Does not wanting a baby make you less feminine? Or does being less feminine (be it in the way you look, or in your hormone levels) make you less likely to want children?
A study published in the latest issue of Hormones and Behavior concluded that women's facial features and estrogen levels correlate with their self-reported desire to have children — where higher estradiol concentrations and more "feminine" facial features both correspond with higher maternal tendencies (i.e. wanting more kids, sooner).
Of course, the findings of the paper are what they are: correlations. Correlation, as most of us know, does not imply causation. That said, correlative results do have a nasty habit of turning into soundbites..."The more feminine you look, the more children you want," for example.
On one hand, the two have teamed up to help make sense of the paper's findings (how, for example, does one even determine whether one face is more feminine-looking than the other?), and have done an admirable job of critiquing the research without lambasting it as total quackery. But the two do an even better job of bringing the paper into context — not just from an experimental perspective, but from a social one, as well.
Clancy, for example, highlights the limited scope of the experiment's testing methods. The investigation's study population consisted of white college students, averaging 19—20 years of age, who had never brought a child to term.
Not only does this study population provide a narrow age-window for observing patterns of hormone levels in women, it is also a so-called "WEIRD" population (Western, Educated, industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) that offers limited insight into the factors that inform the decisions of women in other social, economic, and political environments.
Studies like this one would benefit in meaningful ways from follow-up investigations in different regions of the world, sampling from broader age ranges. As Clancy notes, "how important is it that a teenage girl's hormone concentrations correlate with maternal tendencies?"
Complementing Clancy's experimental critique is Scicurious's evaluation of the paper's sociological aspects (or lack thereof):
What bugs me about [the study], and other papers of its type, is that there are so many sociological factors that are never taken into account. For example, are women with more feminine faces expected to behave in ways that are more socially acceptable? Are they told more often that they would be good mothers? Are they punished more often for behaving in ways that are less "feminine"? Are they rewarded for more feminine behaviors?
After all, as the authors note themselves, women who appear more feminine tend to achieve lower overall rank in the workplace. They make less, they possess fewer "masculine" traits. But is this all due to a desire for teh babiez? Is it due to them just being biologically GIRLY and they just can't HELP it?!
I don't think so. Correlation ain't causation. I looked for studies but had a tough time coming up with anything, but are women who are more "feminine" looking perhaps PERCEIVED as less effective in the workplace? Are young girls who look more feminine encouraged to be compromising and passive as opposed to developing more "competitive", "masculine" traits? Maybe this is as much to do with how feminine features are PERCEIVED, and thus how these women are encouraged to behave, as it does with blood levels of estrogen. Heck, maybe more.
You can read Sci and Clancy's posts in full over at Scientific American:
Kate Clancy — "Framing and definitions: are you maternal enough to be a woman?"
Scicurious — "The more feminine you look, the more children you want. It must be science."
Top images by Law Smith et al. 2011 via Scientific American