Prejudice & evolution

If the forward march of women has slowed, it is partly because of new scientific claims that remaining sex inequality is grounded in human nature. Most of the theories do not bear close examination
June 18, 2005
A few years ago progress towards sexual equality seemed to be moving forwards—not at a sprint, but nevertheless with some momentum. When I wrote my book The New Feminism in 1998 (just after publication of Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire, which tapped a similar sense of optimism in the US in the early years of the Clinton administration), there was a strong feeling that old traditions were cracking and giving way to a more equal society.

Many of the reasons for this optimism are still with us. None of the opportunities and freedoms that women have won in recent generations have been ceded. But the sense of energy that accompanied those women who found doors swinging open that had not been open for their mothers has begun to turn into a quiet fatalism.

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When women look around, they can see that full equality is still a distant promise. In the UK, women in full-time work earn just 85 per cent of the average male full-time salary; women make up only 4 per cent of executive directors in all listed companies; and only one of the 12 most senior judges is a woman. Women are also far more likely than men to earn less: in 2001, 30 per cent of female employees earned under £4.86 an hour, compared to 18 per cent of men. Meanwhile, mothers put in twice as much time as fathers on unpaid work in the home.

And more and more women are talking about the difficulty of combining careers and family life. If women do retreat into the home, it is often celebrated as a victory for choice, although the pressures that enforce such choices are overlooked. Kate Reddy, the heroine of Allison Pearson's bleakly comic novel I Don't Know How She Does It, is a template of contemporary female achievement. She has found a route into well-rewarded work, in contrast to her home background in which women were used to low-paid unskilled labour or unpaid work in the home. Although Kate has benefited from changes that allow women greater access to power and wealth—the expansion of higher education, delays to childbearing—she still drops out of her brilliant career. Why? "Because I have got two lives and I don't have time to enjoy either of them," and "Because becoming a man is a waste of a woman."

Such decisions to retreat from the world of work are usually forced, as in Kate Reddy's case, by the failure of men to take on a fuller role at home or of employers to create flexible working lives. Yet it has become fashionable for commentators to argue that innate differences between men and women are the cause of their different lifestyles.

For example, last year Catherine Hakim of the LSE published Key Issues in Women's Work, a book about why women behave very differently from men in the workforce. She suggested that even in a society with policies that make it possible for women and men to behave in the same way, many women will choose to opt out of paid work once they have children: "Even if sex discrimination were completely eliminated, sex differentials in employment would continue." The evidence in Hakim's book was cited as proof that in any society, women will make free choices that lock them out of power. She took Sweden as an example—policies have been put in place to ensure equality, and yet inequality persists, with women making up only 7 per cent of private company directors.

This is a superficially compelling argument. But even in Sweden the conditions for full equality are not in place. Many women are frustrated by the fact that men are not taking steps into the home to mirror women's steps into the workplace. The reputedly comprehensive childcare provision consists only of inflexible nursery care, so it is still almost impossible for women who have children to take demanding jobs in the private sector. Free choice still does not exist, as several groups of Swedish women told me passionately when I visited the country earlier this year.

The same is clearly true in Britain. We simply cannot say that the inequalities that still exist are the result of innate differences between men and women, when external pressures—from the inflexibility of well-rewarded work and the unequal way that parental leave is allotted to social expectations that reward certain behaviours in men and other behaviour in women—still weigh so heavily.

The belief in the innate and unyielding nature of inequality has been strengthened by evolutionary theories about human nature and genetic theories of inherited traits that often rely on very traditional ideas of male and female nature. Although not all of those who advocate these theories use them to argue that more social change is impossible, the inertia which the theories help to create is difficult to resist.

When Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, gave his notorious speech in January on the under-representation of women in science and engineering departments, he expressed very powerfully the idea that remaining inequality is based on innate differences. Summers said that his "best guess" of what was behind continuing inequality in science and engineering was that the "largest phenomenon" would be "the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity." But he also said that there were "issues of intrinsic aptitude." Although he nodded in the direction of "socialisation and continuing discrimination," he called these "lesser factors."

In many places, even on the left, Summers was celebrated for talking as he did. A Guardian columnist said that he had dared to speak up for an "unpopular theory." "Free speech furore breaks out in the US" said Al-Jazeera. "Summers was right," claim-ed Helena Cronin of the LSE. Summers's most influential supporter even said that he had broken a taboo: Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor, wrote in the New Republic, "At some point in the history of the modern women's movement, the belief that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable became sacred… The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry."

