present People Who Just Don’t Get It. A valid claim, in principle, but in this case such a study is far from cherry-picked, as evidenced by stopthestreetharassment.org’s rather extensive compilation of many such investigations from around the world [3]. It would seem, then, that street harassment could indeed be a significantly weighted variable in this increasingly complex equation governing which members of society may elect to leave the comfort of home to hold complicated yoga poses in hot rooms, repeatedly lift heavy objects just to put them down again, or sit in a cafe and draw with strangers for two hours.

Almost certainly, though, catcalling is not the only factor at play here. “Where are all the women?” I recently asked another friend, also no stranger to periodically scouring public spaces in search of girlfriends et al. “Working two jobs; one paid, one unpaid,” she replied without hesitation.  

Another comment worth serious consideration. Indeed, as depicted by individuals researched in Arlie Hochschild’s excellent book The Second Shift, even heterosexual couples that self-describe as “egalitarian” in theory do, in actual practice, present with circumstances wherein the wife is held comparatively responsible for shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, laundry, and childrearing, while the husband is held comparatively responsible for the car, garage, dog, and—wait for it—his own hobby workshop [4]. Indeed, at the time the book was published, this unequitable division of labor appeared all but rare, with at least one study reporting that married women spent little over twice as much time per week on house or yardwork as married men in 1985, a figure that had decreased by only 10% ten years later [5]. But wait! cry the apologist beneficiaries, the self-hoisting signalers of patriarchal virtue, and the blind contrarians; that book was written all the way back in 1989 (albeit updated in 2012), and Things Are Getting Better (TM).

Let’s examine that. According to a Gallup Poll conducted in 2019 among over 3,000 heterosexual couples living in the United States [6], substantially more respondents report that the woman is more likely than the man than vice-versa to make decisions about household furniture (62% versus 5%), do laundry (58% versus 13%), clean the house (51% versus 9%), prepare meals (51% versus 17%), care for children daily (50% versus 7%), do the grocery shopping (45% versus 18%), wash the dishes (42% versus 19%), and plan family activities (37% versus 10%). Well, might say our apologist beneficiary, self-hoisting signaler of patriarchal virtue, and blind contrarian friends, women are more likely than men to choose unpaid professions like house-minder and child-carer, comprising labor more likely than paid work out in the world to be captured by surveys like this. Focusing our analysis solely on couples with both the woman and the man working outside the home to control for this potential confound, we find that our results… do not look that different: Among dual-income heterosexual households only, substantially more couples still report that the woman is more likely than the man than vice-versa to do laundry (57% versus 12%), clean the house (52% versus 9%), prepare meals (47% versus 18%), care for children daily (44% versus 7%), wash the dishes (40% versus 21%).

We can even kick this up a notch by further restricting our statistics only to dual-income heterosexual couples among whom the woman earns more than the man. Even these arrangements more frequently reported that the woman is more likely than the man than vice-versa to do laundry (39% versus 25%), clean the house (45% versus 12%), prepare meals (35% versus 29%), care for children daily (36% versus 10%), do the grocery shopping (53% versus 16%), and pay bills (47% versus 18%). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the year 2019. But Things Are Getting Better (TM)! Actually, according to comparisons by the same poll with similar statistics from 1996, they are getting better, but that does not mean that they are not still, arguably, pretty bad.

Not surprising for an academic working toward a degree in public health, my friend’s observation was certainly not without its hard empirical justification. 

So the picture is becoming clear now. Women remain inside chained to their ironing boards while hordes of evil harassers parade through public spaces waiting to encircle them with pitchforks and torches should they ever choose to emerge. By contrast, the men of society, unburdened by fear and shackled by nary a care, occasionally take a break from catcalling women to cavort through the streets, making friends and soaking up all the world’s resources of self-actualization. Okay, not so fast.  

Obvious issues inherent in demonizing simplified classifications of people aside, sex differentials such as the one currently in question may also highlight ways in which the experiences of men as well as women can be cut short, and their identities rendered similarly less than whole, by prevailing social systems. In other words, observations of more men than women in certain public spaces may potentially also signal problems disproportionately experienced by the former, not just the latter.

While one meta-analysis encompassing research on 399,798 across 45 countries, for example, found only a marginally significant difference across the lifespan in multiple types of loneliness reported by females and males, this difference was highly significant among young adults specifically, albeit with a small effect size at only 12% of one standard deviation, in that on average males reported feeling slightly more lonely than females [7]. This could, then, suggest that another reason behind the observation of more men than women in certain public spaces like those outlined above could reflect slightly higher levels of social engagement with strangers motivated by loneliness; that is, relative to women, male escape from a more powerful negative rather than solely enjoyment of a more enabled positive.  

In addition to these elucidating data, Marlies Maes, postdoctoral researcher in the Center for School Psychology and Development in Context at KU Leuven, one of the study authors, and, judging from her website, general badass [8], also offered an important comment regarding simplistic bifurcations of reality into the experience of “women” and “men” that also certainly bears mention here: “I think we should be more careful, or thoughtful, when comparing men and women. First of all, not all individuals identify themselves as either male or female. Moreover, differences within genders are likely large, and often larger than between genders. Overemphasizing gender differences runs the risk of (unintentionally) underscoring stereotypes” [9].

So no thanks to Ultimate Frisbee, yoga classes, drawing meetups, foreign-language roundtables, the gym, scientific panel discussions, or even bars, I did eventually manage to meet someone, a feat achieved only by channels more respectable and efficient, i.e., the Internet. But as easy as it might be to extrapolate from this adventure to decry the downfall of society at large, perhaps this trajectory reflects more the narrow experiences of one small individual than a grander social trend worth serious strategy and solution. In either case, the extent to which the experiences of the individual and the systems offered by the world around her might apply and interplay in reality bears notice and consideration, even if only to finally get us that date.

 

 

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