Gender Differences: Equality Versus Similarity

They are often confused: but there is an essential and important difference

Posted Mar 27, 2017

History shows that there has been consistent repression of women by men. History also shows that this has been recognized by women for a long time.  In 1661, Anne Finch (Lady Winchilsea), a noted poet, wrote:

How are we fallen! Fallen by mistaken rules,

And Education’s more than Nature’s fools;

Debarred from all improvement of the mind,

And to be dull, expected and designed;

And if someone would soar above the rest,

With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,

So strong the opposing faction still appears,

 The hopes to thrive can ne’er outweigh the fears

The ‘opposing faction’, obviously, is men! It is another historical fact, however unpalatable, that until men realized that repression of women was a reality but was no longer acceptable, progress towards equality was very limited. Of course, they were persuaded by the insistence of women.  It is also incontestable that progress towards gender equality, though it has undoubtedly occurred, is not yet complete and varies markedly between cultures.

So the feminist movement is to be applauded, encouraged and supported. But like all socio-political movements, this one has its illogical aspects, and these damage its central message. One such flaw is the insistence that there are no real differences in the brains or behavior of men and women, and that such differences as may appear are due entirely to social customs, pressures, and expectations. Of course, these exist, and will undoubtedly influence the gender role and self-image of women. But to deny true gender differences in the brain is to deny an important, and welcome, source of individuality.

No-one is going to argue that men, in general, are stronger than women. This is one result of males having more testosterone.  If women take abnormal amounts of testosterone or related substances, as happened (for example) in East German athletes, then they become stronger – more similar to men.  But even without any intervention, some women are naturally stronger than some men. That is, gender differences, while real, overlap. And they are not all due to testosterone.

Take a look at non-human primates, such as baboons. It is hard to imagine social pressures, such as we experience, affecting them.  Yet there are marked and obvious sex differences, not only in body size, but also in behavior.  The same applies to most other mammalian species, though this does vary. We don’t inherit anything directly from them but humans do come from a common mammalian stock.  The remarkable human brain is able to recognize this for what it is, and take steps to modify it. Thus we invent clothes to enable us to survive in different climates, cars to accelerate movement, medical treatment to prevent or cure illness and so on. We also recognize inequality, a universal biological state, and try to reduce or eliminate it, however incompletely: for example, enabling the poor to have food and shelter or looking after those with handicaps.

All men may be born equal, but they are not born all the same. No amount of musical education will turn most of us into a J. S. Bach, though it may well allow us to play an instrument quite well. A few of us may become concert pianists, but most will simply play for pleasure. We call it ‘talent’, but what we really mean is an inherent ability to be able to do something well, given an appropriate environment.  Variations in ability, motivation, and circumstance are the reason for the richness of our societies.

A large part of this richness is one consequence of gender differences in behavior. There is an essential distinction between similarity and inequality, though it is undeniable that the former has been used as an excuse for the latter. A black skin has been the basis of discrimination when, in fact, it is a biologically sensible adaptation.  Provided that there are no impediments to opportunity, we should accept the possibility that there may be more male plumbers or mechanics than female, or more female nurses and psychiatrists than male. It may have something to do with real differences in the brain.  Some feminists mistakenly try to eliminate discrimination by eliminating gender differences. Instead, let’s recognize them for what they are: one contribution to individuality. To be welcomed, not denied; but not to be used for repression.  

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