It would indeed be a pity if feminists were standing in the way of the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry. But they are not. Feminists range from those who believe that all gender difference is socially created to those who argue that women are naturally more empathetic and peaceful, less logical and domineering, better at weaving and dreaming than men, and that is why they should run the world. Many feminists would probably agree that there may well be innate differences, but we are not yet in a position to know what they are. Far from being taboo, the idea that innate psychological differences drive male and female behaviour is hard to escape in our culture.

Summers is said to have taken his views from a chapter of Steven Pinker's widely applauded book, The Blank Slate. In this book Pinker relies on a mishmash of observations about current culture and claims about the effects of genes and hormones to argue that males and females are programmed very differently to do very different things in life. Unfortunately for Pinker, while his observations of the many differences between men and women's behaviour in today's culture are true—women are more attentive to their infants' cries and men are better at throwing things—he has to be pretty choosy with the evidence in order to connect these many differences to the action of genes and hormones rather than nurture and social expectations.

Pinker argues that intellectual differences between men and women are such that,"The fact that more men than women have exceptional abilities in mathematical reasoning and in mentally manipulating 3D objects is enough to explain a departure from a 50:50 sex ratio among engineers, physicists, organic chemists, and professors in some branches of mathematics." His view that this is the result of hormones rather than socialisation is backed by the claim that girls with a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which means that they are overexposed to the male sex hormone, androgen, in the womb, "grow into tomboys, with more rough and tumble play, a greater interest in trucks than dolls, better spatial abilities" [my itals]. Yet Melissa Hines—the psychology professor who set up the studies that showed that CAH girls did have a greater interest in trucks than dolls—notes in her 2004 book Brain Gender that, "Of seven studies assessing spatial abilities in females with CAH, only three have found evidence that females with CAH perform better than unaffected females," and the largest studies show no such result—indeed, the second largest study found the opposite effect. She finds it frustrating that the range of findings is ignored: "Writers tend to pick and choose the data that they want," she told me.

It is telling that Pinker often has recourse to such selective quotation of the evidence on the effects that hormones and genes have on cognition and character. For instance, he quotes one man saying that after a testosterone shot he feels aggressive and lustful, but he does not quote from the studies that show that there is no difference in levels of aggression between men given testosterone and those given a placebo. He says that women's cognitive strengths and weaknesses vary with the phase of their menstrual cycle, so that their spatial abilities are weaker when their oestrogen levels are high. But he does not quote those studies that measure hormone levels rather than women's reports of where they are in their menstrual cycle, which have shown conflicting results.

If Summers was relying on Pinker's work to make his case, he was unfortunate—he gave his speech in a place where many people knew that the hypothesis that inequality is explained by innate differences is too simple to be convincing. The biologist Nancy Hopkins, who walked out of the speech, said to me, "At first I could not believe what I was hearing. He was saying that one of the most important reasons for the small number of women on science, maths and engineering faculties is that they lack the aptitude for these subjects—he was saying that women just don't have it. But there is not one shred of evidence to support this, despite decades of research. In contrast, there are decades of research that show that socialisation and gender bias play a powerful role in driving women from these subjects."

Many of Hopkins's peers agree with her, because although differences between men and women's intellectual abilities do exist—most famously in spatial abilities and in verbal fluency—these differences are small. The big differences are confined to almost absurdly limited areas of cognition: tests involving the rotation of three-dimensional objects show a significant difference in favour of men, but related tasks such as mentally constructing shapes from three-dimensional blocks or imagining what unfolded shapes would look like when folded show negligible differences. Similarly, although women are said to excel in verbal fluency, they outperform men on a measure that requires writing as many words as possible with specified letters, but not on measures of vocabulary or reading comprehension.

Elizabeth Spelke, a Harvard psychologist who is an acknowledged leader in the field of child cognition, told me, "30 to 40 years of experiments in the field of cognitive development in young children have shown no consistent evidence for cognitive sex differences favouring males. If anything, young girls often seem to outperform boys in tests of early spatial awareness. Later in life some differences are seen in some tests of mathematical reasoning, but these are only in limited areas, are unlikely to be produced by biological factors, and do not give any advantage to males overall."

Although it is true that differences in men and women's abilities are seen in some areas, there is no reason to assume that this is immutable. A mathematics test given by the OECD to 250,000 15 year olds in 2003 found that boys outperformed girls in most countries but in seven of the 30 OECD countries there was no signficant gender difference in performance, and in Iceland girls outshone boys by a significant margin. Since it is unlikely that Icelandic girls have different hormonal levels to, say, American girls, it is altogether more likely that culture plays a part.

