Surveys are funny things. You can get some interesting revelations out of a well-done survey, but if the survey has significant flaws you can also end up with a barrage of information that seems interesting on the surface but is actually completely useless for learning anything about the human condition.
Case in point, this month the Hart Research Association released a long report based on survey research entitled “The Shriver Report Snapshot: An Insight into the Modern American Man.” The survey itself has a lot of interesting questions that give insight into how men today think about masculinity. However, the part of the survey results that is getting the most attention also happens to be its weakest section.
At one point the survey gives the male responders a list of 10 personality traits. In one version of the survey they are asked to choose the 2-3 top traits from the list that they would want in a daughter. The other version of the survey asks the men which of the traits they would most want in a partner or wife.
Men rated intelligence as their most desired trait for both daughters and wives, but in many other qualities there were big differences between what they wanted in daughters versus wives. The largest differences were in attractiveness and independence. 45% of men said that attractiveness in their wife/partner was an important quality while only 11% said the same of their daughter. As for independence, 66% of men said it was a top trait they want in a daughter while only 34% thought it important that their wife be independent.
Articles about the survey describe the results of this question with titles like “Men Value Independence In Their Daughters More Than Their Wives.” I have to say, that does sound pretty damning. Men seem to want their daughters to be strong, independent women who don’t fuss over their appearance, but want their wives to be sexy, quiet ladies who are dependent on their man. Certainly, on the surface that seems to be what the survey results are implying.
My first thought upon seeing this survey question, however, was that context matters. The word “independent” has a completely different connotation when applied towards a person’s child than their partner. When considering “independence” in the context of children, it brings up images of a child that has grown up and gotten a great job, moved out of her parents’ house, and maybe even started her own family. With these connotations, of course “independence” is going to rank highly on traits parents desire for their children.
When thinking about the word “independent” in the context of a life partner, it takes on a much different meaning. Independence in a relationship could mean that your partner has her own friends and hobbies that don’t involve you and can deal with all her problems on her own. Personally, I’m a heterosexual cisgender women so am not planning on having a wife or female partner any time soon, but if I were asked this question in regards to a male partner I would not rank independence among the highest desirable traits. Don’t get me wrong, having independence in a relationship is unquestionably a good thing. However, too much independence could mean there is something very wrong. I want my partner to have his own friends and hobbies but I still want to be invited to social events with his friends and sometimes even take part in his activities. I want him to be able to do most of the things in his life independently, but also want to make sure that he can rely on me when needed and sometimes even be dependent on me. In other words, I want him to have independence but only to an extent. It’s ok and quite healthy in a relationship to have a bit of dependence on each other.
As for attractiveness, the meaning itself doesn’t quite change when considering a daughter or wife but that doesn’t mean it’s not completely understandable to care about attractiveness at different levels in different types of relationships. It’s not sexist or even shallow to want to be attracted to your life partner. How broad the definition of “attractiveness” is may be completely different from person to person, but being physically attracted to your spouse or partner is certainly something that a person should strive for in their relationships.
When considering traits you want in your children, however, attractiveness is likely to rank much lower. Wanting a sexy spouse but not sexy children is not a sign a sexism, for reasons that should be self-evident. Parents want what is best going to lead to their children’s future happiness and that may include things like intelligence, independence, and strength but is less likely to include something like attractiveness. Whereas in a partner, attractiveness matters for selfish reasons because you’re probably going to have sex with them and want to be turned on by them.
Articles about the study are trying to use the differences in men’s answers about what they want in their wives versus their children to prove that men’s wants are inherently sexist. Still, I just don’t see how wanting different traits in a child versus a partner says anything deeper about a person than the fact that the relationship between a parent and child is a very different creature than the relationship between a person and their spouse. Of course we want different things out of different types of relationships.
When reading results of surveys, it’s always important to put yourself in the shoes of the responders and consider how you might interpret a question if you were taking the survey. This can go a long way towards helping you notice situations where the results of a survey may seem damning on the surface but actually are completely understandable from the respondents’ point of view.