[T]his is not about the “battle of the sexes,” and in fact I think one unfortunate legacy of feminism has been the idea that men and women are basically enemies. I shall suggest, instead, that most often men and women have been partners, supporting each other rather than exploiting or manipulating each other.
A stock data point for inferring "patriarchal oppression" is that men are disproportionately successful. The stock response, of course, is that men are also disproportionately failures. For basic evolutionary reasons (namely, greater variance in male reproductive potential), the Y chromosome is a gambler. Nothing new here, though Baumeister provides a droll summary:
[T]he pattern with mental retardation is the same as with genius, namely that as you go from mild to medium to extreme, the preponderance of males gets bigger. All those retarded boys are not the handiwork of patriarchy. Men are not conspiring together to make each other’s sons mentally retarded.
One important point he doesn't address is the empirical evidence of actual gender bias: identical papers are judged to be less brilliant if the author appears to be female. Orchestras using blind auditions (and hence judging solely on sound quality) hire more women than they otherwise would. And so on. But here's the key: this looks like anti-female bias because we're only looking at the top end. To know for sure, we'd also need to test judgments for bias at the bottom end. And I expect that what we'd find is exactly the opposite: terrible performers are judged to be even more useless if they are men. Judgments of women are biased towards the mean; judgments of men tend to be more polarized. There is no straightforward sense in which this makes men as a whole "privileged". They are both winners and losers; it's a trade-off, as Baumeister emphasizes throughout his article. (That's not to say that we shouldn't try to counteract the bias. I think we should - in both directions. But it's misleading to paint it as simple "patriarchal oppression.")
An interesting issue he does address is sex differences in social motivation as a key explanatory factor:
Women specialize in the narrow sphere of intimate relationships... Meanwhile the men favored the larger networks of shallower relationships. These are less satisfying and nurturing and so forth, but they do form a more fertile basis for the emergence of culture.
Note that all those things I listed — literature, art, science, etc — are optional. Women were doing what was vital for the survival of the species. Without intimate care and nurturance, children won’t survive, and the group will die out. Women contributed the necessities of life. Men’s contributions were more optional, luxuries perhaps. But culture is a powerful engine of making life better. Across many generations, culture can create large amounts of wealth, knowledge, and power. Culture did this — but mainly in the men’s sphere.
Thus, the reason for the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in some dubious patriarchal conspiracy. Rather, it came from the fact that wealth, knowledge, and power were created in the men’s sphere. This is what pushed the men’s sphere ahead. Not oppression.
The really interesting part of the article is how it extends the traditional evolutionary argument from biology to culture: "The group systems that used their men and women most effectively would enable their groups to outperform their rivals and enemies." A society exploits its individual members, but not necessarily all in the same way. Gender is thus seen as a kind of cultural specialization, a way to assign members to different tasks. Building on the biological dispositions, a culture gambles with its males. They do the most dangerous work, and are treated as most expendable. Again, this reveals how myopic it is to view gender through the lens of 'patriarchy', as Baumeister notes:
Any man who reads the newspapers will encounter the phrase “even women and children” a couple times a month, usually about being killed. The literal meaning of this phrase is that men’s lives have less value than other people’s lives. The idea is usually “It’s bad if people are killed, but it’s especially bad if women and children are killed.” And I think most men know that in an emergency, if there are women and children present, he will be expected to lay down his life without argument or complaint so that the others can survive. On the Titanic, the richest men had a lower survival rate (34%) than the poorest women (46%) (though that’s not how it looked in the movie). That in itself is remarkable. The rich, powerful, and successful men, the movers and shakers, supposedly the ones that the culture is all set up to favor — in a pinch, their lives were valued less than those of women with hardly any money or power or status. The too-few seats in the lifeboats went to the women who weren’t even ladies, instead of to those patriarchs.
Baumeister's central methodological advance is to explain the social construction of gender in terms of how it benefits the culture, rather than just how it benefits the men. He concludes:
What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and enemies in cultural competitions, which is probably why they aren’t as lovable as women.
The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring.
The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.
Again, I’m not saying it’s right, or fair, or proper. But it has worked. The cultures that have succeeded have used this formula, and that is one reason that they have succeeded instead of their rivals.
Enough with the sociology. Supposing that those are the facts, how are we to evaluate them? Should we endorse the way that cultural evolution has shaped our gender norms, or try to overcome them? I lean towards the latter, but we will only succeed in this if we first recognize that there are two sides to every gender difference.
We recently discussed how women are able to use their sexuality to get attention, which is tied to the disadvantage of sexual harrassment. For another example, Infinite Injury discusses how the norms against female assertiveness are tied to norms which shield women from criticism. Thus he notes, "you can’t possibly hope to have combative conduct by women parsed the same way as combative conduct by men if men are supposed to pull their punches with women." Gender norms are double-edged, and do not simply advantage one gender to the detriment of the other. Once this fact is appreciated, we can ask the normative question: should we seek to rebalance in both directions, or neither?