Feminism gives you breast cancer

I ran across this story study linking breast cancer protection to housework while browsing Scienceblogs briefly over the break (GrrlScientist mentioned it here), but hadn’t had a chance until now to read through the actual publication. As usual, I’m late; Orac has a good overview, as well as some comments made by other bloggers railing against “feminism” and how this study proves that feminist philosophy kills women.

First, here’s how the BBC story describes it:

Women who exercise by doing the housework can reduce their risk of breast cancer, a study suggests.

The research on more than 200,000 women from nine European countries found doing household chores was far more cancer protective than playing sport.

Dusting, mopping and vacuuming was also better than having a physical job.

The women in the Cancer Research UK-funded study spent an average of 16 to 17 hours a week cooking, cleaning and doing the washing.


First, a bit about the actual paper. This was a giant study, pulling in data collected from over 200,000 women in several different European countries. This is both good and bad from an epidemiological point of view. Large numbers are a good thing, as it generally increases the ability of your study to find actual correlations. However, because these were pulled in from a variety of sites, the uniformity tends to decrease, as is evident by the fact that women from Norway and some from Sweden were excluded due to lack of information on physical activity. Data on activity was also self-reported rather than actively measured, so these are all estimates and subject to various biases and inaccuracies. These can cancel each other out (one woman may slightly over-report, another may under-report) and the questionnaires have already been validated in other studies, but one still must remember that the results of the analysis are only as good as the data put in, and these kinds of questionnaires are often difficult. Intensity of activity also wasn’t directly asked; rather, they assigned housework (and exercise) to levels based on type of activity (stair climbing versus gardening, for example)–again introducing some imprecision into the measurements. Each woman was then assigned an “activity index,” and the data was run in a multivariate model to control for potential confounders (age at menarche, number of births, current contraceptive or HRT use [but nothing about past use, as far as I can see], etc.)

Sooo, the methods certainly aren’t too bad, but they’re not exactly rock-solid either, and they weren’t designed specifically to address the question at hand. Additionally, as they note in their discussion, they only have data on physical activity from the previous year. Do these adequately reflect the risk over the life of the woman? My time spent on housework has certainly varied as kids have been born, pets have been attained, houses have changed size, etc.

Finally, despite the rantings of some of the “oooh, feminism and working outside the home is so bad, see, it kills you!” crowd, I think they’re missing an obvious point: many of us who work outside of the home *still* spend a significant part of our time on housework. Indeed, the average time spent per week in the cohort–be they women who worked outside the home or not–was 16-17 hours per week. Is it less than our mothers, our grandmothers? Probably, for many of us at least. But I’ll wager that even stay-at-home moms also spend less time on housework than their grandmothers, due not to the “evils of feminism” or any such nonsense, but simply to modern technology. Therefore, it’s equally stupid to say that dishwashers and vacuums “cause” breast cancer as it is to say that “feminism” does, especially when such a notion isn’t even supported by the study they’re trying to cite.

Comments

  1. #1 Laurent
    January 4, 2007

    Maybe the thing is that women are free to chose a “feminist” lifestyle whatever the result for their health is.

    I think their is something like the either/or fallacy behind this… Or mustn’t smokers stop smoking?

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    I may be off base here, but women with careers would take more risks in general (commuting to work is one of the most dangerous daily activities engaged in, statistically speaking). So even if more women who were career seeking feminists died, isn’t that risk something that is traded for fulfillment, money, etc.?

    If that were the case, would “feminism kills people” even be a half decent argument?

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    January 4, 2007

    “If that were the case, would “feminism kills people” even be a half decent argument?”

    No, that’s not right. That’s a poorly formulated rhetorical question. I should just have said that it was a shitty argument. Please don’t get the wrong idea!*

    (*especially those who have read my blow-up in a certain other thread)

  4. #4 Dave S.
    January 4, 2007

    It should come as no surprise that moderate physical exercise (whether housework or whatever) is good for women, as it is for men. I’m sure men could also benefit by doing housework. In more ways than one.

