Unannoying Gender Difference Analysis

Men and women think differently--this seems kind of obvious. Yet in some circles, it is still considered bad form to say such things. In my master's program, this idea was treated very warily. And, truth be told, there's so much nonsense out there on the subject, I didn't mind; it's not like anyone in my master's program would have said anything concrete and provable on the subject.

However, I am an advocate of the belief/argument/theory that biology, rather than social constructs, makes men and women different and in more ways than the obvious. So I will occasionally pick up books about gender differences. And I will then get annoyed. The reason for my annoyance, usually, is that the writers form illogical conclusions backed by justification and self-congratulation. That is, since more men than women can be found in the top levels of hard-science, women must not be good at the sciences (fallacy), therefore (1) science stinks (justification) or (2) women just aren't made that way--sorry, ladies (self-congratulation).

And I throw the book down and that's that until the next one.

However, I think I have found a book that doesn't annoy me: Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox. Susan Pinker is examining why men appear to achieve more than women in "high-flying" careers, but she examines "why" using interviews, statistics, and reliable methodology, not political correctness, her own experience, or fevered socio/geo/religio politics.

So refreshing!

She also has a great perspective. First, she makes the point (through all those statistics, etc.) that, for instance, women do enter the sciences and those that do, succeed. Second, not only are these women not discriminated against, often they are sought after. Third, many of these women choose to leave the track they are on and pursue different (less kudo-offering) careers for reasons that have nothing to do with external pressures.

In other words, women consistently make choices where internal desires--job satisfaction, a sense of obligation to family, and a desire for personal time--outweigh external privileges: mucho dollars and prestige.

And, Pinker says, so what?

Well, she says more than that, but her attitude (so far) is that these choices aren't wrong, detrimental, unfair, discriminatory, or hurtful to women. And she has so far avoided the equally annoying tack that women have it right, why don't the stupid men get a clue. Rather, she argues that women should not perceive themselves (or each other) as failures if they make choices that make a lot more sense to them than the alternative.

She proves over and over that women who "opt out" of the money/prestige path are not suffering from discrimination. (Not necessarily. She does make the interesting point that women in high academic positions tend to get burned out since they are expected to be more motherly than their male counterparts. I can attest to this. I walk into a class--5'2", female, late 30's-- and I can see the "oh, she'll be so sweet to us" look in my students' eyes; I imagine coyotes look at poodles the same way before they leap. Consequently, I give a speech at the beginning of each semester where I nicely, but forcefully, advise my students that the requirements on the syllabus will not change, and they will be sadly disappointed if they think I will fold to their hard-luck stories in four months. I'll feel incredibly guilty about their hard-luck stories, but I won't fold. And I don't. And at least one student a semester gets very angry at my--to quote the expurgated version--"cold-heartedness.")

Women, Pinker says, are making choices by which they put various aspects of their lives first. A woman who goes into pediatrics rather than surgery (and this is common) is not doing so because (1) she hasn't the brains (in fact, women do better academically than men at almost every level) or (2) because she hasn't the ambition (keep in mind that the women Pinker is studying are all, for lack of a better word, alpha-females). Rather, the woman who goes into pediatrics would simply rather have her cake and eat it too, even if eating her cake means a cut in salary because she has opted for a more flexible schedule and for a more people-oriented application of her knowledge. (It isn't about choosing babies over careers; it's about making career choices that allow for babies . . . and other stuff.)

What insight! On a personal note, I've never considered myself a people-person, and yet, I work in education. Since I took on too many teaching jobs for this coming fall, I recently had to decide what to drop; what got dropped, interestingly enough, was the online tutoring: the job with the least amount of student contact (and a job I find rather depressing) even though it is probably the easiest, fastest and least inconvenient way for me to earn good money. Apparently, despite unexpurgated emails, I prefer to work with "real" students than with faceless entities.

I'm not exactly an "it's all about the people" poster girl, however, since I would rather be paid to write than to teach. But I would still teach if I got paid to write; I just don't like my entire life hanging on a career track, which actually, now I think of it, probably makes Pinker's point. However, a strong streak of "do my own thing" runs through both the men and women in my family, so it could just be a Woodbury thing.

In any case, to muddy the waters still more, men make people choices too. An ER doctor I know works ER precisely because it has more regular hours (don't have to carry that annoying beeper around), and he can be home with his family more. Pinker is not saying that ALL women are one way, and ALL men are another. She is noting consistencies, trends if you will, amongst women and men. The trends are strong, and they occur even when other social factors have been accounted for; more is going on than a social construct.

And what Pinker sees as going on is not evolutionary psychology (per se; evolutionary psychology isn't her focus) but choices. "[T]here is new evidence," she writes, "that it is a good idea to trust women's choices instead of pushing them to study what doesn't appeal to them. . . women--both those who chose science and those who didn't--knew their interests, their capabilities, their appetite for risk, where they would succeed, and exactly what they wanted." Now, that's a feminism I can get behind!


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