A 1999 episode of In Our Time was ostensibly about "feminism," but in fact addressed a narrower and more pressing issue: Are men "by nature more competitive, ambitious, status-conscious, dedicated, single-minded and persevering than women"? And if so, doesn't that mean men are biologically better disposed than women to achieve material success? And if that's true, doesn't it follow that the comparatively disadvantaged status women hold in modern society results from "natural" psychological differences, rather than "cultural" patriarchy? What would that then mean for feminism's mission? Should society ensure equal opportunity, or privilege difference? I would have thought such claims would arouse more backlash than it has. But such theories are taken seriously, to some degree, because they are championed by Prof. Helena Cronin, an academic philosopher at the London School of Economics Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science. Lest you think I've mischaracterized Cronin's arguments, you can also read them here:
[C]onsider the cognitive differences that disadvantage girls in maths. Shouldn't we be drawing more - not less - attention to them? How else will interventions be devised that don't treat girls as default males? Bear in mind that mathematical ability itself is not an evolved ability; maths is far too recent for that. Rather, mathematical talent borrows eclectically from abilities evolved for other purposes. Much of the mathematical advantage of boys lies in spatial abilities for navigation - an area in which females are notoriously weaker; in particular, boys are better than girls at using these innate capacities to turn quantitative relations into diagrams. So why not help girls improve their skills? When males and females (both adults and children) are helped with translating word problems into diagrams, the performance of females improves more than that of males - thus closing some of the gap between the sexes. By contrast, self-confidence in maths, which also favours boys, makes some impact; but it is relatively small. So forget classes in "self-esteem" or "empowerment". Go for evolutionarily informed teaching in maths classes. Admittedly, more female-friendly maths won't guarantee more female Nobel prize-winners. But it should enable more girls to realise their potential. And isn't that what fairness is about?
I would have expected Germaine Greer, who was invited to represent the "patriarchy as cultural construct" school, to more forcefully object. But Greer seemed to largely agree with Prof. Cronin's essentialist premises. Aside from the premises, it's also hard for me understand exactly what Cronin has concluded. Is it that men are, on average, more likely to excel in those academic disciplines that better ensure material success and wealth? Or is it merely that men are statistically more likely to be intellectual outliers within homo sapiens, overrepresenting both the "genius" and "dolt" end of the IQ spectrum? Cronin announced a somewhat confusing change of heart in 2008:
I used to think that these patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments. After all, in talents men are on average more mathematical, more technically minded, women more verbal; in tastes, men are more interested in things, women in people; in temperaments, men are more competitive, risk-taking, single-minded, status-conscious, women far less so. But I have now changed my mind. It is not a matter of averages, but of extremes. Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance—the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst—can be vast. So males are almost bound to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this as 'more dumbbells but more Nobels'.
So, yes, we have more male than female CEOs, but we also have more male than female prison convicts. And yet, how much of this "revised view" differs from what Cronin said in 1999? Even then, she argued that men were -- statistically speaking -- not only more likely to produce IQ outliers, but also generally more driven to succeed in life. If we are now to simply accept that men are "merely" more likely to possess the attributes necessary to reach the most elite ranks of society, wouldn't that state of affairs nevertheless perniciously influence who tends to get promoted/elected/appointed to positions on the next rung "down the ladder"? For example, is or isn't Cronin claiming whether her theory meaningfully accounts, for, say, the continuing wage/gender gap? (Cronin did argue that natural differences better explain the disparity between men and women in the sciences, a contention I think Patricia Churchland would have disputed, based on her comments in the PEL interview.) In any event, what exactly does Cronin propose? That perhaps we restructure all of modern society to accommodate these apparent gender shortcomings?
We live in many ways in a winner-take-all society....I think that if we don't recognize that in a winner-take-all society, it's going to tend always to be the men who are the winners because of their competitiveness, because of their single-mindedness, because of the kinds of different dispositions they have, that women aren't going to achieve, in ways that they might want to. Maybe what we have to do is to change the winner-take-all society, rather than try to put a few women at the top.
So, wait a minute. The primary mission for feminism is thus socialism? We should engineer a society that devalues individual excellence? Greer, an unreconstructed Marxist, was all too eager to support this theory. But to my ears, that sounded like essentialism gone wild.
But I'm having trouble finding a succinct and equally authoritative anti-essentialist counter-argument. I would have expected Germaine Greer to represent that wing on the interview, but she was plenty comfortable playing the "essentialist" game, as long as it involved re-characterizing "masculine traits" in a negative rather than positive light. (For example, rather than characterizing men as "single-minded" or "perservering", she'd say "obssessive." Rather than changing society, she'd rather "change men," etc.) So, was anti-essentialism too soon for 1999, when this recording took place, or did the BBC producers simply guess wrong when choosing their panel?
Of course, both commentators favored providing better opportunities for women. But both avoided dealing with the obvious response one might expect from troglodyte chauvinists: If the psychological traits Dr. Cronin characterizes as uniquely (or at least statistically) "masculine" better ensure material success in modern society, then isn't it right and just and proper that men are overrepresented in academic, public, and corporate institutions? Should society construct cultural "workarounds" against women's putative shortcomings? Am I the only one thinking we ought to first be really, really, really careful about what we're saying here? To his credit, Melvyn Bragg repeatedly attempted to tease out that very concern from the discussion, but everyone seemed too hyper-caffeinated and hyper-defensive to address it.
Regardless of how "sensitive" a male you are or aren't, if you have daughters, nieces, or granddaughters, then you should soon start to feel you have some skin in this game. These arguments all feel very Bell Curve to me, and I'd want to review more rebuttals to Cronin's thesis before I'm willing to accept it. The whole discussion encapsulates my skepticism of evolutionary psychology: it's one thing to hear these "just-so" stories looking backward to explain the present predicament. But once the prescriptions start to accept a kind of Social Darwinist paradigm, I have to ask: weren't these lines of argument discredited a while ago? Once we buy in to the notion that men and women have non-trivial natural differences in their aptitudes, then where does it stop? Wouldn't it be natural to extend these hypotheses to racial differences in aptitudes, etc.?