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Do women get bitchier as they get older? Only if they’re faced with research like this

November 14th, 2008

Dr Petra

A recent experiment published in Biology Letters (Circum-menopausal effects on women’s judgements of facial attractiveness) suggests that as women go through the menopause they are more likely to report preferences for younger, feminine faces. The researchers claim this is because as women pass through the menopause they are no longer fertile and therefore can accept younger same-sex ‘competitors’.

The media’s take on this research (aside from not bothering to read the original study it seems) was to interpret the findings thus – as-women-get-older-they-become-less-bitchy.

Predictably the study was given a lot of press coverage that allowed itself some gleeful misogynistic and ageist reporting. Such gems included how women become redundant as they age – but at least they’re not bitches any more (courtesy of the Daily Mail), or how the bitchiness of teenager girls is unrivalled (courtesy of the Telegraph where the reporter clearly hadn’t worked out the research didn’t include teenage girls).

Rather than relying on media coverage, let’s take a look at the study, its findings and conclusions. 97 white women aged 40-64 years completed an online experiment where they were required to rate facial attractiveness. Results indicated women who had passed through the menopause responded more favourably to the more feminine looking pictures. The researchers concluded this was a sign that women who had passed through the menopause no longer considered younger women competitors.

The study, in my opinion, was not worth a press release, the resulting media fuss, or publication in the first place. If I had been sent it as a reviewer I would have rejected it for publication on the following grounds.

97 white women completing an online experiment constitute a small-scale sample. I’d call it a pilot. No details are given in the study methodology (outlined in the paper above) of how the women were recruited and where from, what they thought the study was about or how their role in the research was explained to them. Without this basic information we cannot reliably assume they are representative of the wider female population.

The study did not appear to ask women about their sexual orientation, attitudes to childbearing (or if they’d had or wanted children), or assess outside self-report whether the women were pre or post menopausal.

No mention of ethical approval was given in the paper which makes me wonder if any was sought. Just because this is an online experiment it doesn’t mean you don’t need ethics approval for research. If your ethics committee said you didn’t need approval this needs reporting anyway.

Simply asking women to rate faces in an online study does not truly tell us whether they have become more or less judgemental about same-sex ‘competitors’. The only way to reliably test this would be either to follow up women over time and see if their views change, or to compare this group of women with younger women and a comparison group of men doing the same task. If different results are obtained you might be able to conclude this was down to the effects of menopause, but my hunch is you’d probably get similar findings between male and female/younger and older groups.

The researchers appear to only have consulted a restricted amount of reading material, and focused solely on evolutionary explanations for their data. An equally reasonable reading of their findings may be that women are raised in a culture where youth and beauty are intertwined. Meaning an older woman may well know that youth is desirable and rate younger faces as more attractive. Not because they have overcome any competitive feelings relating to younger women – but because they know they should aspire to be younger.

This phenomenon has been widely addressed within the psychological, sociological, medical and cultural studies literature and it is worrying that none of this evidence appears to have been consulted in this study.

There is also an ethical question about how your study will be represented following a press release. It’s one thing concluding your study shows women becomes less judgemental, but it’s another knowing that this may be spun from judgemental to ‘bitchy. And from ‘bitchy’ to listing all the stereotypical shortcomings of menopausal women. Whatever you’re aiming for with research, it shouldn’t be to allow a group of people to be criticised in this way and to play into the ageism so many older women in our culture face.

Based on these shortcomings one wonders why this study was accepted for publication. Surely any reasonable reviewer or editor might ask for basic information on recruitment, sampling, ethics approval or interpretations of data before publishing? And surely it’s a strange thing to press release a study that’s small-scale and poorly explained in terms of methodology.

Sadly when it comes to research on sex, sexuality and gender the Royal Society (who publish Biology Letters) appear to let standards slip. They consistently press release studies that are small scale, underpowered, badly explained and apparently poorly conducted, such as:

How your contraceptive pill makes you fall out of love

Women’s orgasmic problems are genetic

Such studies are always of a type to generate a lot of media coverage and therefore shape public opinion. But we have to wonder what is going on when an organisation that promotes itself as being at the cutting edge of science endorses and encourages bad science and poor peer review.

I would urge those working in the area of sex research to notify the society about this problem, and to volunteer as peer reviewers. I’ll be sharing my worries about this research and studies like it with the Society and offering to peer review papers. I’ll keep you posted on their response.

If we don’t take action we’re going to keep on seeing this carnival of poor sex science being promoted. With poor media coverage following as a result.

And that is only going to make me bitchier.

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