Three unexpected side effects of women’s progress

Recently there’s been much encouraging news for the progress of womenfolk.  A study of US Census data* found that single women in their 20s living in New York City now out-earn their male counterparts by 17 percent.  Separately, Harvard Medical School has been admitting more women than men for some years now.  And all over the country, more women are earning college degrees than men.  Heck, women run companies, states, and even whole countries, as they should.

This is certainly an improvement over the days when women were neither allowed to vote nor own property.  Empowerment of half the world’s population is a welcome trend, so hallelujah to that.

But has there been a downside to this progress?

One of the central tenets of Taoism is the principle of complementarity of opposites.  The principle manifests itself everywhere from elementary particle physics to human relations.  Electrons balance protons.  Sunlight creates shade.  Yin balances yang.  To every positive trait, there is a shadow side.  And every negative trait contains a hidden boon.  A coin cannot have only one side.

Whatever force has brought about women’s progress — call it feminism, enlightenment, or simple economic imperative — has its shadow side.  In the case of the three things I’m going to tell you about, the downside is pretty high: loneliness, broken relationships, premature disease.

Luckily, these aren’t a mandatory part of women’s empowerment.  They’re like the pesky plastic milk jug that gets stuck under the car to make an infernal racket.  Instead of living with the noise forever, you can just get out of the car and remove the jug.  With a sprinkle of awareness and a dash of action, you can make these problems vanish like morning mist in sunlight.

Here they are:

1) The Pill makes you pick the wrong man.

The oral contraceptive pill was a big part of women’s liberation movement starting in the 1960s.  Here was this little button that gave reproductive control to women, and all the freedoms that came with that.  And seemingly no ill effects on health.

In a 2003 paper, researcher Tony Little of St Andrew’s University and colleagues found that taking the pill may be encouraging women to ‘have relationships with inappropriate men.’


Let me explain.  Women on the pill were rating macho-looking men as more attractive than ones with softer, more feminized features.  This may not necessarily be a problem until the woman comes off the pill.  According to Dr Little, “Where a woman chooses her partner while she is on the pill, and then comes off it to have a child, she may find she is married to the wrong man.”**

This, my dear, has cataclysmic implications.

If you or someone you know was head-over-heels nuts for someone before marriage, but then after marriage and going off the pill said something  like “I still like him, but the chemistry’s gone for some reason,” you may be more right than you think.

Other lines of evidence show that oral contraceptives alter the hormonal balance of a woman in such a way that she becomes attracted to the wrong kind of male pheromones.

Here’s how scientists think this works.  A lot of male-female attraction is mediated by smell, and study after study shows that women are attracted to the scent of a man with an immune system complementary to her own.  In other words, the more different his immune system is from hers, the more attractive she finds his scent.

Now the pill tricks women’s bodies into a psuedo-pregnancy.  And when a woman’s pregnant, she tends to find the scent of kin more attractive than that of strangers.

So if a woman is attracted to a man while she’s on the pill, basically he’s going to have the wrong smell compared to what she’s really attracted to.  And she may not find that out until they’re cozy enough in the relationship to want to have kids and drop the pill.

Do you think this may have anything to do with the 50+% divorce rates in the US?

Moreover, I’m gonna engage in some wild speculation here.  You know how women who live in close quarters tend to synchronize their menstrual cycles?  That’s a pretty amazing fact when you think about it, and must have some deep evolutionary reason if it exists at all.  Synchronized cycles may mean synchronized moods and greater camaraderie amongst womenfolk, leading to a more supportive and cooperative (as opposed to competitive) behavioral mode. The pill compromises smell (which mediates synchrony) and obliterates the menstrual cycle, meaning that women won’t synchronize.  No synchrony means less support, less cooperation, more competitiveness, which I hereby dub a net loss for women.

Scientists are only beginning to fathom the further health implications of subverting the evolutionary process of attraction and having kids with guys that are chemically wrong for you.  Not to mention that the macho brutes may not make very good husbands in the first place (See Tao of Dating, Ch 4, ‘The kind of guy you would want’ section, the part on Biff).

