Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Sexual Paradox

I just finished reading The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap, by developmental psychologist Susan Pinker. Pinker’s book combines developmental research over the past century with interesting anecdotes from her life and the lives of many successful men and women to support her thesis that “fundamental sex differences influence male and female ambition and career choices” (from Dust Cover of hardcover edition).

The Sexual Paradox tackles the feminist-purported notion that gifted women are blocked from higher levels of success by an education system and work model that discriminates against them. Pinker’s findings show just the opposite to be true. Gifted women are now generally better supported than men to enter previously male-dominated fields like math, science and computer science but often opt out of these careers or even if they do enter them, choose to leave. “Especially in the physical sciences and engineering—which, as traditionally male fields, are seen as test cases for equality—women can now have what men have, but many decide after trying it that they don’t want it. The vanilla gender idea that given every opportunity, they should want it, if that’s what men choose, hinges on the assumption that male is the default against which we measure everyone’s wants and dreams.” (page 90-91)

So, why is this the case? Why are more and more women opting out of the male-dominated fields the feminist movement worked so hard to give them access to? “Having the opportunity and the ability to do a job doesn’t mean that a person wants to do it. Interests and motivations count.” (Page 85) Pinker’s argument is that the interests and motivations of men and women are fundamentally different and that, given the choice, women will, more often than not, gravitate towards fields where they can make a more immediate human difference, as in the social services, education or motherhood.

Pinker’s book investigates some of these fundamental differences and their impact on the choices men and women make in their careers and life. She explores the differences in the hormonal systems of men and women, looking at those at either ends of the spectrum from highly aggressive males to highly empathetic females, and how these biological differences affect the jobs they gravitate towards and the values they live by. She also looks at the extreme cases of those with ADHD, Autism and Aspergers and how these shed light on what motivates men as opposed to women.

What I found particularly interesting is one of the later discussions in the book since it is a hypothesis I have held in recent years. And that is that the real gender gap is not in access to careers, but in what is financially valued in this society. While women can now choose to enter the previously male-dominated fields, they often choose not to, at their own financial expense. Because, the fields they do gravitate towards, the social sciences, childcare, etc., do not have comparable wages. And this is my main beef about this world we've created. I can go to University for four years, come out with an advanced degree in Early Childhood Education, find work in a daycare and still only be making $12-$15 an hour. I can be as gifted in my field as any male is in his, but society does not value the fields that women are more inclined to value. Just look at the pay scales in education, childcare, eldercare, nursing and the social services. This saddens me.

I have to quote this passage here because it speaks to my heart and I hope it will prompt a shift in the way we see the workplace and the differences between what motivates men and women.

“Ignoring sex differences also has the unintended effect of devaluing women’s cognitive strengths and preferences. As long as a significant proportion of women have a different, or broader range of interests than most men, many women will be attracted to different occupations. And as it happens, the people or language-oriented occupations that appeal to most women are not as well paid as the standard male career choices. Despite comparable levels of education, teachers and nurses earn less than computer analysts and engineers. Speech pathologists and social workers earn less than most draftsmen or sound technicians. And even within professions, the specialties that attract women—say, family medicine or pediatrics—command lower salaries than those more popular with men, such as surgery, pathology, or radiology. It’s not clear what comes first—lower rates of pay in people-oriented jobs, or stagnant pay scales in occupations dominated by women, who are less likely to negotiate. Either scenario results in lower pay for the work women prefer. Market forces determine pay scales in the private sector, but even then, if there’s a will to retain and pay women fairly, corporate policies could be drafted that pay senior managers in human resources and media relations—more likely to be female—as much as senior managers in finance or production—which attract more men. Instead of expecting women to take jobs that don’t interest them, acknowledging sex differences in the careers people choose might stimulate a more fruitful discussion of ways to redress these imbalances. In the public sector, more transparency about both gender differences and pay scales might overcome the inertia that has professors of education and nursing with equal qualifications earning less than those teaching engineering or economics.” (page 261-262)

Susan Pinker’s research is thorough, the case studies compelling and the conclusions controversial. I would highly recommend this book to anyone. It will have you asking more questions about who you take yourself to be and what has lead you to make the choices you've made.

Nothing is quite as it appears. Haven't I been saying this all along?

tall penguin


Anonymous said...

I have not read the book and so perhaps I should not comment but there seems to be a glaring assumption here- that male-dominated carrerrs ARE equally accessible to women. I disagree. They are still male domianted- could that be one reason women do not choose them? It has not been my experience that sexism and "career steering" of children has vanished. There are still significant groups of men AND women who think that women are just not as good "genetically" at math as men are.

tall penguin said...

I suggest you read the book.

The statement in Pinker's book is not that all careers are equally accessible to women, but that where they are, the research indicates that women, on the whole, still gravitate towards different careers than men do. The point being, that, all options being equal, what motivates and attracts women, and the things they value, appear to have a biological basis. Men and women are (generally speaking) hardwired differently.

Difference does not make inequality. I think this is where education can make a difference, not in attempting to equalize, but in recognizing and supporting differences.