A health example of choosing between a dichotomous outcome or a continuum

When I teach Statistics and Research Methods, we talk a little about how researchers make decisions about creating and using categories for data they have. As this example of recommendations about fertility notes, creating categories can be a tricky process:

Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

Being 35 or older is labeled by the medical community as “advanced maternal age.” In diagnosis code speak, these patients are “elderly,” or in some parts of the world, “geriatric.” In addition to being offensive to most, these terms—so jarringly at odds with what is otherwise considered a young age—instill a sense that one’s reproductive identity is predominantly negative as soon as one reaches age 35. But the number 35 itself, not to mention the conclusions we draw from it, has spun out of our collective control…

The 35-year-old threshold is not only known by patients, it is embraced by doctors as a tool that guides the care of their patients. It’s used bimodally: If you’re under 35, you’re fine; if you’re 35 or older, you have a new host of problems. This interpretation treats the issue at hand as what is known as a “threshold effect.” Cross the threshold of age 35, it implies, and the intrinsic nature of a woman’s body has changed; she falls off a cliff from one category into another. (Indeed, many of my patients speak of crossing age 35 as exactly this kind of fall, with their fertility “plummeting” suddenly.) As I’ve already stated, though, the age-related concerns are gradual and exist along a continuum. Even if the rate of those risks accelerates at a certain point, it’s still not a quantum leap from one risk category to another.

This issue comes up frequently in science and medicine. In order to categorize things that fall along a continuum, things that nature itself doesn’t necessarily distinguish as being separable into discrete groups, we have to create cutoffs. Those work very well when comparing large groups of patients, because that’s what the studies were designed to do, but to apply those to individual patients is more difficult. To a degree, they can be useful. For example, when we are operating far from those cutoffs—counseling a 25-year-old versus a 45-year-old—the conclusions to draw from that cutoff are more applicable. But operate close to it—counseling a 34-year-old trying to imagine her future 36-year-old self—and the distinction is so subtle as to be almost superfluous.

The trade-offs seem clear. A single point where the data turns from one category to another, an age of 35, simplifies the research findings (though the article suggests they may not actually point to 35) and allows doctors and others to offer clear guidance. The number is easy to remember.

A continuum, on the other hand, might better fit the data where there is not a clear drop-off at an age near 35. The range offers more flexibility for doctors and patients to develop an individualized approach.

Deciding which is better requires thinking about the advantages of each, the purpose of the categories, and who wants what information. The “easy” answer is that both sets of categories can exist; people could keep in mind a rough estimate of 35 while doctors and researchers could have conversations where they discuss why that particular age may or may not matter for a person.

More broadly, learning more about continuums and considering when they are worth deploying could benefit our society. I realize I am comfortable with them; sociologists suggest many social phenomena fall along a continuum with many cases falling in between. But, this tendency toward continuums or spectrums or more nuanced or complex results may not always be helpful. We can decry black and white thinking and yet we all need to regularly make quick decisions based on a limited number of categories (I am thinking of System 1 thinking described by behavioral economists and others). Even as we strive to collect good data, we also need to pay attention to how we organize and communicate that data.

Questions arising from “Hidden networks of [Democratic] suburban women”

Continuing the attention paid to suburban voters in the upcoming 2020 election, one article examines groups of suburban women with political goals:

Ohio, a former swing state, has moved swiftly to the right since President Donald Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016; Republicans have dominated, save for Democrat Sherrod Brown’s 300,000-vote Senate win in 2018. Yet, brewing in these red counties, from Geauga in the north to Warren in the south, is a contrasting rally cry: Ohio is a swing state, and suburban women who were often previously politically inert will be the ones to make it such in 2020. This is not the same crowd as the women’s marches or Indivisible groups that sprouted in 2017, and their rhetoric doesn’t have the sharp edge of Trump’s fiercest critics. Many have kept their nascent activities hidden on private Facebook groups and invite-only events, only to emerge for 2020 as a new network — unconnected to any campaign or party, but designed to boost Ohio Democrats’ flagging fortunes here.