Solution: I’m not a big fan of systemic drugs that upend your whole body chemistry to achieve one tiny result.  Why mummify yourself when all you need is a Band-Aid?  Does it make sense to use a cluster bomb to remove a pimple?  Sure, you’ll get rid of the pimple — but also most of the neighborhood.  So if you want to have sex without getting pregnant, lay off the weapon of mass destruction known as The Pill.  Instead, use a barrier method — condoms, diaphragm, sponge or cervical cap.  The marriage you’ll be saving is your own.

2) Women are cooking less, eating out more and therefore getting fat and sick for no good reason.

The cover story for the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine, ‘Restaurants Rampant’ by Craig Lambert,  is about kitchen meals vs dining out.  Since 1955, the fraction of Americans’ food budget spent in restaurants has doubled from 25 to 49 percent.

Mollie Katzen, author of the Moosewood Cookbook and co-author (with Dr Walter Willett) of Eat, Drink and Weigh Less, says: “I have friends in their forties who grew up right at the height of Mom never being in the kitchen.  They didn’t see their mothers in the kitchen in any meaningful way — it wasn’t an integral part of life in the home.”  The offspring of these mothers went on to become our current generation of non-cooks.

Demographics also play a role.  I know I’m more motivated to cook when I’ve got a crowd to feed, and since most American households today are single-person, incentive to cook  solo may be low.  And in a married household, if both partners are professionals, there’s less time for cooking.

Anecdotally, I would say 3 of 4 professional women ages 24-40 that I meet don’t do a significant amount of cooking.  When I visit, their stovetops are pristine as Arctic tundra, and their ovens are used as shelf space for sweaters.  Some even take a perverse pride in not being able to cook.

They’re still eating something, and it’s coming from restaurant and fast food joints, where the so-called food is laden with butter, sugar, and weird ingredients that you wouldn’t even feed to a neighbor’s pet you have a grudge against, let alone yourself.

The portions are also much bigger than what you would eat at home — 28% more on average as of 1996, according to 2002 report from the US Department of Agriculture.

60% of Americans are obese; a third of those, morbidly so.  So do you think the combination of grease, sugar and jumbo-sized outside food may be a contributing factor?

It is.  And an overweight woman on the brink of diabetes at age 40 who can’t throw a dinner party is not my definition of an empowered woman.  Or terribly attractive, for that matter.

What can we do to reverse that?

Solution: Get your stovetop messy and get cooking!  Stop eating out so much.  Put a blanket ban on fast food — vow never to eat that crap again.  Simple rule: if it comes out of McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, White Castle, Jack in the Box, or any other number of other soulless chains, it’s not food — it’s crap. And telling me “but they have salads there” is like saying Hitler loved his nephews — irrelevant! Follow Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Throw dinner parties.  Pack lunches for work.  You say you don’t have time?  Not buying it, darlin’.  In half the time you spend noodling aimlessly on Facebook every day, you can cook yourself enough food to last you a whole week.  Most of the dishes I cook take less than 15min, and you spent that much today fiddling with your cuticles.  Healthy is often simple, not fancy.  You can also get yourself reasonably healthful fare from the likes of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

This is not about sticking you barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, sister, so don’t give me that, and yes, guys have these shortcomings, too.  But this is about you.  And cooking is power and art, for humans of all varieties.  To design the diet that serves your health and long-term well-being, to  transform raw ingredients into something nutritious, delicious and heartwarming — that’s real power. And you, Woman, can use that power to transform the behavior of those around you, too, serving as inspiration and solution.

Cooking also crafts a warm hearth and welcoming home.  What guy can resist the invitation to eat a home-cooked meal?  Ruling both boardroom and kitchen are not mutually exclusive, and the woman who does both is well-nigh irresistible.

3) Many career women have preferentially adopted masculine power over feminine power.

