Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Gender as Cultural Specialization

Wow. I highly recommend Roy Baumeister's fascinating article, Is There Anything Good About Men? (Thanks, Luke, for the NYT link.) It has a relatively balanced and apolitical tone, but I wouldn't be surprised if it comes to be seen as the definitive rebuttal to ideological feminism:
[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?


  1. Richard-
    The first Baumeister quote begins by saying that gender "isn't about a battle of the sexes", but then you end with, "a double edged sword". I wonder if you could reformulate that to make it seem less battle-like, otherwise the argument concludes that women are being unfair to men. At that point, the entire argument seems too reactionary.

    I'd be careful to separate arguments about "patriarchal oppression" from "liberation" arguments. The little fraction of feminism I've read was based on Marxian critique where the double-edged character of gender norms was pointed out both philosophically and historically. In Marxian terms, the liberation of all humans from all forms of explicit and implicit oppression is dependent on the self-willed liberation of alienated groups--women, minorities, the poor. Hence, the Marxian and I think the better version of the feminist answer to you question is a conditioned "neither"--not balance, but a sort of radical shift back to the pre-technological power-sharing of human beings.

    An example of what this would look like can be found in the various Marxian societies that are actually succeeding (like Vietnam), as well as Simone de Beauvoir's depiction of women in the early Soviet Republic (The Second Sex.

  2. 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.

    So only men are free to make life better?

  3. This doesn't really address the pointed question of your post, but the characterization of feminism here seems somewhat out of date. Circa 1980s. Most contemporary gender theorists would also frame gender bias as a double-edged sword for both of the sexes.

    Would it do anything to the argument here to distinguish between sex and gender? Perhaps gender specialization would be possible without necessarily falling along divisions of biological sex?

  4. Chatterbox - that's a really interesting suggestion.

    Jared - well, my own views may be more "reactionary" than Baumeister's, since I do think that those who blame "patriarchy" (a group only partially overlapping with "women", of course) quite simply are being unfair to men. I think that gender politics shouldn't be a battle of the sexes, which is precisely why I'm opposed to the sorts of militant feminists who turn it into such a battle.

    But you're quite right that not all feminism is of this pernicious sort, so I have no objection to that (and in fact probably support a lot of it).

    "So only men are free to make life better?"

    Um, no. You might want to re-read the essay. (I worry that my quoting the most provocative bits has given a misleading impression.)

  5. Baumeister's history isn't great: "This critique started when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere". Close, but not quite--19th century liberalism forgot to include women in the democratization of society. Suffrage and property rights, not societal placement, were the beginnings of feminism. Don't forget Queen Victoria.

    It's also silly to cite a statistic that +90% of military war deaths are men, when the rules systematically exclude women from combat.

    I see plenty more problems in this article, but rather than inundate your comments, I'm going to write my own post.

  6. "through history some men have been much more creative than women"
    That's just pure bosh.

  7. "It's also silly to cite a statistic that +90% of military war deaths are men, when the rules systematically exclude women from combat."

    How is that silly? He's showing how culture exploits men, and such systematic rules are obviously part of it. Again, you seem to be missing the central point of the article.

    P.S. "That's just pure bosh" contributes nothing to the discussion. Try counterargument.

  8. Richard, there is in fact empirical evidence that when men fail, they are judged more harshly than women, though the reason is in fact more evidence for bias against women: in these cases, men's failures are seen as individual, while women's failures are seen as being a result of their being women, at least partially.

    But you don't need to the top to find evidence of gender bias. It is pervasive, with math being a perfect example, since women are expected to do worse than men regardless of the level. And even if we didn't have tons of evidence that it didn't just exist at the top, but all the way through the middle, the fact that men are treated more harshly when they fail wouldn't compensate for gender bias at the top, because this isn't an issue of averaging it all out.

  9. RE: "pure bosh"
    The rhetorical trick "can't vs won't" is a textbook patronizing argument. It says, "You don't vote because you don't want to, do you? You're not interested in voting." It's the classic justification of Jim Crow laws and voting restrictions on women. Baumeister switches it to, "Women don't improvise/make art/etc because they don't want to. They're not interested in creating."--and of course he doesn't address the examples of Gentileshi, Fitzgerald, the Brontes, Khalo, Ono, or any other successful female artist or musician, because to mention them would bring doubt to his argument. He gives no examples of men, either, but that's because he has automatically placed men as the default.

    PS: last sentence of my post revised to make those who disagree sound less "monstrous".

  10. Richard--

    Let us crudely model men and women in society by giving both a mean and variation accross sucess and failure in society. I take it that one of the main points Baumeuster and you are making is that men's variability is higher than women's, and without regards to a mean--which is a bit hard to meausre--it is not clear if that is an advantage or a disadvantage to men.

    I think, however, that there are some straightforward ways of seeing that an increased variability is an advantage. For one, it is informally suggested by the fact that I strongly prefer greater to lesser variability across success and failure. For two, it is suggested by the nearly total lack of men envying or complaining about the diminished variability of women, though the inverse, as your posts have made clear, is widespread.

    There are philosophy arguments to this conclusion as well--thought most of them are too long to put here. I'll sketch two. First, in a society with any sort of societal safetynet (for those at the far extreme of failure) there is a strong reason to opt for greater variability. Second, any sort of "self-directedness of life" principle, in which your success is to some significant degree a product of your self-directedness, would seem to strongly suggest that greater variability is preferable.

    Thus, I think that both you and Baumeister make an important error. You correctly note that gender norms are a double-edged sword, but neglect that the edges of the sword area not equally sharp. We should rebalance in both directions. But it is far more exigent that we address the negative aspects for women of gender norms, because women are in a worse situation, or so it seems to me.

  11. Jared - motivational differences are not any kind of justification for imposing restrictions. (Really. Who would seriously argue, "You don't want to do X anyway, so we'll pass a law stopping you, just to make sure!") The point is instead that differential outcomes are not sufficient license to cry "oppression", because motivational differences can explain the outcomes without requiring us to posit the existence of oppression at all. It's a purely scientific/explanatory claim, not a normative one. (Of course, if one can point to actual oppressive practices, that's a wholly different matter. But here we're just talking about the inference from unequal outcomes to hidden oppression.)

    And of course the odd outlier does not refute a general claim. (The claim is not that there are no creative women, but just that as a class they tend to be less motivated in this direction than men.) That's the same basic fallacy that led some people to "refute" Larry Summers by pointing to the highly accomplished women scientists in his audience. A complete non-sequitur.

    Jack - that's an interesting suggestion. On my pricklier days, I can be sympathetic to the perfectionist view that it's more important to lift people from mediocrity to excellence than from abject suffering to middling comfort. But I wouldn't expect many on the egalitarian left to would go along with that. (Though your "safety-net" argument seems to suggest, not that helping the worst-off is less important, but simply that it is already being done.)

  12. By the way, there are a couple of reasons why I think men's relative silence is not good evidence that they have less to complain about. (1) It's only the cultural "winners" who are prominent. Nobody listens to the losers. (Low variability disadvantages the most privileged women, by contrast.)
    (2) Even if they could be heard, a male's complaints are more likely to elicit derision rather than sympathy. The very gender norms we're talking about establish strong disincentives against the losers drawing attention to their low status.

    Frankly, I find it pretty hard to believe that the men who are stuck in 24 of the 25 worst-rated jobs wouldn't prefer "lesser variability across success and failure". (Granted, it's no great surprise that those who lose a gamble will come to regret it. But since they never got the choice, the real question is what degree of risk we would endorse from behind the veil of ignorance. And that's no easy question!)


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