The science of sex differences is nothing for feminists to be afraid of

Nothing to be afraid of
Nothing to be afraid of
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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The feminist project has been worn down by the anti-scientific attempt to sweep sex differences under the rug. Let’s acknowledge the science and move on to more interesting debates.

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published an elegant book that made waves with its famous claim that one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one. Since then, various strains of feminism have made a project of attributing differences between men and women entirely to socialization, rather than anything built into bodies and brains.

To some extent, these arguments make sense. After all, across time and place, cultures show colorful variability in gender mores and the roles that women and men play in society. Considering what the forebears of modern feminists have had to put up with, it’s also not hard to understand why some have been motivated to argue that gender is largely socially constructed. Claims of “natural” differences between the sexes have been used time and again to fuel small-minded stereotypes, like the ones that in the United States kept women out of the voting booth until 1920. Although difference doesn’t spell out superiority for either gender, that’s often how it is interpreted in the popular imagination, which can exert inhibitory force on those working for the advancement of women.

But the feminists that have built their arguments for equality on the claims that innate differences are nonexistent or ignorable have wound themselves into rhetorical pretzels to defend positions that ultimately make little sense. The doctrine of the biological sameness of men and women has become so sacrosanct that, today, questioning it is likely to prompt accusations of misogyny or “anti-diversity,” as recent controversies have illustrated. Musing on the possibility that natural sex differences could partially explain women’s underrepresentation in STEM careers helped cost Larry Summers his job as Harvard University’s president in 2006. Last year, after putting forth a memo that carefully described the state of the science on sex differences, James Damore was sacked by Google and widely misrepresented by the often-livid media.

But differences between the sexes have been observed in thousands of scientific studies and their existence is largely uncontroversial among biologists and psychologists. When we consider the long evolutionary adventure from which we are descended, it’s a small wonder that the sexes are different.

Humans reproduce sexually, so it is inevitable that natural selection has exerted different pressures on men and women. The simple fact that women bear children, undergoing nine biologically-intensive months of pregnancy, means that the option of having a low-investment relationship with offspring is not on the table. It also means that there is an upper limit on how many children women can have in a lifetime. Men, on the other hand, have no upper limit. A successful man—or a promiscuous one—could potentially fertilize hundreds of women and therefore have a much larger descendance.

Men can vary much more dramatically in their reproductive success, which is reflected in the little-known fact that we have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. In other words, throughout our evolution, most women could take offspring for granted. On the other hand, the men we are descended from faced a world in which the reproductive scales were tipped against them—flip a coin and more often than not the man would not reproduce. In effect, men had to be remarkable to beat the odds. Nature has been selecting men who stand out. Over evolutionary time, women have not been able to drastically alter their reproductive success, beyond perhaps securing a more attractive partner, whereas for men it could mean the difference between no offspring and hundreds of offspring.

This history has translated into a curious phenomenon observed in modern human populations—greater male variability. Women and men are—on average—pretty much equivalent in intelligence and ability, but if you look at the far ends of the spectrum, you are more likely to find men than women. It’s not as though variability grants men some unqualified evolutionary bounty; variability goes both ways, landing men disproportionately in both the ranks of virtuosity and in jail. To quote the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Super-genius and severely retarded are both mostly boys’ clubs, though a few exceptional girls do show up too. Something in the biology of maleness produces more cases at both extremes.”

When it comes to what women and men are attracted to, differences are even more pronounced. The most obvious example of this is primary sexual orientation, which correlates rather strongly with gender. In other fields of human interest, scientists have consistently measured intriguing differences in inclinations. These two factors—male variability and average differences in interests—are aspects of our evolutionary heritage that are key to making sense of the gender puzzle. A clear-eyed understanding of the world requires that we include everything we know, considering both the social and the biological factors that shape us.