There are many studies that show us how culture reinforces stereotypes for men and women and magnifies assumptions about male achievement. For instance, researchers at Princeton found that when musicians were auditioned for orchestras, if they played behind a screen, women were 50 per cent more likely to be shortlisted than if candidates could be seen. Recent research has shown that Oxford University discriminates against women applicants, accepting more men than women among applicants with equivalent grades, apparently because tutors believe that women who do well at exams are conscientious rather than clever. Melissa Hines notes that although proponents of innate difference are keen to point to the higher achievement of boys in SATs (Scholastic Assessment Tests) in the US, they easily discount the higher achievement of girls in GCSE and A-level exams in Britain.

And although more men than women get very high scores in the maths part of the SATs in the US, this is not the reason girls don't choose to enter science and engineering as their profession. Summers has accepted the view that people who go into these fields must have very high maths scores, and since not so many girls have such scores, this could be enough to explain their under-representation. But Catherine Weinberger at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has recently worked out that only a third of the white men in the US science and engineering workforce have very high maths scores, and that women with the highest scores are only about 50 per cent as likely as top-scoring boys to go into science or engineering. There is therefore a pool of untapped talent, of women who have the aptitude, who are not going into the field for other reasons.

When you look at the research that Weinberger has done you can see why many people in this field were furious about Summers's speech. What really grated for scientists in the area was that although Summers was dismissive about the social factors that may be holding women back, there is a great deal of research that does show the persistent negative effects of socialisation and stereotyping on women's performance in many fields. Take one study carried out recently at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, in which two groups of American men and women with equivalent maths aptitude were given the same test. The first group was told that prior use of the test had shown that men and women did equally well at it. The other group was not given any information. The researchers, Diane Quinn and Steven Spencer, found that men and women performed equally well in the first group, but that in the second group, women performed less well than men.

This gives us an insight into the way that expectations can hold back women's performance: in the absence of other information, women in the second group were performing under the everyday expectation that they are less able at maths than men. In the real world, women do not experience these stereotypes simply in a test situation, but on a daily basis in many guises. A recent overview by Diane Quinn of some of the research showed that such expectations are transmitted through the generations: mothers tend to underestimate the mathematical abilities of daughters and overestimate the abilities of sons. One study of high school students found that the feedback boys told researchers they got from their mothers, fathers and teachers about their maths ability was more favourable than that reported by girls.

These expectations do not melt away once women break through the glass ceiling: women who work in fields where they are in the minority—throughout science and engineering, as well as the top of most professions—still speak about the barriers that they face. Nancy Hopkins headed a 1999 study at MIT that showed the resources provided to male and female scientists—including salaries, research funds and laboratory space—were unequal, and that senior female scientists on the campus felt marginalised and out of the decision-making loop. The most surprising thing about that study was how surprised men were by it. "I sat bolt upright in my chair," said the president of MIT, Charles Vest, after hearing the evidence. Until that study was done, people had assumed that the absence of women academic staff at MIT was down to lack of aptitude and interest—just as they assume throughout Britain and the US.

Summers's speech was not a particularly unusual example of the lazy reliance on innate differences as an explanation for the realities of our culture. It caused a kerfuffle because of who was listening to him and the fact that he said it frankly to women's faces rather than simply letting it colour his expectations and behaviour. But everywhere you look you find the same insistence that the culture around us is based on the behaviour of our genes, the evolved structures of our brains, and the influence of our hormones.

When Simon Baron-Cohen published a book last year, The Essential Difference, in which he claimed that "the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems," he caught the mood of the moment. His team's experiment on day-old babies, and the finding that the male babies looked for longer at a mobile and the female babies longer at a face, has been repeatedly cited in the press since his book's publication. Elizabeth Spelke is one expert who is sceptical about whether this experiment deserves such attention. "This is one isolated experiment," she told me. "Its findings fly in the face of dozens of studies on similar aspects of cognition carried out on young babies over decades. It is astonishing how much this one study has been cited, when the many studies that show no difference between the sexes, or a difference in the other direction, are ignored."

One of Baron-Cohen's other main planks of evidence for the unequal distribution between men and women of so-called brain types E and S was based on self-describing questionnaires completed by adults; the sort of quiz well known to readers of Cosmopolitan and the Daily Mail. Such assessments will reflect differences formed by cultural assumptions and socialisation; it is hard to see what they tell us about innate differences. Nevertheless, they have become a fashionable reference point, and earlier this year the Princess Royal, in a speech on behalf of Women into Science and Engineering, quoted Baron-Cohen's research as proof that six out of ten men have a systemising brain. This kind of science has passed into popular culture, often outrunning the intentions of those who did the original work. But it is being used to reinforce traditional models of behaviour, especially in relation to work.

