Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Culture, Biology, and Headlines on the Increasing Success of Women

            This past weekend two bits of interesting gender commentary arrived on my doorstep. The first came in the form of an essay in The Wall Street Journal’s Review Sectionentitled “A Better World, Ruled By Women.” The second was an article on genderand education published in this week’s issue of The Economist. In light of my recent post about Polly and her math scores, I thought it intriguing that such discussions would come up in two different places.

            Let’s start with the article in the Economist. This article looks at a recent report fromthe Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – what the author calls a “rich-country think-tank” – that analyses the achievement gaps between teenage boys and girls in both literacy and mathematics. Spanning 64 countries, the report finds two things that are particularly interesting with respect to the argument I made in the post about Polly’s math against biologically determined capacities. One is that in general the gap in mathematic achievement between school-age boys and girls is lessening. There are even some countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Norway – countries which have in recent decades made concerted efforts to address equity issues related to women – where the gap has basically disappeared. To me this data shows that concerted efforts to create cultural change with respect to girls and mathematics can and do work. It also supports my thinking that the distribution of boys to girls in Polly’s math group is a product of various social influences and not an essential aspect of their biological capacities or inclinations.
The second point of interest in the Economist article is that in conjunction with this leveling in mathematics a new, reverse gap is opening in literacy. Teenage boys are now doing much worse than teenage girls in reading and writing. While this is certainly a massive concern with respect to how boys in general will fair in the continually evolving information economy, for my purposes this finding also reinforces the idea that biology has very little to do with educational proficiency. Girls have scored ahead of boys in literacy for a while, but that gap is now getting wider and wider. Their biologies haven’t changed during that time, so what’s driving this growing difference? According to the OECD, we need to look to their social environments.


            Unfortunately, this conclusion does not seem to have reached the author of the Wall Street Journal essay. Written by Dr. Melvin Konner, PhD, an (old, white, male) anthropologist from Emory University in Atlanta, “A Better World, Ruled by Women” takes the likely presidential run of Hillary Clinton and the one that might be made by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as a jumping off point to make the case that more women are coming into positions of power and that the world will be better off for it. While this claim is hopefully true, and I’m all in favor of getting more women into the upper reaches of our political, economic, and academic worlds, the way Konner goes about arguing for this conclusion is wrong and probably does more harm than good in reaching for that ideal.
First, he looks to biological differences between men and women to explain their varying suitability for managing power. Men, according to Konner, are essentially mutant creatures. In his words, “The mammalian body plan is basically female. The reason males exist is that a gene on the Y chromosome derails the basic genetic plan.” He goes on to say that testosterone warps the brains of unborn males making them prone to “physical aggression” and emotionless, destructive sexual cravings. Women, in Konner’s taxonomy, are not subject to such warping and thus have brains that can function calmly.
Now, it wasn’t so long ago that this dichotomy between a crazy, irrational gender and a calm, reasonable gender was flipped the other way. It’s taken a tremendous amount of intellectual and social effort to break that binary stereotype apart and see men and women as possessing numerous and varied capabilities. Going back to thinking in terms of a simple good-bad split is a step backwards, regardless of which gender falls on which side.
 Konner then goes on to support his interpretations of these biological differences by pointing to a study of small city mayors that showed women mayors were more likely to seek broad participation in the budget process than men and by providing an anecdotal example in the United States Senate where women senators brokered an important compromise. Along the way he dismisses the famously aggressive likes of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandi, and Golda Meir as products of hyper-masculine political processes but fails to discuss any of the cultural and structural influences that may be at work in the examples he favors. Aren’t the women senators working in a similarly masculinized political process? What common experiences might lead women mayors in small cities to be more inclusive in their decision-making processes than men? I understand that Konner was writing a short article summarizing a much larger book, but it still feels to me like a sloppy case of seeing a trend where you want to see it and dismissing contradictory data as irrelevant.

I was also particularly struck by this article because it seems representative of a trend in popular media towards talking about the reduction of male dominance (and Hillary Clinton’s coming campaign will probably bring more). The problem with many of these articles is not necessarily their observations, but their tone. We should absolutely be celebrating the ascension of more women into positions of power within our society. The diversification of experience, background, and perspectives in board rooms, government bodies, and university offices is a necessary and positive development. The more different types of voices that can be heard in these arenas, the more opportunities we have to create a more fair and responsive society. However, if this discussion is framed as an opposition between the rise of women and the failure of men – as both Konner’s article and Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book The End of Men and the Rise of Women do -  then we risk falling back down the same rabbit hole we have worked so hard to climb out of. The goal should be to rupture the very question of whether men or women will better wield power and instead to provide as many opportunities for all genders to have a chance. As the (white, male, not yet old) parent of a son and a daughter this is what I want: the balance of opportunity that comes with the balance of power. 

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