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Sex Differences: Proof of Sexism or a Sign of Social Health?

In some domains, greater gender equity leads to larger sex differences

This is my third post on the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and maths. (You can find the last two here and here.) This time, I want to direct your attention to an article by Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War against Boys and Who Stole Feminism? The article isn’t primarily focused on women in STEM; it’s a review of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In. But it raises a question that's crucial to our thinking about the STEM issue and what needs to be done about it... if anything.

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The question is: What do sex differences say about a society? A common assumption is that they say something bad. So, for instance, whenever we find fewer women than men working in a desirable occupation, this is taken as proof of systematic discrimination against women. At the very least, it is assumed to reflect the operation of pernicious stereotypes of the sexes. Thus, sex differences are viewed as a sign of a sick and unjust society. But is this a fair assessment?

If human beings were blank slates with respect to sex differences, then it probably would be. But there's a ton of evidence now, in evolutionary psychology and various other fields, suggesting that we're not blank slates. Many sex differences have their origin in the evolutionary history of our species. They're found across cultures and they're found in many other mammals. Certainly, nurture plays a role as well. I would argue, though, that it's no longer reasonable to deny that nature is strongly implicated in shaping human sex differences. And if that's the case, then maybe sex differences are not a symptom of a sick or unjust society after all. Instead, they're just a symptom of people being people.

More than that, in some cases, sex differences might actually be a symptom of a healthy society. This is the position Sommers argues for in her article. The argument starts with a 2008 study led by evolutionary psychologist and fellow Psychology Today blogger David Schmitt, entitled “Why Can't a Man Be More Like a Woman?” Schmitt and colleagues looked at average sex differences in the Big Five personality traits in 55 nations. Certain differences were found in most nations; for instance, the average woman scored somewhat higher on neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness than did the average man. Interestingly, though, the magnitude of these differences varied across nations, and it did so in a rather surprising way. In nations with greater wealth, better health, and higher levels of gender equity, the sex differences tended to be... larger. That’s right—greater gender equity was associated with larger sex differences in personality.

Why might this be? According to Schmitt and co., it's because people in wealthier, more egalitarian nations have more freedom to choose their paths through life. They're more able to express and explore their individuality. As such, natural differences emerge unrestrainedly and sex differences tend to be larger. In less wealthy, less equitable nations, on the other hand, people have less freedom and sex differences are often muted.

And that brings Sommers to her main point: If certain sex differences are larger in societies with better social indicators, then rather than being products of a sick or oppressive society, sex differences may sometimes be indicators of a healthy society—a society in which people have more opportunities and greater freedom to be who they want to be. Some social activists might not like what people want to be. But in a truly free society, that wouldn't be up to them. The activists would have to learn to live and let live.

Turning to the issue of women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields, Sommers quotes an article bemoaning the fact that, “In China, 40 percent of engineers are women, and in the former USSR, women accounted for 58 percent of the engineering workforce”—whereas in the West, as we know, female engineers are fewer and further between. Should we conclude from this that Western women are more oppressed than women in China or the former Soviet Union? Clearly not. As Sommers notes, the relatively small number of female engineers in the West doesn't stem from Western oppression; it stems from the exact opposite: Western freedom.

This issue came up in a recent IQ Squared debate. The motion of the debate was “Men Are Finished.” Among the debaters were Sommers and Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men. Sommers was arguing against the motion; Rosin was arguing for it. At one point, Rosin attempted to debunk the idea that women are naturally less interested in technology, and that this is the explanation for the STEM sex difference. When faced with claims like this, Rosin noted, she likes to do what she calls the “cross-border biology check”: She looks at other countries and asks whether the same sex differences can be found there as well. If they can't, then the differences can't be rooted in our biology. Does the technology difference pass the test? According to Rosin, it doesn't. In India, for example, we find that around half the technology jobs are held by women. This is because in India, unlike the West, girls' interest in technology is encouraged.

Or so Rosin argued. But Sommers quickly dismantled the argument. The fact that similar numbers of Indian men and women work in technology is not because progressive parents nurture their daughters' interest in tech. It’s because harsh economic conditions force women (and men) to take whatever jobs are available, whether they're interested in them or not. If the only good jobs are in IT, so be it - it's better than not having a job at all. In more affluent countries, people generally have more freedom to pursue careers that truly interest them. Not everyone has this freedom, of course, and few have complete freedom to choose. But most people have more freedom. And when that's the case, fewer women than men go into technological fields.

Of course, even if people are acting freely on their preferences, sexism might still lie behind the gender disparity. After all, our preferences themselves could be shaped by sexist social institutions and stereotypes. Sommers discusses this common claim in another article, which is also worth reading. She notes that, according to feminist activists, “powerful sexist stereotypes ‘steer’ women and men ‘toward different education, training, and career paths’ and family roles. But," she asks, "are American women really as much in thrall to stereotypes as their feminist protectors claim? Aren't women capable of understanding their real preferences and making decisions for themselves?" Western women have more opportunities and more choices than women anywhere else in the world. They’re also more confident and self-determined than any women in history. Perhaps, then, when we view them as helpless victims of social conditioning, we're making a fundamental error. We're mistaking the fruits of their freedom for evidence of oppression.

This mistake could have important ramifications. For several decades, people have tried to persuade more girls to enter STEM fields. This has had relatively little effect. As a result, some activists have started proposing more extreme measures, such as strict quotas for women in these areas. If the above analysis is correct, though, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about these proposals. Why should we trample people’s career preferences in order to enact our own preference for a 50:50 sex ratio in science or any other area? Why do activists think that their preference for a 50:50 sex ratio should take precedence over women and men's preferences regarding their own lives and careers?

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You can check out the "Men Are Finished" debate below. It's a lot of fun; in it we learn, among other things, that men are more likely than women to get struck by lightning...

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Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer at Swansea University and author of the book Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life.

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