I spent Valentine’s evening on Newsnight discussing whether there are any significant differences between women and men.
It is easy to mock this question, but it is important that it is asked. By presenting idea as fact – that there are no significant differences between men and women – feminism has been the unwitting instigator of this debate.
The BBC, however, should be commended for taking an alternative approach. They produced a short video which provided a springboard to the question of sex differences through some interesting findings from Professors Stoet and Geary in a paper called The Gender Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education.
Since Newsnight I have had a chance to see the original paper. And just as truth is stranger than fiction, research findings are way more exciting than news.
Stoet and Geary found that boys and girls were equally science-literate across a whole range of countries, but they differed considerably in what they did best. Boys were a lot better in science and maths than they were in reading, and with girls this was reversed.
For boys, science being their best subject is coupled with a sense of self belief, interest and enthusiasm for it. That group of pupils who lag behind educationally and have a tendency to disruptive behaviour and dyslexia have found something they can actually do. Parents, teachers and boys will all be pleased.
For girls their best subject is reading, so their equal skills in science do not have the same inspirational effect. People usually enjoy what they are best at, so girls will tend towards more verbal subjects.
The pattern becomes self-reinforcing, with the result that many of those girls who have the capacity, levels of interest and enthusiasm to study science do not do so. These girls and the scientific establishment are both missing out.
To some extent these patterns are more attenuated in the more developing countries. In these, girls don’t just study what they most enjoy. Economic rewards play a significant decision-making role.
These findings have implications for courses of action. It may well be worth investing in special efforts to recruit girls into science. Concentrating on the more economically disadvantaged groups would probably reap the greatest returns.
But a word of caution is needed. There is a whole industry devoted to recruiting females into science. The interventions are based on the assumption that the absence of women can be explained by unconscious bias, sex discrimination and various exclusionary practices, but the Stoet and Geary findings show that this assumption is false.
Interventions which haven’t understood the causes can have a potentially damaging and counterproductive effect. For example, the belief in sex discrimination can heighten women’s perception of slights and discrimination, thus disrupting workplace relations. Research suggests that encouraging prospective students to believe that they will face discrimination often just ends up putting young women off.
Perhaps more egregiously, the belief in discrimination appears to have legitimised discrimination against men. A major review shows that there is no real world data to show a hiring bias against women and there are a number of studies which suggest there is actual hiring bias against men (see here, here and here).
However perhaps the most arresting finding in Stoet and Geary’s paper is that the more gender-equal the country, the greater the differences in preferred subjects. This increase in sex differences in more gender-equal countries occurs across a whole array of psychological traits. Extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, spatial location ability, crying, depression, benevolence values, empathic occupation preference, openness, Machiavellianism, self-esteem – you’ll have to stop me because the menu could go on and on. Social constructionist theory predicts that psychological traits will become more similar between men and women in gender-equal environments. Yet for almost every psychological trait this prediction is disconfirmed.
This is deeply intriguing but I can suggest a direction for future research. A significant difference between the less gender-equal countries, which also tend to be less developed, and more gender-equal countries is that in the former the family is the dominant social institution around which the rest of society is structured. In gender-equal countries the individual is the ordering principle. Even the family takes a subordinate role.
The assumption has been that the family is an inherently patriarchal institution and that it has played a key role in constructing sexual differences. The individualism of modern society will liberate us from constructed social differences by casting this patriarchy off.
However, the findings cited here suggest that the dominance of the family in traditional societies, far from creating gender differences, serves to rein them in. It is the idea of the individual in Western society which has liberated sexual differences like a Pandora’s box.
Sex differences are a good thing and if properly understood provide a framework on to which we can scaffold ways in which difference and equality can be combined. But instead we try to translate difference using an equality yardstick, and in translation a true understanding of difference is lost. For example, someone might choose flexible, stress-free employment over a full-time job but they are regarded as unequal because they are poorly paid. A woman might choose to look after her husband and children instead of going to paid work but this difference is reduced to an inequality. Her choice is obscured by being unemployed.
It would be a great shame if, having liberated sex differences from restraining social forces we then submitted them to the brutal rigours of equality. We claim to be a tolerant society that allows for all kinds of difference. Let’s remember this – and The Conservative Woman’s founding motto – Vive la difference!