Saturday, July 17, 2010

Please read this book! Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox

The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women and the Real Gender Gap
This is an extraordinary book, engagingly written, well argued, and well documented with a mass of research, especially from neuroscience. Pinker argues for an understanding of the gender gap in work, life choices, and pay between men and women that takes account of the real biological differences between the sexes. It is a mistake in her view to expect or aim for a 50-50 representation of the sexes in fields like IT, engineering, science, or corporate law or, for that matter social work and teaching.

She focuses on highly successful women who thrived in school and had every encouragement from teachers, parents, professors, and mentors and yet chose more balanced, socially and personally meaningful lives than the high-paying, high prestige careers on which they first embarked. They asserted their own wishes and needs in the face of strong social pressure and strong incentives to follow a male pattern of career success. Pinker also interviews men at the extreme end of the male brain pattern, that is, those with Asperger's, lacking in social skills, incapable of empathy or intimate friendship, who found niches where their intense focus was an advantage and their social deficits could be accommodated.

This seemed at first a puzzling strategy. Why study only successful women who have choices that most women do not? The point, though, is that when women do have a choice, they do not choose (on average) to devote themselves to their careers at the expense of family, to high pay and competitive jobs at the expense of social purpose and meaning. The gender gap is smallest where women have few choices, in countries where they are pushed into careers because of perceived needs of the economy (Zimbabwe, India) and greatest where women are most protected by labor laws and have most choices--such as Finland, the Netherlands, or Germany.

It makes sense, then, to study women's actual preferences--what they choose when they have a choice. In this sense, Pinker's book supports the argument of Neil Gilbert's A Mother's Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life, which points out how "family-friendly" policies reinforce the economic pressures of the market and the social pressures of feminism to subordinate family to work, and women to the male model. Both authors argue for giving more weight to what women actually want rather than what others think they should want. Attempts to reduce career and (consequently pay) differences to gender discrimination belittle or invalidate the choices women who have choices make about their own lives. No wonder Pinker's book has been greeted with relief and enthusiasm by many women throughout the world.

What about men? Pinker notes in her Epilogue that half the book is about men, but few men reviewed it and the discussion the book elicited worldwide was all about women. Pinker's discussion points to the tendency of men to extremes of success and failure, their fragility, their falling behind girls and women at every educational level, their increased risk of premature birth (and death), disability, school failure, violence, and suicide. As she says, the real gender gap and the nature of the sexes and relations between them cannot be reduced to a war between the sexes and to formal and informal discrimination. Men are not "all the same."

Discrimination and socialization limited the opportunities and life choices for girls and women, and still do in many countries. The paradox, however, is that the more these factors are reduced or eliminated, the bigger the gender gap becomes, in personality as well as pay. In her epilogue, Pinker quotes with approval NYT's science correspondent's summary of a 2008 study of the personalities of 40,000 men and women on six continents: "A husband and stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge."

As a professor socialized in the 1960s and 1970s to believe that all gender differences were results of socialization and discrimination, that there were no "essential" differences other than anatomical, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. That old view was never tenable, but it persists, often unspoken but also unchallenged, in academia, to the detriment of many lives and of good policy.

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