In nature, each animal has its power element.  Tigers stalk and run on land with great skill.  Eagles fly, swoop, hover, dive through the air.  Dolphins are phenomenal swimmers.

Now if you stick a lion in the water, it may not drown but will never do as well as a dolphin.  Conversely, the dolphin will struggle mightily if thrown in the dry savanna.

Taoist philosophy talks of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) energy.  Yin receives while yang projects.  Yin is; yang becomes. Yin is water; yang is fire. Psychologists call them receptivity and instrumentality, respectively.  Same idea.

Neither is better or more powerful than the other.  The order of the universe requires that they be exactly equal.  Protons are not better than electrons, and they balance each other out exactly, otherwise the universe would scatter to pieces.  The thing that moves (sunlight) comes from the thing that rests (sun).  You get the idea.

What am I getting at here?

All humans have both yin and yang essence within them.  Males tend to have a predominantly yang essence; women, mostly yin.

Ever seen a man with too much feminine energy?  Did you find it attractive?  Well, a woman too much in her masculine energy is just as unattractive.  And not nearly as effective as when she’s in her feminine.

Yin is infinitely powerful, and women are rigged with tons of it built-in.  Sure, it’s necessary to bring some directive, managerial yang power into the workplace to get stuff done. But let’s not forget the soft, yielding power of yin, exemplified by Chapter 78 from the Tao Te Ching:

Nothing in the world
Is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
Nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
The gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
But few can put it into practice.

The expression ‘soft power’ has gained increasing usage in political discourse nowadays.  It has come to mean a subtler power beyond writ, edict, and weaponry — gentle persuasion, the winning over of hearts and minds.  Nurturance.  Bonding.  In other words, yin — feminine power.

And you know what?  Soft power is ultimately more effective than hard power.  Had we spent billions on educating, clothing and feeding Iraqis and Afghans, how would those situations have turned out?  In the long run, water beats stone into sand.

When the Dalai Lama said that the world will be saved by the Western woman, he was probably talking about the woman who knows how to use yang and yet still stays in her yin.  Once again, the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 28):

Know the male,
Yet keep to the female:
Receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
The Tao will never leave you
And you will be like a little child.

To summarize, I’m here to tell you that there is no either/or here.  Having a great career does not exclude having a great love life and family.  Being powerful does not mean you have to grow balls — ovaries work just fine.  Being busy does not mean that you can’t cook.

Going off the pill, cooking at home and using yang while centering yourself in yin gives you back a bunch of power.  And the whole abundance of the world becomes available to you the moment you decide to embrace your own power.  So think in terms of both/and.  That’s what the whole Tao of Dating book is about, and if you haven’t read it yet, maybe it’s time.  The world’s been waiting for you to show up as the fullest version of you, and now is as good a time as any.

*Reference: James Chung and Sally Johnstone, Reach Advisors as referenced here


9 Comments on “Three unexpected side effects of women’s progress”

  1. Anonymous

    Wow. You do realize that you’ve just told every woman who reads your blog to go off the pill and leave her pregnancy risk in the hands of guy and a condom if she wants to be happily married one day? I am appalled.

  2. Em

    Thank you for making me smile this am on the train into Essex. Ovaries not balls ha ha! You shed more light on the contraceptive pill, read an article once on how the pill may make women lose their attractive edge…polarity..magnetism…whatever you wanna call that while on the pill and the ‘scent of kin’ rather than a sense of polarity to compliment each other makes sense to me. Thank you. Love from London town

  3. Jeannie

    You always seem to know exactly what I need to read when I need to read it! Thank you for your work. I really appreciate your ideas and your way of expressing yourself. You help a lot of people; of that, I’m sure.

  4. Anonymous

    How then do you explain the many poor dating decisions that are made without being on the pill and the good ones that are made while on? I just don’t buy the pill argument. Mind over matter.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      I’m sure there’s a name for this kind of logical fallacy — the disemboweling of the reverse antecedent, or something — and yes, it’s true that bad decisions are made all the time. What we’re saying here is that a drug that alters your perceptions — eg alcohol, large chronic doses of estrogen and progesterone analogs — are probably not going to improve those already shoddy decisions.