Social expectations play heavily with young men and women, and expectations are in some ways more conventional today than they were ten or 20 years ago. It is particularly when they have children that women find how society reinforces traditional expectations of their behaviour. They discover that many pressures—including the work pattern of their male partner, the expectations of their employer and the structure of parental leave—make it hard to combine work and home without giving their paid work a lower priority than their male colleagues. In such a context, the reiteration of stereotypes about males' greater power to systemise and compete meshes with other pressures on women's behaviour to produce very different outcomes for women and for men.

The pressures are equally powerful on men to continue in a traditional lifestyle. Some educationalists argue that fear of femininity in young men is higher than ever and holds back educational achievement, since studying is often seen as girlish. In later life, the drive to competitiveness in the workplace is mythologised as being tied to high levels of testosterone and masculinity. Men are told that high achievers attract more women, even though evidence shows that as women slowly become more equal at work, they begin to care less about the economic status of their mates.

Men are often held back from making the choice to move deeper into domestic life, feeling that it lacks status and public approbation. While the gains in making a social revolution were clear for women—they could gain status and income and visibility by moving beyond the home—the gains in the parallel social revolution are harder for men to see, since it will involve them losing status, visibility and income. The idea that men are naturally less empathetic also leads to fatalism about their role. Yet there is much evidence to show that even being empathetic and good at parenting is a learned behaviour.

It is true that, as Steven Pinker noted, in our culture women respond more readily to their children's cries, but there is nothing to say that this is down to anything other than practice and socialisation. In a culture where most men return to work straight after the birth of their children, it would be extraordinary if they did manage to remain as alert to their needs as women who remain at home. In one test carried out with teenagers, although girls said that they liked children more than boys said they did, when left alone with a crying infant, their responses were no different. Women can testify to the fact that parenting is a tricky, complicated process, not always a natural, easy role; it is one that women learn often with great effort and frustration.

In order to revive the momentum of the movement towards equality, we need to challenge the influence of the "human nature" school. The differences in cognition between men and women that can be observed are small, whether or not they are innate is an open question, and even if they are innate they need not be immutable. Most scientists in the field agree that the nature/nurture argument is an unresolvable one, since the two constantly interact.

It is easy for science, especially psychology and biology, to be used in the service of ideology. Darwin himself said that some of the traits of women "are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation." He concluded that a man attains "a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands."

Evolutionary science at that time looked at the status quo and assumed nothing would ever change. But the feminists who campaigned for reform succeeded to such an extent in transforming society's expectations of women that scientists of 100 years ago would probably regard it as a change in human nature.

Luckily, despite the current pressures on young men and women to fulfil traditional expectations, we do not live in a simple society. While the optimism of a decade ago is no longer evident, the movement towards equality has not completely stalled. A more equal sharing of childcare and even domestic labour is still desired by many men as well as women. In surveys, young men say that they want to be better fathers than their fathers. Nearly three quarters of young British men—the same percentage as young women—say that if it were financially possible they would like to stay at home to look after their families. And three quarters of young men tell pollsters that the paternity leave allowances in Britain are too low. The government is proposing more equal policies on parental leave, knowing that the pressure is still forwards rather than backwards. And remember that in Britain, young men in full-time work spend about an hour a day looking after their children. That may sound paltry, but not compared to the 15 minutes they spent 30 years ago: if the time went on increasing fourfold every 30 years, equal partnership would become a reality for our grandchildren.

At a recent talk I gave in Sweden on the future of feminism, the British ambassador told me during the question period afterwards that I really should accept that men were not programmed to look after their children as women are. The next question was from a young male employee in the British embassy, who told me that he had wanted to take more than two weeks paternity leave on the recent birth of his son, but had been unable to do so because the embassy had to run on British rather than Swedish employment law. "Will feminists support men's desire to look after our children?" he asked, to the embarrassment of the ambassador. The tension in the room between the old guard and the new desires was plain to see.

If humans are innately anything, we are innately adaptable: although we may have evolved to suit a certain environment, over the millennia people have poured passion, energy and intelligence into transforming that environment in line with their dissatisfactions and desires. There is nothing to say that this transformation should not continue. If we listen to the voices of hope rather than those of inertia, we can remember that we are not just the servants of the past but also the architects of the future.