  5. #5 Agnostic
    January 5, 2007

    I think this just says that hermits don’t get as sick as people who are out and about each day.

    Housewives must have far lower exposure to pathogens. The difference b/w their exposure level and that of working women will be even more pronounced in urban areas, and I would guess even more so in colder climates — to get infected, you have to leave the house, and no one wants to leave when it’s cold, housewives especially. A Scandinavian housewife in winter must be the closest thing to a hermit that there is; contrast her with a housewife in southern Italy regardless of season.

    Breast cancer probably has an infectious component, since it’s large enough of a fitness cost and is common. It does tend to strike after a woman has had all the chance she’ll get at making babies, but she still needs to be alive & healthy to raise them & their grandchildren, so the fitness cost may be bigger than you’d think.

    A robust result in the personality psychology literature is that male-female sex differences in personality traits are least pronounced in traditional, Collectivist cultures (East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa), and most pronounced in liberal, Individualist cultures (West Europe). So this breast cancer pattern may be another ironic result: health differences between traditional and working women will be most pronounced in heavily feminist countries (Scandinavia) and least in feminist lite countries (Italy).

  6. #6 Tara C. Smith
    January 5, 2007

    I don’t necessarily agree about lower pathogen exposure. What about all the bacteria and mold present in dust, in the toilet, in the shower, etc. that, presumably, the housewife would have more contact with than someone who spent less time on housework? It can work both ways for that. I think there’s just too much missing information here to really delve into why they found the connection was more significant between housework rather than other types of physical activity in this study.

  7. #7 Stephen
    January 5, 2007

    On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament!], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

    -Charles Babbage

  8. #8 idlemind
    January 6, 2007

    Isn’t it the case that the result for housework was just barely significant (p>.95) while that for some other activities barely missed the significance level? So wouldn’t random variation explain why housework came out “on top” as it were? Another roll of the statistical dice and some other activity — or none at all — could have reached significance.

  9. #9 Phillip Jesson
    January 7, 2007

    As ‘idlemind’ said in their post, the statistical variations are too close to be of significance.
    Maybe the size of feet is relevant.
    The rationale for that would be the smaller footed are capable of standing closer to the sink/work-surfaces and are more comfortable for extended periods.
    Of course it is absurd to believe the statement, but there could be statistical evidence to lend credence to the idea.

    From personal experience, dusting, vacuuming, etc. are more exercise intensive than most manual jobs.
    As an Industrial Laser Operator, every shift generates approximately 8 tonnes of parts and waste; this is moved manually and a sweat is never reached. However, when doing vacuuming, perspiration is profuse after only a few minutes.
    The temperature of the environment doesn’t seem to be a factor, as the Laser Room is generally above 25°C, the house approximately 17°C. Humidity is similar in both locations.

  10. #10 PennyBright
    January 7, 2007

    As a housewife, I need to chime in here.

    While I cannot speak to the social conditions in Europe, I know that here in the US, I am able to be a homemaker because my family is reasonably well off. Is it possible that all these authors have done is found another way of grouping women socio-economically?

  11. #11 Kristine
    January 8, 2007

    I find it interesting that this study seems to assume that women did not work outside the home in the past. That was only truth for upper-class ladies.

    As a matter of fact, women of color and poor white women have always worked outside the home–as farmers, as textile workers, as domestic servants, as whatever-they-could-to-make-whatever-pittance-they-were-worth to send home to the folks, and in the case of African-American women, as slaves. In non-western cultures that don’t have the “ladies first” mentality, women do the majority of the hard labor. Guess who also had crappy health? I think PennyBright has hit on something.

    Perhaps who they really should study is children–children who go to school as opposed to children who stay at home (i.e., Afghan children making rugs) and see how their health correlates.

    Oh–and feminism doesn’t kill people. Guns kill people. ;-)

  12. #12 pat
    January 8, 2007

    “Is it possible that all these authors have done is found another way of grouping women socio-economically? ”

    It definitely sounds like they did.

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