      Mind over matter is a fine idea. We should also remember that the mind is made of matter, and we forget how susceptible it is to simple chemical influence.

  5. Heidi

    Can I just tell you how happy I am that you wrote this piece? I think about this topic a lot. The way you research your articles and books is mind blowing (literally, and that’s a good thing). You back everything up, not with just anecdotal stories, but current scientific research and ancient wisdom that has stood up for centuries. Wow.

    I happen to believe the “progress” referred to in the title has been good and appropriate along the path to real balance, even with its attendant “dirty little secrets.” But as your points illustrate, we aren’t “there” yet with the women’s movement. Let’s assess where it stands today (because for sure we aren’t finished yet because we aren’t fulfilled yet) and we need to see the stuff we didn’t realize when we tried to BE a man in a misguided attempt to be valued equally to a man. Sure, we sooooo needed the progress that has been made so far, but now a slight correction might be the next step, and you describe so wonderfully well where we might begin to make those corrections. Maybe not everyone will give up the Pill, but it’s something to think about – I had no idea that it might have those effects on me. And #2 and #3 are no brainers for me.

    Fantastic article! Thanks!

  6. m

    “Most of the dishes I cook take less than 15min, and you spent that much today fiddling with your cuticles.”

    Some of us aren’t even on Facebook, and we “fiddle with our cuticles” because if we don’t, you guys brutally criticize us and accuse us of having “man hands”.

    I grew up watching my mom *both* work in the kitchen and feed us, but since she was a teacher and I’m an attorney *and* a teacher, I work twice the number of hours she works.

    With respect, Doc, your generalizations are just peachy as far as they go, but I can’t help wondering what suggestions you might have for the rest of us that are struggling with the same problems with non-committal men, but who as women don’t fit all the parameters of your ingenious little paradigm.

  7. Irena

    Hi, Alex

    Well, let me contribute to the feedback also.
    2. and 3. are a no brainer for me. 1., however, is a bit more complicated. I certainly agree that the pill may have the effect that you discribe but to be connected to the 50% divorce rate is too drastic an assuption I think. Divorce is a social phenomenon not biological, just like marriage.
    Here’s how:
    200, 500, 1000 years ago people got married for very different reasons than today. Mostly they were economic/political not romantic (so “I’ll marry the one who smells the best” was out of the question). Parents were the ones who would choose a partner for their off spring (there was no dating, just very short courtship). At the same time divorce was not an option. It was considered shameful, men and women were both stigmatized by it and women would lose their daily bread as well as their children (as the children were men’s property). At the same time religious authorities were so powerful that they practically programmed people’s brains with “marriage is obligatory and forever, divorce is sin and damnation” so people would never even consider anything else. Throw in there very short life expectancy and, well, it’s not like people had to suffer for 50 years or anything. Divorce did happen on occasion but rarely and usually among the upper classes under very strict conditions.

    Today people are obssesed with romance. They marry for love (well, supposedly), or most often than not, infatuation. Plus most people mistake infatuation with love and, well, you know how that ends. On top of that women today can feed themselves and their kids, so they no longer need a man to survive, divorce is socially completely accepted and there is no stigma attached to it, and religious authorities lost much of their, well, authority. Therefore, neither men nor women have to put up with any crap from one another. So when things get a little tough, they call it quits. When infatuation (which they believe is actually love) fades, they call it quits. It is just no longer necessary to put in any effort. Throw in there high life expectancy and, wow, could you really stay married to the SAME person for 50 years (that’s half a century)? Sure, if you can get along REALLY well, otherwise, what’s the point.

    Therefore, I’m sure there were just as many bad and disfunctianal marriages 200 years ago as there are today, but the environment was such that people had to put up with it. They did cheat, though, just like today.