These groups range from the Organized Progressives Standing United (OPSU) and the Bay Village Nasty Women to the Progressive Women in Westerville and Positively Blue in Dublin. The OPSU had 20 members when Julie Womack, 51, of Mason, Ohio, joined it in November 2018. Now, it has 500. In September 2019, a few months after leaving a left-leaning media job in Washington, D.C., Paris launched Red, Wine & Blue, a statewide network of blue-leaning women (and some men) pushing for higher political involvement in 12 suburban Ohio counties. A dozen groups have since joined her network…

The women often worry about drawing too much heat in communities where they have felt politically isolated. “Democrat is a dirty word down here,” says Womack, whose group was “secret” when she joined it but is now public. She sees OPSU’s rapid growth as a mirror of her own need for political outspokenness — especially in Warren County, which went for Republican Gov. Mike DeWine by 36 percentage points in 2018. “I’m at the point in my life now that I just don’t care. To label yourself a Democrat or a progressive [here], you’re going to feel ganged-up upon. You’ll stand out.”…

It might not be enough, suggests Richard Perloff, a professor of political media and communication at Cleveland State University who believes that the narrative of suburban women turning Ohio blue in 2020 may be “overly optimistic.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. By virtue of being hidden, private, or less public with their activities, it is hard to know how many such groups exist. And how many groups are on the opposite side of the political aisle?

2. Another angle to this could be a need more Americans feel to keep their personal politics quieter or at a simmering level until an opportunity (like an election or a threat of war) comes. This approach could be more popular for a number of reasons: more divisive public rhetoric, animosity toward outspoken political comments, limited support for political minorities, a decrease in confidence in and participation in traditional voluntary associations. This could help contribute to increased difficulty in using public opinion polls to predict elections. (A possible flip side to this: each private group can operate more independently without being beholden to a larger organization. And suburbanites may care about national politics but they like local control.)

3. Where are there public spaces in Ohio and other states where people can gather to talk about politics and other matters relating to community life? The missing third places or public spaces featuring regular mixing of people mean more activity and conversation takes place in private spaces or by invitation and planning rather than through spontaneity or a regular presence in a particular location.

Gendered McMansions, Part 2: large kitchens and attached living areas

The size of McMansions provides a lot of interior space. How is it used and how does this relate to gender?

If the exterior of the McMansion is imposing and garish, the interior provides room for family activity. The ubiquitous open concept kitchen and living area with updated appliances, surfaces, and island provide space for social gatherings, storing stuff, family interaction, and solitary time for residents. This is private space par excellence in the United States.

The interior emphasis on kitchens and living space can be connected to norms and expectations regarding women, home, and family life. If the large and flashy exterior of the McMansion leans toward notions of masculinity in the United States, the roomy interior leans toward the work of women serving as supporters, wives, and mothers. The men may seek escape in a “man cave” (which suggests the rest of the interior space is not for men) and children may seek solace in their large bedrooms but the center of the home in terms of time and activity still generally involves the kitchen and attached living spaces. Even with a shift away from cooking food at home, there is still much sentiment and many expectations attached to women working in the kitchen.

Going back to the McMansion of The Sopranos, the big suburban home may represent something different for Tony’s wife Carmela. While Tony wants to come home and relax and bask in his success (including running his nuclear family), the McMansion offers Carmela space to entertain and show others that she is taking care of her family. Through gatherings and food as well as the size and location of the home, Carmela can show she is ensuring the success of her husband and children. See the two cookbooks published with Carmela’s imprint on them. Her kitchen is open to an eating area as well as a family room where the family can watch TV (though there are other spaces to escape to or that are used for more formal gatherings). Toward the end of the show, she pursues work outside of the home – though that work is still connected to houses – and encounters difficulty convincing her own family that this work outside the home is worthwhile.

Similarly, many an HGTV episode features a reveal of an open concept kitchen and living area that is often said to be for a female resident. This can be the case even if the people on the show admit that they do not cook often; the kitchen is seen as the primary gathering space. Thus, if McMansions strive to provide sizable and gleaming kitchens and living spaces and such spheres are often associated with women, the primary family and social areas in the McMansion are gendered.

Analysis suggesting suburban women could decide 2020 election

The suburbs continue to be a key geographic battleground in national politics. Analysts suggest suburban women may decide the 2020 presidential election:

Many professional, suburban women — a critical voting bloc in the 2020 election — recoil at the abrasive, divisive rhetoric, exposing the president to a potential wave of opposition in key battlegrounds across the country.

In more than three dozen interviews by The Associated Press with women in critical suburbs, nearly all expressed dismay — or worse — at Trump’s racially polarizing insults and what was often described as unpresidential treatment of people. Even some who gave Trump credit for the economy or backed his crackdown on immigration acknowledged they were troubled or uncomfortable lining up behind the president.

