Is There a "Superior” Sex?
The sad truth about being male.
Posted Aug 15, 2017
When I learned about the now-infamous Google memo, I was pretty upset. I didn’t like the idea of someone losing his job with a major corporation because (as I see it) management didn’t like his perspective on social issues. So I wrote a blog titled Diversity includes Intellectual Diversity.
Well I have to say that a small firestorm ensued. I wasn’t quite expecting that (although I guess I wasn’t totally shocked). All over the internet, this post sparked debate—and even arguments—on all kinds of topics such as freedom of speech, national politics, expression in the workplace, gender, and more. Seriously, a firestorm!
It’s rare that my blog posts lead to such firestorms—and, to be honest, I’m not really in it for the firestorm and, as such, usually stay out of such storms when they appear.
But I will say that a few folks got my goat in this past firestorm—and I feel a need to post a follow-up.
The issue that got me had to do with accusations of supporting a conception of females as the inferior sex. This accusation was not directly launched at me (as far as I can tell), but it is sort of in the ether of the dialog.
So, as a long-standing scholar in the evolutionary behavioral sciences, let me be clear: The concept of a superior sex and an inferior sex is, overall, ludicrous—and such a conception makes no biological sense whatsoever. Pick up any biology textbook and read the section about sex differentiation and sexual reproduction. You will find content about the biological definitions of male and female. Nowhere will you read that one of the sexes is superior to the other. That’s just not how the biology of sex differences works.
Struggling Young Males
This said, the data that I presented in my prior post show that we can think of one gender as being superior to the other in an important domain. That is, I presented data speaking to the fact that when it comes to success in college, females are doing considerably better than are males. Specifically, I presented the following based on data from SUNY New Paltz—a state university in New York):
- Females are admitted at much higher rates than are males.
- Females have higher GPAs than do males, on average, at each and every step (Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, and Senior year).
- Females are much more likely than are males to graduate within four years.
- Conversely, males are much more likely to fail out than are females.
And all the data I see from other colleges and universities is consistent with these findings from New Paltz.
So while I still stand by my point that the idea of one sex being “superior” to other makes no overall biological sense, we can talk about trends where there are mean (average) differences between males and females within certain populations along certain dimensions. And when it comes to higher education these days, our young men are struggling.
Higher education is hardly the only area in which young men are struggling. In a recent study conducted by my lab (Johnsen, Kruger, Geher, Wiegand, & Garcia, in press), we found that males were much more likely than were females to have had a major injury during their youth—leading to stitches or a cast. And these injuries had adverse implications later in life.
Throughout the US prison system, males outnumber females famously by ratios of more than 9:1 - over 90% of prisoners are male. This is clearly a disadvantage any way that you see it.
Further, research on the male-to-female mortality ratio consistently shows that males are more likely to die than are females—across history and across cultures (see Kruger & Nesse, 2006). This general trend exists across the lifespan—and is exacerbated between the ages of about 15-25—the peak courtship years in our species.
So males are more likely to out-die females. And this trend is found particularly with suicide. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control, males in college are about four times more likely than females to commit suicide (in spite of females being slightly more likely to demonstrate suicidal ideation and to attempt suicide).
I work on a college campus and I get to know the students in my community well. I deeply regret writing that two students in our program in recent years lost their lives to suicide. I knew both of them well and thought the world of each of them. They both happened to be males.
Supporting Our Young Males Should Not Be Politically Taboo
The data are there—whether you like it or not. Young males in our society are struggling. As someone who works closely with college students, I work tooth and claw to help each and every one of my students best prepare for a successful career and for a successful life. Personally, then, I am a huge advocate of programming that truly benefits everyone—and I’m a big fan of working toward the greater good on all fronts.
This said, there are times when it is appropriate to focus on some particular demographic that is struggling in efforts to help the members of that group. This is simply good social policy. From this angle, I’d say that someone would be hard pressed to look at the data presented here and make the case that young males are not, as a group, struggling in our society today.
Neglecting the struggles of our young males today because it is not politically correct to help them due to a (very legitimate) history of females being disadvantaged is, to my mind, not acceptable policy. We cannot in good faith turn a blind eye to current social problems because of different problems that plague our history. We can do better than that. We can help young men and young women. And we should do so. We can help young women achieve anything and everything. And we can help young men succeed emotionally, socially, and academically.
Across the past several decades, there has been a strong push to build programs to help support the success of females in all kinds of academic, athletic, and social ways. To my mind, this movement is an exemplary social movement and I’m thrilled to see girls and women succeeding so well all kinds of areas. I have many extraordinary female students at SUNY New Paltz and I would not trade them for the world.
This said, it seems to me that as a society, we have essentially been neglecting young males along the way. Young males in our society are struggling. They struggle academically, emotionally, and socially.
As I see things, it is quite possible to continue to support female equality while, concurrently, taking steps to make sure that our young men are on the right track. I have many exceptional male students whom I work with, and I want to make sure that they are prepared for nothing but success moving forward.
Can we as a society continue to advance women’s rights and, at the same time, make sure that young males are provided the supports that they need to succeed also? I don’t see why not.
Johnsen, L.L., Kruger, D.J., Geher, G., Wiegand, A.G., Shaiber, R.L., & Garcia, J.R. (in press). Youth injuries as a function of sex, life history, and neighborhood safety. Human Ethology Bulletin.
Kruger DJ, Nesse RM: An evolutionary life history understanding of sex differences in human mortality rates. Human Nature,74 (1): 74-97, 2006.