Last August I posted on the so-called New Zealand "man drought". Uncovered by an opportunistic Australian who had read off some numbers from the 2001 census, this "drought" involved an apparent demographic gender imbalance in the 20-49 age group.
It was quickly seized upon by the print media, TV, watercooler chatter, and people like my flatmate's 24 year-old friend who rang her up and asked anxiously: "Did you hear? There's a man drought in Wellington!" (with a tone that might have been suitable for "earthquake" or "bird flu epidemic"). [Postscript: I saw said friend at a party a few weeks later, surrounded by at least four eager and jostling males].
Though I had some personal perspectives and theories on why the "drought" was becoming an instant cultural myth, my initial priority was to post on its lamentably dumb, credulous treatment in the media. I was going to do a follow up, but as time went by, figured it was maybe too silly a topic to waste the effort on.
But now the man drought is back in the news. "New Zealand women settle for less" shouted the headline in last weeks Christchurch Press. Supposedly a trend has been identified of women "marrying down", by choosing partners of lower educational, and sometimes economic, status, because of a lack of eligible men.
The resident expert is again boffiny Wellington economist Paul Callister, who appeared in print and on TV last time around spouting off about the future dynamics of relationships.
He has been contracted by the Department of Labour to investigate the demographic imbalance. Among his findings are that, surprise surprise, the "man drought" has been overhyped. The gap in women and men in the 20-49 age group is actually more like 33,000 rather than the 53,000 depicted by the 2001 census.
But he thinks he has uncovered a drought of sorts - one of smart blokes:
Callister said the most significant finding of his research was a 10 per cent increase in the past two decades in highly educated women marrying men with fewer qualifications and, in many cases, lower-paid jobs. This had happened largely because of a lack of eligible partners of equal educational or economic status, he said.
The Press article eagerly extended the metaphor of scarcity , talking of "slim pickings" for women. Predictably, Michael Laws got uncouthly in on the act in the Sunday Star Times, commenting that "the man drought...has had the effect of single women searching out any male with a pulse in an attempt to copulate and breed".
But as appealing as the idea might be to some of scores of frustrated women casting around for well-educated men (someone point them out, please), I just don't buy it.
Assuming that the statistics actually have the significance that's claimed, how's this for an alternative interpretation? Maybe New Zealand women, increasingly likely to be well-educated and with independent means, are simply indulging their existing inclination to partner up with the rugby players, farmers and tradespeople who our culture constantly tells us are the only really acceptable Kiwi blokes?
But in fact there is reason to suspect that the meaning of the stats has been twisted. To know what the significance is of 10 percent more highly educated women "marrying down", you'd have to know some other facts, including what the overall increase has been in highly educated women over the last two decades. If, as is likely, this has increased by more than 10 percent, the number of women "marrying down" might have increased, but not the proportion.
In other words, highly educated women are no more likely to "marry down"; there are just more of them. So it's not about a paucity of men at all - but the fact that there's more girls with degrees.
Seen this way, the discussion appears to be less about what is still a dubious and poorly quantified gender imbalance, and more a somewhat sexist insecurity about disturbance to the natural order of things.
Categories: New Zealand, man drought