Once upon a time, before the middle of the 20th century, there were many legal and social restrictions on what women could do. For example, there were many occupations that women were not legally allowed to hold. Nor could women vote. To their credit, feminists of the early 20th century worked very hard to remove these legal and social obstacles to women. That, as Martha Stewart would say, was a good thing. Then feminists went too far in the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st century, and made things worse. Susan Pinker’s 2008 book The Sexual Paradox: Troubled Boys, Gifted Girls and the Real Difference Between the Sexes convincingly documents where feminists have gone wrong.
Feminists unquestioningly assume that, if there are no legal and social obstacles to women’s achievement, women on the whole would want to pursue the same careers to the same degree as men do. Pinker calls this “the vanilla assumption.” In her book, Pinker methodically demolishes the feminist myth embodied in the vanilla assumption, and shows that men and women are inherently biologically different and women are evolutionarily designed to have different goals in life than men do. Pinker deploys statistical data, personal interviews, and anecdotes from her clinical practice of treating troubled boys, essentially to concur with what Kingsley R. Browne has earlier argued in his Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality. As I suggest in a previous series of posts (Part I, Part II, Part III), women have better things to do than make money; it’s called life. Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox puts names and faces behind the statistics, court cases, and theoretical arguments presented by Browne.
With the “vanilla assumption,” feminists have gone from “none may” (the society where no women were allowed to pursue certain careers, which earlier feminists through their hard work abolished) to “all/half must” (the society where all women must have the same career preferences and aspirations as men do, and, as a result, half of all occupations must be held by women). Pinker cites the work of my LSE colleague Catherine Hakim to demolish the “all/half must” prescription that follows from the vanilla assumption. Hakim’s work shows that only about 20% of women in western industrial societies are as career-centered as men are. Another 20% of women do not want to pursue a career at all and would prefer to focus on their family. The remaining 60% want a bit of both – a part-time work combined with family. In other words, the vanilla assumption only holds for 20% of women; only one woman out of five would be as single-mindedly devoted to their careers as most men would.
Pinker weaves many fascinating tales of women who, despite their intelligence, talent, and commitment, nonetheless choose to opt out of their successful careers to spend more time with their family (and how the “glass ceiling” is therefore usually self-imposed) and of men who, despite their ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, nonetheless achieve the height of their careers. In the process, she gives us many astute observations, such as: “Insisting on a 50-50 gender split in all fields could pressure talented women to take jobs they don’t want, or talented men to work in areas where they have little aptitude.” “Women can now have what men have, but many decide after trying it that they don’t want it.” “Devaluing women’s preferences is an unintended aspect of expecting the sexes to be exactly the same.” In other words, as I argue in a later post, modern feminism ultimately hurts women. Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox powerfully exposes the folly of the feminist prescription that “all/half must.”
P.S. Because it was the very first question I asked Susan Pinker, even before I met her in London last year during her international book tour for The Sexual Paradox, it would be quite hypocritical of me to pretend that the question is irrelevant, even though it is. The answer is, yes, she is his sister.