The interviews in suburbs outside Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Denver are a warning light for the Republican president’s reelection campaign. Trump did not win a majority of female voters in 2016, but he won enough — notably winning white women by a roughly 10 percentage-point margin, according to the American National Election Studies survey — to help him eke out victories across the Rust Belt and take the White House…

The affluent, largely white and politically divided suburbs across the Rust Belt are widely viewed as a top battleground, the places where Trump needs to hold his voters and Democrats are hoping to improve their showing over 2016.

If large numbers of suburban women are turned off by the action and rhetoric of the current president, it will then be interesting to see if his opponents craft messages to specifically target these same voters. If parties and candidates generally think they know what urban and rural voters want to hear, how will they adjust to suburbanites who are living in fairly complex and varied settings?

For example, the concerns of residents in more affluent suburbs may not match that well with larger political and cultural issues parties and candidates want to address. What if these voters are more akin to “dream hoarders” who want to secure their own positions more than they care about larger issues?

Jell-O and “soul-killing suburbia”

A review of a new family history tells how the narratives links Jell-O and suburbs:

Jell-O might be the glistening dish of picnics and potlucks, but for Allie Rowbottom — a descendant of the Jell-O fortune — it’s both a burden and an abyss. In “Jell-O Girls,” she weaves together her family history and the story of the classic American dessert to produce a book that alternately surprises and mesmerizes. Despite its title, this isn’t a bland tale that goes down easy; “Jell-O Girls” is dark and astringent, a cutting rebuke to its delicate, candy-colored namesake…

“Jell-O Girls” could have easily devoted itself to the tragic fates of those heirs, or what the family called “the Jell-O curse.” A number of Rowbottom’s relatives succumbed to alcoholism and suicide. More money meant more money, but sometimes it also meant more to lose. A great-uncle who divorced and mismanaged his way out of his own fortune threw himself from the roof of a Sheraton hotel.

But Rowbottom’s interest is in the women of her title — namely, herself, her mother and her grandmother…

Jell-O, meanwhile, gets the full semiotics treatment, as Rowbottom shows how it went from a modern, scientific foodstuff to a relic of soul-killing suburbia. As sharp as her insights often are, this is a book in which Everything Signifies. Even a digression about the catacombs in an Italian monastery includes some Jell-O symbolism. You occasionally want to tell Rowbottom to ease up: Sometimes a Jell-O mold is just a Jell-O mold.

It would be interesting to read more about how this connection was made. At the least, I might expect to find:

  1. The rise of mass-produced goods, including food items, and suburbanization. Even as suburban homes went up in mass-produced subdivisions, the goods that filled these houses also often came out of an emerging mass-production economy. Cars, household appliances, furnishings, and food.
  2. The lives of women in suburbs. Numerous scholars have addressed the limited opportunities for women in many mass-produced suburbs as well as the numerous depictions of traditional family life in suburbs.
  3. The banality of Jell-O and the conformity and/or dullness of suburbia. Critics might argue the limited substance of Jell-O matches the boringness of the suburbs.

At the same time, if I had to create a list of consumer objects I would associate with suburbia, I do not think Jell-O would even enter my mind.

Societies may not want women to fight in wars – until they are desparately needed

Here is an interesting piece about women soldiers in history, particularly focusing on their participation in World War II when their countries needed them. Here is part of the argument:

The girls of Stalingrad weren’t the only women to inspire shock and awe in World War II. Great Britain, the United States, and other combatants put hundreds of thousands of females in uniform; the Soviet Union alone recruited roughly a million, sending many into combat as tank commanders, snipers, and pilots. Desperation, not egalitarian ideals, drove these mobilizations; there simply weren’t enough men to fight in history’s largest conflagration…

In many ways, Panetta’s decision is simply a recognition that women are already fighting in combat. The United States has deployed nearly 290,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. More than 140 have died, many killed by insurgents. With the blurry front lines of modern warfare, even women assigned to noncombat roles sometimes wind up in battle. In 2005, assigned to a protection detail for a military convoy, Army National Guard sergeant Leigh Ann Hester landed in a firefight with Afghanistan insurgents. Jumping from her Humvee, she ran to a ditch where several Americans were pinned down and about to be taken hostage. Opening fire with her M-4, she held off the insurgents, killing three and helping to rescue the men. Hester became the first woman to receive a Silver Star for a direct engagement with the enemy.

