Heightening the Scrutiny of Spousal Sizes

Sociologist Philip Cohen takes to the virtual pages of The Atlantic to consider why most (opposite-sex) married couples consist of a taller man and a shorter woman. It's not just demographics:

The height difference between men and women in the U.S. is about 6 inches on average. But Michael J. Fox, at five feet, five inches, is shorter than almost half of all U.S. women today. On the other hand, at five-foot-ten, Michelle Obama is taller than half of American men.

Cohen presents data (along with a brief analysis) that suggests that while we would expect around 8% of couples to consist, on average, of a taller woman and shorter man, if marriages were random, in reality only about 4% of marriages conform to this arrangement.

While Cohen's article is an interesting case study to present to students, I can imagine doing more with it in the classroom. He doesn't really present a formal hypothesis—which means students can be asked questions like: What's the null hypothesis? What's the research hypothesis? What are the units of analysis? What is the sample? What's the population?

More advanced issues could also be considered. The heights are presumably self-reported; that suggests that there may be measurement error at work (perhaps "socially undersirable" pairings of taller women and shorter men might be underreported; perhaps men exaggerate their height more than women do). Cohen is writing for a general audience, so doesn't present any tests suggesting the results aren't due to random chance; what could we do to test a hypothesis here?

There are also some broader societal questions at work here. Cohen suggests that this disconnect between reality and the ideal skews perceptions of the two genders. Obviously there are parallels in other parts of society; for example, viewers might be forgiven for thinking that the "New York" that television shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and How I Met Your Mother depict is actually located somewhere in Scandinavia, given the level of ethnic diversity on those casts. On the other hand, the number of fictional minority and female presidents and vice-presidents depicted in popular media in the last decade probably exceeds the number of actual non-white, non-male holders of that office several hundred-fold. How does the relative lack of male teachers influence young mens' respect for staying in school and obtaining an education? I can see many fruitful discussions emerging from Cohen's observation that disparities in the reality we perceive may reinforce stereotypes about groups and individuals.

Thanks to Michelle Dion for the article tip! If you've found something you'd like to share with OPOSSEM's readership, drop me an email at c.n.lawrence@gmail.com.