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The L.A. Women : The Faces Behind the Statistics

February 21, 1988|CATHLEEN DECKER | Cathleen Decker is a Times staff writer.

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES POLL conducted phone interviews last fall with 1,635 women to find out how they feel about the quality of their lives in Southern California. The women were asked more than 80 questions, with emphasis in four areas: Personal beliefs and attitudes, career, relationships and family. They were also asked if they would agree to talk again in person after the results of the poll were compiled. Seven women were then selected from this group and were interviewed in their homes, to add a human dimension to the numbers in the poll results. Their stories follow the analysis of the poll.

SO MUCH FOR Los Angeles women as the vanguard of a new-wave, outre life style, shopping bag in one hand and Gucci clutch in another. The real Los Angeles woman, more often than not, has been married, has a child or two, probably a job, doesn't have enough money for a maid--and is satisfied with her life.

She also likes herself. There is precious little angst , it turns out, in the real lives of half of Los Angeles County: Women here say they like their ages, they like their looks and, best-selling diet and exercise books to the contrary, they even like their weights . Those who have mates find them largely ideal, and those who don't say they have no intention of lowering their standards to get one. Their health, mental and physical, is good; their self-esteem is high. Juggling kids and careers, or embracing one or the other, they are on their way to having it all--and think they will get it.

That rosy scenario is true, according to the poll results. It is also true that behind the glow lie many different worlds. A thousand variables combine to make the life of each woman in Los Angeles singular; those minute differences can be buried in an avalanche of data about the "average" woman. But the mass of information does serve as a check on our common perceptions.

THE POLL RESULTS

It's more than an empty adage, for example, that rich is better. Ask the rich. To hear Los Angeles women tell it, the wealthy are happier in myriad ways. They enjoy culture, favoring museums and reading over shopping and television. They are healthier and possess self-esteem to match their wallets.

Together with the affluent areas of the San Fernando Valley, the Westside is the more worldly half of Los Angeles, contrasted with the Central and Southeast areas. But wealth hasn't completely smoothed the lives of Valley residents. They have more difficulties balancing jobs and family, and they undertake more psychotherapy. (On the Westside, more women reported consulting channelers than psychiatrists or counselors.)

Strong differences surfaced among Latinas, black women and whites. (While Asians are highly visible in the area, they still compose only 6.2% of the population, according to the 1980 Census, while Latinos make up 24% and blacks 9%. The number of Asian women in this poll's random sample was representative of the population at large, but, using current poll-analysis techniques, it was too small to be statistically significant: It would be inaccurate to generalize on the basis of those responses.) Black women are more ambitious and career-oriented: They strongly favor social strides that have broadened women's options. Latinas, on average, are less likely to drink and use drugs than their counterparts, have lower self-esteem and are the least likely to have considered divorce. Whites, who on average make more money, report enjoying the highest self-esteem.

Women born to the baby-boom generation, between 21 and 40, are more likely to have chosen a career than older women, yet their range of options also gives them an uncertainty about their lives. They have considered divorce more frequently than older women, and are more likely to think they married and had children too soon.

But overall, Los Angeles women pronounce themselves satisifed with their lives.

The Times Poll surveyed women over age 18 across Los Angeles County during five days in October. The poll was designed to give a true cross section of women in the county, and the margin of sampling error is plus or minus three points.

PERSONAL BELIEFS

NOWHERE DO THE distinctions separating women's lives come so sharply into focus as in the arena of personal beliefs: what they want, how they feel, what they think. For most, the answers are an amalgam of traditional and new.

What do L.A. women want? According to the poll, their top two goals in life are having a happy marriage, named by 37%, and helping others, 21%. Those are followed by career and a desire to be creative. Power and fame rank low on the list, with 1% each. But among women who've never been married, career takes top priority, followed by marriage and helping others. Four percent choose fame. A happy marriage appears to be the most popular goal in both the Valley and Southeast areas, where it was chosen by 46% of the women--about double the number on the Westside.

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