Still, Panetta’s decision will be fought hard. Citing reports of sexual harassment in the ranks, some officials worry that women will disrupt the cohesion crucial to combat unit. They also argue that females physically can’t handle the duty.

IN THE END, some people will never accept women in battle—at least, that is, until women are needed.

It strikes me that “normal” social roles can change quite a bit under altered circumstances such as war. So how much is this new directive in the United States allowing women in combat is driven by a need at the front lines? Does this tell us more about the larger capabilities of the US military than changing social norms regarding gender?

Analyzing gendered uptalk on Jeopardy!

As part of a household that regularly watches Jeopardy! via the magic of DVR, I was intrigued to read about this sociological study of uptalk on the show:

Linneman’s study involves issues deeper than how game show contestants talk—specifically, the implications uptalk has for gender identities. According to his article, “The primary sociological controversy surrounding uptalk concerns the fact that women use uptalk more often than men do, and some interpret this as a signal of uncertainty and subordination.”Linneman found that both gender and uncertainty played a role: “On average, women used uptalk nearly twice as often as men. However, if men responded incorrectly, their intonation betrayed their uncertainty: their use of uptalk shot up dramatically.”

The use of uptalk is not merely an academic concern, as Linneman discovered with one of his results.

“One of the most interesting findings coming out of the project is that success has an opposite effect on men and women on the show…The more successful a man is on the show, uptalk decreases. The opposite is true for women…I think that says something really interesting about the relationship between success and gender in our society, and other research has found this too: successful women in a variety of ways get penalized.”

Uptalk’s sometimes-negative connotations bring up the subject of how women speak, a provocative issue.

While this isn’t an earthshaking finding, two things are very interesting here:

1. It is a reminder that language usage and speech patterns reflect larger social forces. While individuals may have unique ways of expressing themselves, language and expression is also learned behavior influenced by others.

2. Selecting Jeopardy! as the research case for this particular phenomenon is clever. While uptalk is related to perceptions of a lack of confidence, the contestants on the show should not have as much reason for nervousness as others might have about being on TV. In order to make it on air, they have to be smart enough to pass a qualifying test and then they have to pass an in-person audition. In other words, the contestants, males and female, are bright people. Granted, being in front of a camera is a different matter but these contestants aren’t caught completely unaware nor should they be fully perplexed by the questions they are trying to answer.

Female characters in recent movies and TV shows still marginalized

A new study shows female characters in recent movies and TV shows still play very different roles than men:

The study, lead by sociologist Stacy L. Smith, analyzed 11,927 speaking roles on prime-time television programs aired in spring 2012, children’s TV shows aired in 2011 and family films (rated G, PG, or PG-13) released between 2006 and 2011. Smith’s team looked at female characters’ occupations, attire, body size and whether they spoke or not.

The team’s data showed that on prime-time television, 44.3 percent of females were gainfully employed — compared with 54.5 percent of males. Women across the board were more likely to be shown wearing sexy attire or exposing some skin, and body size trends were apparent: “Across both prime time and family films, teenaged females are the most likely to be depicted thin,” Smith wrote in the study’s executive summary. The ratio of men to women in STEM fields was 14.25 to 1 in family films and 5.4 to 1 on prime time TV. Perhaps most telling are the percentages of speaking female characters in each media form: only 28.3 percent of characters in family films, 30.8 percent of characters in children’s shows, and 38.9 percent of characters on prime time television were women.

In a summary of the study’s findings, the researchers reported that they found a lack of aspirational female role models in all three media categories, and cited five main observations: female characters are sidelined, women are stereotyped and sexualized, a clear employment imbalance exists, women on TV come up against a glass ceiling, and there are not enough female characters working in STEM fields.

This reminds me of the video Killing Us Softly 4: similar images of women are spread throughout advertising and other areas. Television and movies don’t exactly depict reality but we can still ask what values they are portraying. It is not just about entertainment; sure, people want to escape from the real world from time to time but any sort of media is creating and working with values an ideas. Of course, the real values portrayed by television and movies may be consumerism (for example, in the latest Bond film) and making money.

Saudi Arabia’s women-only city within a city

Saudi Arabia is doing something unusual by creating women-only portions of big cities.

How will this all-female city work?
The inaugural one in Hofuf is essentially a female-only industrial zone that’s expected to employ about 5,000 Saudi women in the textile, pharmaceutical, and food-processing industries. Women will run the companies and factories. “I’m sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suit their interests, nature, and ability,” says Saleh al-Rasheed, deputy director general of the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon), which is in charge of the project. The women will live in adjacent neighborhoods.

