The paradoxes of gender gaps

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has an interesting column on the controversy that continues to dog former Harvard president Larry Summers.

Was Larry Summers right about women and science after all?

As the mother of two daughters, I hope not. In fact, Summers himself said in his infamous comments about intrinsic differences between the genders, “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.”

But Summers may have been on to something, recent research suggests.

Marcus then goes on to summarize the research showing that more males are clustered at the upper end of the distribution of mathematical and science ability, as well as evidence that (as Summers suggested as one of the possible explanations for the gender disperities in science and technology fields) women choose different levels of commitment to family life.

And then she ends thusly:

In short, Summers was boneheaded to say what he did. But he probably had a legitimate point — and the continuing uproar says more about the triumph of political correctness than about Summers’ supposed sexism.

How’s that again?

Summers had a legitimate point, and the uproar (which, Marcus says, may have cost him the job of Secretary of the Treasury) was an expression of dogmatic ideological intolerance … but Summers was boneheaded to say what he did?

Here’s my own take on Larry Summers, from 2005.

Right now, we’re in a paradoxical place when it comes to cultural attitudes toward sex differences. On the one hand, in certain still-influential feminist circles, there remains a ferocious insistence on unisex dogma, so that any discussion of possible innate sex difference — especially in a context that seems to justify existing gender imbalances — is seen as a shocking and punishable heresy. On the other hand, there is a pervasive “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” conventional wisdom that, nowadays, is quite acceptable in polite society (and is often accompanied by facile references to neurobiology).

As an example, I give you Sandra Tsing Loh’s article in the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Should Women Rule?”, which discusses several books about politics (including Why Women Should Rule the World by Dee Dee Myers) and a book on the biology of sex differences, The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap by Susan Pinker). On the basis of Pinker’s book, Loh makes sweeping conclusions about women and power. Women, it seems, are “consensus-minded and team-oriented” and averse to compeition:

Consider this startling study done with fourth-grade Israeli schoolchildren: when boys and girls each ran alone on a track, there was no measurable speed difference by gender. But when each child was teamed with another child and asked to run again, the boys ran faster and the girls ran slower—slowest of all when running against other girls! What females love is bonding, helping, sharing, and oxytocin—that “opiatelike hormone” dubbed by one anthropologist “the elixir of contentment.” Forget all this tedious racing: what girls would really like to do is carry each other around the track—taking turns! Indeed, studies show that whereas competitive situations drive adrenaline increases in men, they drive adrenaline decreases in most women. Men associate more pleasurable feelings with competition than do women, and even “an eagerness to punish and seek revenge feels more fun.”

She then suggests that instead of trying to “rule the world,” women can “change it” through grass-roots organizing — things like protests against cuts in school funding or rallies for gun control. (I wonder if conservative causes such as opposition to abortion would pass muster?) Because, of course, men have never run grass-roots protests.

Crowding, in fact, may be more effective for women than ruling when it comes to changing the world. While at a biological disadvantage in competitions, women—who even make trips to restaurant bathrooms in pairs—are at a clear advantage when it comes to grouping together and the activities that accompany it: gossiping, sharing, bonding, assisting, scrapbooking, and building networks.

Given the apparent female neuro­endocrinic aversion to competitive, winner-take-all activities like elections, unless testosterone shots become a new female norm, even democracy (thanks, Founding Fathers!), with its boastful, chest-beating campaigning, is clearly stacked against female candidates.

So, Loh concludes, let’s get to work on “crowding.” (Completely forgotten is her own mention, earlier in the article, of famous “dragon ladies” who could participate in ruthless competition with meanest of men: “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley, publishing shark Judith Regan, Vogue editor Anna Wintour.)

I’m not a dogmatic “old-school” feminist on the issue of sex differences. However, does anyone who has lived in the real world seriously believe this tripe about women’s niceness? Yes, there is evidence that women are more “relationally” oriented and more attuned to the moods and feelings of other people, but as often as not this translates into using relationships and feelings to establish dominance and inflict punishment/revenge. To quote the memorable words of the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (from the 1993 book Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism): “Those who have experienced dismissal by the junior high school girls’ clique could hardly, with a straight face, claim generosity and nurture as a natural attribute of women.”
Even before feminism, women competed plenty in “feminine” spheres (and of conversely, of course, there was always plenty of cooperation in the “masculine” world; even war, that most masculine of spheres, is as much about brotherhood as it is about the pursuit of dominance and about dog eating dog). Today, the world is full of women who compete gleefully in sports, business, and yes, politics.

Are there real, innate psychological and intellectual differences between men and women? Most likely yes; but in most cases they are vastly attenuated by individual differences, and that is something both unisex feminists and sex-difference proponents tend to miss. Quite often, the former tend to make a pro forma nod to biology (“of course no one says men and women are exactly the same”) and then go on to react with hostility and intolerance to any actual suggestion of sex differences, while the latter tend to make a pro forma nod to individual variation (“of course sex differences are not absolutes, they’re just a matter of tendencies and degrees”) and then go on to to make sweeping statements in which men are this and women are that.