Invoking evolution in no way binds our destinies, it simply acknowledges where we come from, which is a wise point of departure. Fortunately, we are no longer beholden to evolution’s wish for us. In our historically anomalous position as modern humans, we get to choose whether or not to put our energies into having babies, and we can pick from a lively range of economic activities and gender expressions.

As feminists, we are shooting ourselves in the foot by making arguments for gender equality that hinge on the the false premise that the sexes must be the same in order to be equal. To be relevant today—and to avoid becoming embroiled in pointless disputes—feminists need to ground their advocacy in science.

Sex differences might actually provide arguments for getting more women into tech, where men notoriously hold more than 70% of all jobs.

In research undertaken in 2012 at Cornell, it was found that among math prodigies, women actually have higher verbal ability than men. “Males are more likely than females to have an asymmetrical cognitive profile of higher aptitude in math relative to verbal domains,” Valla and Ceci wrote, whereas women who are equally gifted in maths typically have high verbal aptitude to match. In other words, if you’re looking for a math wizard who can also craft eloquent arguments—a combination that is particularly well suited for a career in the upper echelons of tech—you’re better off looking among women.

Other arguments for women in tech are commonsensical. The tech industry is making products for both women and men; once we accept that men and women are different, it follows that smart product development teams need women’s insights to build the best products. Among Fortune 1000 and S&P 500 companies, women CEOs produce higher ROI, and there is further evidence that gender-balanced teams perform better than unbalanced ones.

There is perhaps another, deeper reason for involving more women in tech. “Two different toolkits of wisdom have travelled humanity’s past,” says evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein. “One of them has traveled the female path. It’s a kind of far-sighted wisdom that comes closer to matching the wellbeing of the community at large.” Amid rising consternation that Silicon Valley is becoming the hoodie version of Wall Street, women’s evolved wisdom package makes them natural candidates to bring change to an industry that is beginning to feel “ugly and rotten”—an industry that is powerful enough to engineer global shifts but is held back by caddish, short-sighted behavior and aims.

The tech industry has historically done a poor job at attracting female talent. It has cultivated bro culture that can make it off-putting to high-performing women that have other options in other industries, causing them to self-select out of the tech labor market. Women entrepreneurs have a harder time securing venture capital than their peers, despite the fact that startups with at least one female co-founder outperform all-male ones.

Clearly, a smarter tech industry would remove the barriers that are keeping women out, if only in a self-interested bid to avail itself of the female talent it is currently alienating.

As obstacles for women have progressively been removed, the participation of women in elite maths has been increasing. From 1980 to 2005, a study of mathematically precocious youth saw the ratio of boys-to-girls go from 13:1 to 2.8:1. From 1970 to 2006, women went from earning 8% of PhDs in mathematics to 32%.

At the same time, we shouldn’t jump to the easy assumption that in a perfectly equal world, men and women would show up in equal numbers at every level of every profession. Surprisingly, we find that in more gender-equal societies, certain professions are mostly populated by men and others mostly by women. In those countries, the gender skew does not reflect inequality but rather differences in personal inclination.

So while its a mistake to argue that whatever gender ratio we see in tech today is natural, it’s also a fool’s errand to press for a 50:50 representation of genders in every job. What we need to do is get rid of barriers, not insist on a magic ratio.

The feminist project has been worn down by the anti-scientific attempt to sweep sex differences under the rug, and we have misguidedly set for ourselves the goal of equal representation in certain attractive professions. The moment we move on from these fruitless enterprises, we can apply ourselves to livelier inquiries, such as:

  • How can we remove the boundaries that still prevent people with aptitude from accessing and thriving in certain careers that are important to society?
  • What factors may thwart or promote the development of STEM interests and at what ages are we more sensitive to them?
  • How do we build a society that takes better advantage of the peculiar geniuses that crop up in each sex?

This frame of analysis selects for answers that result in better outcomes both for individuals and society at large. These questions are the ones that will lead us towards more robust societies and richer labor landscapes. Let’s get to them.