Who came up with the idea?
A group of Saudi businesswomen, according to the business newspaper Al Eqtisadiah. But Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy embraced the concept as a way to lower female unemployment while staying “consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations,” Modon said in a statement. The government had little choice, says Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic. “Restrictions on women’s lives and productivity there are so extreme — Saudi women need a male guardian’s permission to travel, seek employment, or marry — that the country is in effect letting a potentially huge sector of the productive economy sit idle.” About 60 percent of college graduates in the country are women, and 78 percent of them are unemployed, according to recent surveys; only 15 percent of the Saudi workforce is female…

Will this city work as intended?
Some women who work in these new cities “will no doubt distinguish themselves, but they will still be laboring in segregation,” says The Atlantic‘s Goodyear. If the goal is unleashing the female workforce, “a segregated city will never be as productive or creative as one where the free exchange of ideas among diverse converging people is allowed.” Actually, I think “Hofuf will be exceedingly productive,” says Zoe Williams at Britain’s The Guardian. For one thing, “as an industrial town with no men in it, it will presumably contain none of those mini-impediments to productivity known as ‘children.'” In a few years, these Saudi women will be South Korea to their male counterparts’ North. These cities will either fail or they’ll succeed in further segregating women from the public sphere, says Homa Khaleeli at The Guardian. Maybe women should “flock to them, close the doors, and refuse to leave until the kingdom’s rulers understand just what it is like to live without women.”

Is this a step forward for women?
That’s a tough question, says The Guardian‘s Williams. It’s not really “a move forward in women’s liberation, not unless you think apartheid was a good system for black people because they got their own swimming pools,” but at the same time, we can’t know yet that “Ladytown won’t boost women in unintended ways.” As I suspect the Saudis will soon learn, “when you educate people, refuse to let them work, and then suddenly unleash them, en masse, into economic productivity,” that’s a recipe for change. Look, in this kingdom, this is the only opportunity for women “to have an income, be financially independent,” at least for now, Saudi radio host Samar Fatany tells ABC News. Putting women to work feels inevitable, even in Saudi Arabia, says Doug Barry at Jezebel. And “everyone should have the right to fall into the daily grind, because only then can all people truly appreciate how awesome it will be when robots do all our work for us.”

“Ladytown” sounds like it could be an odd title for a film…

It would be interesting to hear how these new developments will look and be experienced differently. In other words, does a city planned for women look and feel different than a city designed for men or both genders? For example, do women desire more parks?

The descriptions of operations in Hofuf make it sound like many of the jobs will be low-trust, relatively low-wage jobs in fields like textiles and food processing. Are there plans for more white collar positions or will these remain concentrated in the “male sections” of the city?

When will more romantic comedies reflect living alone, cohabitation, and women getting more education than men?

The world of romantic relationships is changing: more people are living alone, cohabitating (maybe or maybe not marrying in the long run), and more women are obtaining college and graduate degrees than men. So when will romantic comedies reflect this?

I bring this up because I recently saw The Five-Year Engagement. This movie tackles the latter two issues I mentioned above: the couple lives together roughly 3-4 years before they get married (there is a clear period when they live separately). Also, the woman is working on a post-doc in social psychology at the University of Michigan while the man is a chef who has taken some classes as a culinary school. They end up having to try to compromise between their two jobs but little is mentioned about the relative status of the two professions. (A side note: how many people seeing this movie even know what a post-doc is? Is this mainstream? Also, I am undecided whether the film makes the field of social psychology look good or bad.) Yet, in the end, the couple still gets married. In fact, much of the plot of the movie is driven by the idea that the couple wants to get married but circumstances keep getting in the way. Additionally, the other main couple in the movie gets married quickly after they find out the woman is pregnant.

In the future, can the genre of romantic comedies survive without marriage at the end? Marriage is a nice plot device to end the film: they invariably show happy couples finally going through a marriage ceremony. It wraps up the story nicely. However, fewer American adults are married (51%) so are these films now more aspirational than ever and/or do they reflect the interests of a shrinking subset of the population? This also reminds me of the film (500) Days of Summer where marriage is not in the cards for the couple involved but movie viewers probably don’t get the same happy feeling at the end. I suspect romantic comedies will subtly or not so subtly change in the coming years to reflect these new realities and still try to provoke happy feelings even if marriage is not seen as much as the end goal.