Shameless self-promotion alert: this is where I suggest a chapter from my 1999 book Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, adapted into a Reason essay titled “Sex and Sensibility.” I don’t think it’s particularly dated. Looking over some relevant passages from Pinker’s book, I discovered an amusing coincidence: at one point, we both discuss the same study, but in a rather different vein.

Pinker:

One study showed how four- and five-year-old boys and girls were motivated by the same goal but reached it through different means. When these preschoolers needed to work together to watch a cartoon, boys used competition and physical tactics fifty times more often than girls. Meanwhile, girls used talking and turn-taking twenty times more often than boys.

Me:

In an especially intriguing experiment, preschoolers in single-sex groups of four were given a film viewer designed so that a child could watch a cartoon through an eyepiece only if two others cooperated by turning a crank and pressing a switch. There was much more playful pushing and hitting among boys. But the girls weren’t shy about giving orders, using putdowns, or even blocking the viewer so that another child couldn’t watch. Moreover, girl groups tended to have “a single dominant individual,” while boys showed “more equal participation” in viewing. Nor did the alpha females get to the top by being nurturing: They gave commands, hit, and disrupted others’ viewing much more often than other girls.

Is it really that difficult to simultaneously hold in our heads the proposition that there are real, biologically influenced behavior differences between men and women on average, and that these average differences tell us next to nothing about any given individual? Even when male and female tactics are visibly different, the differences are often of style rather than substance — not male competition and power struggles vs. female bonding and sharing, but different ways of competing and cooperating.

By the way, I find Summers’s much-maligned speech to be far less demeaning to women than Loh’s musings. The idea that fewer women than men may rise to the pinnacle of some human endeavors while competing on the same terms does not, to be honest, bother me tremendously (any more than the fact that there are more males at the bottom of the pyramid). “Difference feminism,” on the other hand, seems to simply take women out of the human enterprise of achievement, individual initiative and, yes, competition, and consign them to some gooey collectivity. Visions of crowding, grouping, bonding females traveling to the bathroom together and organizing into egalitarian groups for a properly feminine cause is enough to make me cheer for Margaret “The Iron Lady” Thatcher, or perhaps even Sarah “Barracuda” Palin. Let’s hear it for the alpha females.

8 Comments

Filed under feminism, men, sex differences, women

8 responses to “The paradoxes of gender gaps

  1. Anonymous

    I agree completely and was glad to see Summers rehabilitated, as it were. Sorry I don’t see your column in the Boston Globe anymore.

  2. jerry

    A couple of disjoint thoughts….

    1. I dislike the way discussions of “science” now comes down to some battle of studies. I have my studies, you have your studies. My studies are newer. Your studies had more prestigious authors. My studies were cited more often. Your studies were cited in more prestigious journals — and the New York Times!

    Science is supposed to be about method and repeatability — and yet, how many of these studies are ever repeated? (I may be very wrong about this, but it’s my understanding in many fields it’s hard to get funding to repeat someone else’s experiement. And if you are writing a ph.d thesis and someone comes out before you with the same study, you don’t get credit, and can’t really use it in your ph.d.)

    2. I have always felt that laymen need to be able to discuss science – a world of technocrats is as bad as a world of bureaucrats. Yet, part of discussing scientific results for laymen should be a healthy dose of a) humility, and b) skepticism. In many fields we don’t understand the technicalities or the nuances.

    The other day I caught Barry Deutsch citing an author concerning the topic of felicide — killing one’s kids. Deutsch seems convinced that women who do this are mentally ill, and men, not so, but motivated towards revenge and violence.

    And near as I can tell, to make his point he cites a paper by Ania Wilczynski. But when I googled her, I found her reaching the opposite conclusion to Deutsch. He takes her categories and turns them into real differences (caused by patriarchy), she takes those categories and says, this is sexist and argues men and women should be punished the same.

    But at the heart of it, who is Ania Wilcynski? Why is her paper the be all and end all? Why is there this battle of studies, especially when the authors would probably disagree with the rigidity of others conclusions these studies are used to buttress?

    3. Women are the same, except when they are not. It sadly seems to come down to my poor confused brain as one more example of women are different except when they are not. It’s okay for Deutsch to say that women are different regarding infanticide, they are ill and need help. It’s not okay for Summers to speculate on the distribution of genes and gene traits if that could mean women are different. It’s okay for women to demand physical qualifications for firefighters be reduced. It’s not okay for you to note that women can be as mean and cruel as men.

    I don’t get it, and I haven’t run across a feminist trying to explain it or rationalize it. They mostly seem to just hit me and then ban me for bringing the question up.

