Science AMA Series: Hi! I'm Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, a Portland State U assistant sociology professor. My work explores the relationship between gender, marriage and family, and several behavioral and attitudinal outcomes, such as: employment, health and socio-political attitudes. AMA!



Does sexual history (ie multiple partners) effect marriage stability?

If it does, is it true for both men and women?

Does marrying later in life (30s) have an effect on marriage?


If there isn’t a literature on number of sex partners affecting marriage stability, there should be. That is an interesting question! I don’t know off the top of my head. But in general, older age at first marriage is thought to be beneficial to marriage longevity, but much of this is probably about people with more education and resources tending to marry later (education and money are good for marriages).

Is there a noticeable difference in behaviors/attitudes in couples who are married vs unmarried couples who have lived together the same amount of time?


There is an interesting and growing literature on cohabitation. In part, because cohabitation - what it means to people who engage in it, the impact it has - is changing. Currently, we tend to think of cohabitation as a relatively short-lived experience - one that ends in marriage or break-up in a relatively short period of time. But for a minority of couples, cohabitation is an alternative to marriage. These couples tend to be very liberal and ideologically opposed to marriage. For them, I would expect their attitudes and behaviors to look very similar to married couples. But I can’t say for sure.

How wide geographically was your study? Attitudes would seem vastly differential in comparing, say, the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast states.


It was (thanks to a TESS grant and survey firm) fielded to a nationally representative panel. Indeed, attitudes on surnames do vary by region in our country.

What are some key indicators of a failing relationship?


I think some of the most interesting work on this topic comes from The Gottman Institute in Washington. For an awesome podcast on Gottman’s research, check out this episode of This American Life: I assign it to my students in my Marriage & Intimacy class and they love it.

Hello Dr. Shafer, thanks for taking the time to share your research with us.

Was there any relationship between generation and attitudes towards women changing their names? Or are millennials without a college education just as concerned with women changing their names as older generations?


Great question! I don’t have the best sample size in my study to examine how my findings may vary by age. I could (and may when I get home) look at crude age cuts to see if there are any differences. But in general, age is correlated with attitudes about whether should change their last names in marriage. Younger folks in general are less likely to agree that women should change their names. See below for more. Hamilton, L., Geist, C., & Powell, B. (2011). Marital name change as a window into gender attitudes. Gender & Society, 25(2), 145-175.

You said that the trend toward gender equality has plateaued; when do you think this started and why?


Shout out to my advisor Paula England at NYU who has a great paper on this in the journal Gender & Society. In part, gender equality has plateaued because while women have moved into traditionally male spheres of life - like paid work - men have not moved into traditionally female spheres like housework and carework at nearly the same rate. So men’s careers tend to be privileged, on average, in marriages, and women are making decisions around their husbands. I have a paper on how women who are partnered to men who work really long hours are more likely to exit the labor force, for example. So things on the home front are stalled (again: on average). But at work, women also face a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” environment because women who act in a way that if men did they would be rewarded, they are viewed negatively as not nice. I could say a lot more on this - the Clayman Institute at Stanford is doing a lot of interesting work in this area.

What are the job-related ramifications of a woman keeping her own surname? Are there differences in pay, performance, or advancement opportunities compared to women who take their spouse's last name?


Job-related ramifications probably depend on the job. As an academic, changing my name wouldn’t be a good idea. I publish papers with my name and I hope that in publishing folks will start to recognize me as an expert. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any study that looks at the job ramifications of changing one’s name. But I do know that when women keep their own name - doing so for their career is one of the reasons they cite for making that non-traditional choice.

Does the relationship between education and perception towards surname choice have any further implications? i.e. less respect for women in general.


Attitudes towards surname choice are a "great" reflection of society’s view that women should put their families ahead of themselves. An expectation that we do not hold for men. In addition, there is great research by Sociologists Laura Hamilton, Claudia Geist, and Brian Powell who argue that attitudes towards surname choice are a better reflection of gender attitudes than what Sociologists typically use to study them. Typically Sociologists use attitude questions about women’s roles in society - like whether a working mother can be just as good of a mother as a woman who stays at home. You can see why these questions (about women’s roles) might be a bit outdated. The majority of women work, so it is possible that attitudes about women working outside the home have changed, but general attitudes about the “gender hierarchy” may not have.

Do you study hyphenated surnames as well? What studies would you like to do in the future?


Yes! There was a hyphenated surname condition in my experiment as well. I didn’t see any difference if a woman’s last name was hyphenated in how she was rated as a wife by low educated men. Although less traditional, perhaps low educated men see this change as meaningful as they see women changing her name completely. And there are too many studies and not enough time! Definitely though surnames will remain part of my research agenda.

Good morning Emily, I also go to PSU. Can you share a link to your work? How did you determine the correlations between men believing women were less committed if they kept their last names and chosing to work less late hours? What was your sample size for your studies, and were they localized, regional, nation wide?


Hello fellow viking! My study is a survey experiment - and experiments are great for getting at causality. So I can be fairly certain, since my respondents were randomly assigned to condition (that is whether they were answering questions about a woman who had the same last name as her husband or not), that these correlations are causal. It was a nation-wide study with a sample size 1,243 people.

Is there a measurable difference in marriage relationships if the wife does/does not breastfeed? Does length of time breastfeeding impact this?


Interesting. I am not sure I have seen any study looking at breastfeeding and relationship longevity. I do know that father support helps breastfeeding initiation and breastfeeding duration. One of our graduate students - JaDee Carathers - did some really interesting work on breastfeeding and found that some male partners wanted “access” back to their female partners breasts, which hurt women’s breastfeeding. I am probably butchering the description of her results, bottom line: JaDee, you need to publish that work so the world can learn about your results!

An interesting fact I've seen is that very smart women tend to marry men that aren't as smart as they are. What are your thoughts about why this is?


I can’t speak to “smart” but I can speak to education and marriage. Today, individuals within a couple are most likely to match on education (in the past, it was religion). But women are getting more education than men on average these days, so we may see more couples in which women have more education than men.

Hi there. I am 33, male, and single. I have a career in the medical field. My hopes are to remain single for the rest of my life. I would however love to adopt at least one child even though it will likely prove difficult to say the least as a single man. What effects will this have on my life in terms of happiness and the other variables which you have studied?


Read the book All Joy, No Fun. It is a great review of the research on the impact becoming parents has on our lives.

So, if a partner works long hours, more than 40 hours a week lets say, does it impact a woman's health?


Great question! Past research on this topic suggests that no, it doesn’t have an impact on women’s physical health. But I have a paper that will be coming out this year in Community, Work, and Family about how being partnered to a man (among heterosexuals) who works long hours (over 50 per week) is associated with higher stress, lower time adequacy, and lower relationship quality for women.

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