    4. I’m not sure what to make of Loh’s article. At first I thought she was tearing Dee Dee Myers a new one, and was satirical in her conclusion. I’ve read her mommy wars article “I choose my choice”, and much of what she writes seems to be opposed to the modern kind of feminism. Because I am biased (we’re about the same age, we both have physics degrees, I find her funny when hearing her on the radio), I’d like to think her position on women being unable to compete isn’t what she considers a general statement about all women, or especially not what she considers to be good, but more a statement about many humans (including the men who don’t go on the bus trip but stay home and blog about it.) But I am probably just rationalizing.

    5. Here’s where I think there is a failure of bloggers. Why didn’t Deutsch pick up the phone and call Wilicynski before writing his blog? Would it be worthwhile to write your blog post and then call Loh up and discuss it? Or would that just lead to a watered down blog post?

    What I worry about is the battle of studies and the battle of arguments. It’s one thing when they remain on paper. It’s another when bad science becomes the basis of policy and legislation.

    (It’s not clear to me that Summers has been rehabilitated — his route to not becoming the Treasury Secretary shows just the reverse in fact.)

  3. peter hoh

    When people object to Larry Summer’s comments about why there aren’t more female professors in the sciences, I ask why there aren’t more men teaching in elementary school.

  4. Cathy Young

    Anonymous: Thanks. I still write for the Globe from time to time.

    jerry, excellent points, especially about the “battle of studies.” And thanks for the link to the thread on Barry’s blog.

    Peter:

    When people object to Larry Summer’s comments about why there aren’t more female professors in the sciences, I ask why there aren’t more men teaching in elementary school.

    Actually, I think there’s a good reason for that. Because science at the university level is much more highly paid and more prestigious. While most rank-and-file scientists are neither rich nor famous, of course, science at the highest level does bring fame and money. There is no such thing as a “famous kindergarten teacher.”

  5. Factory

    Cathy, that’s a sexist assumption (not to sound like some humorless activist)…

    No one, anywhere, has shown this to be the case. It’s simply yet another manifestation of the cultural assumptions we have about men….namely, teaching isn’t high enough status.

    Maybe for a lot of women it’s not. A lot of guys I know wanted to do it. In fact, I know 8 men that actually have education degrees…although only one of them actually got a job doing it.

    Sorry, the answer is a little too much like “men don’t get custody because they don’t go for it” to me.

    Couple other reasons:

    1) Education is CLEARLY the realm of females, and dissent from feminist dogma will get you fired.

    2) Preferential hiring practices (and sexually biased hiring) are still in place…men are FAR less likely to get a job teaching younger grades (to “err on the side of caution”…ie, assume the man is a pedophile).

    3) Given the choice, education systems will avoid potential lawsuits (men are pedophiles after all), and out of self-preservation will hire women given the chance.

    4) Education is a career men in particular are ALWAYS in danger of losing at the drop of a hat. One accusation is all it takes.

    My mother retired from teaching 3 years ago. ALL of these things and more were rampant throughout the Saskatchewan Education system.

    Still are.

    And then there’s the way boys are systemically discriminated against in the education system here…

    http://www.thenewgendergap.com/

  6. Anonymous

    Does Anyone know where I can find this study quoted by Sandra Tsing Loh in her article Should Women Rule?

    Consider this startling study done with fourth-grade Israeli schoolchildren: when boys and girls each ran alone on a track, there was no measurable speed difference by gender. But when each child was teamed with another child and asked to run again, the boys ran faster and the girls ran slower—slowest of all when running against other girls! What females love is bonding, helping, sharing, and oxytocin—that “opiatelike hormone” dubbed by one anthropologist “the elixir of contentment.” Forget all this tedious racing: what girls would really like to do is carry each other around the track—taking turns! Indeed, studies show that whereas competitive situations drive adrenaline increases in men, they drive adrenaline decreases in most women. Men associate more pleasurable feelings with competition than do women, and even “an eagerness to punish and seek revenge feels more fun.”

    Thanks in advance

  7. Cathy Young

    Factory, I think you misunderstood my reply. I’m not saying that there aren’t more male kindergarten teaching because it’s low-paid and low-status; I’m saying that the reason there isn’t more concern about gender disparities in this area because it’s low-status. Maybe the issue isn’t even so much pay as status and glamor. Garbage collectors, I believe, are paid fairly well, but you still don’t see people asking “where are all the female garbage collectors?”

    Anonymous: the study Loh references is cited in Susan Pinker’s book The Sexual Paradox, with a footnote to the original study.

  8. Anonymous

    Couple of interesting things. Where long ago it was the bigots full of hard-wired sex differences (and related ‘signs and portents’ revealing homosexuality in the cot) now it is the feminists (and homosexuals) proclaiming them – as long as they are the ones to show women morally superior but socially inferior to men. Admittedly there were sexist feminists in the 80s in communes free of nasty male competitiveness and hierachy. They all collapsed in mutual recriminations when they couldn’t all be Queen Bee

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