Female Puppets and Eunuchs
Why can't a woman be more like a man?
The question seemed innocent enough in 1964. As sung by Henry Higgins, the lovesick Victorian professor in My Fair Lady, social class was changeable just a matter of tweaking accent and costume but the gender divide was completely inscrutable. Four decades later the question is still being asked, but with a different twist. Now it usually means "Shouldn't a woman be more like a man?" The frustration is still there, now torqued with unfulfilled expectations.
Like Higgins, most of us don't realize that we think of male as the standard, and of female as a version of this base model with just a few optional features added on. We have come to expect that there should be no real differences between the sexes. But the science that's emerging upends the notion that male and female are interchangeable, symmetrical, or the same. To put this book's question plainly, with what we know about the psychology, neuroscience, and economics of people's choices and behavior fields that have exploded with amazing findings in the last ten years alone how reasonable is it to expect that a woman be more like a man? And how likely is it for a man to be like a woman? This time, it's more about describing what is, than why can't, or shouldn't, because the expectation that male is the starting point seems to have led us astray.
The assumption that female is just a slightly different shade of male was perfectly captured by the predicament the Sesame Street team found itself in when trying to invent a cast of characters for its popular preschool television show. In 2006 The New York Times reported how Sesame Street's producers had long been stymied in creating a female lead puppet out of the anxiety that any girl-like features would play into stereotypes. "If Cookie Monster was a female character, she'd be accused of being anorexic or bulimic," said the show's executive producer. Others on the team agreed that if Elmo were female she'd be seen as ditzy. Especially after the indignant reaction to the Muppet Show's Miss Piggy, it just seemed safest to reflect the common assumption that male was the default setting for both sexes. Male puppets whether flightless birds, hairy monsters, or earnest little boys were not really male, but generically human. But any female puppets would be viewed as deviant, or as having girl-specific traits. As a result, it took thirty-seven years after Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Elmo were created for the show's producers to come up with Abby Cadabby, a high-spirited puppet with magical powers and a feminine aesthetic. Her distinctly female persona was a sign that people were beginning to relax about gender, but it still made the news.
I had little idea of how touchy it was when I proposed to combine two areas of personal and professional interest extreme or distinctive male traits and women's occupational choices in a book about men, women, and work. The plan was to profile several unusual men at least twenty years after they'd had problems as children to see what had become of them. Their stories would contrast with those of gifted women with every chance of success. The human stories were compelling, but then so was the science underlying their experiences. Trying to make sense of their stories was how I entered the politically charged world of sex differences, where, as it turned out, almost everyone I would encounter had already taken sides. Along the way, I discovered that sex differences not only colored my work, but had likely affected my own choices. As in Higgins' song, I started to wonder about myself, my female colleagues and other women I knew, "Why do they do everything their mothers do? Why don't they grow up like their fathers instead?"
I'd had every opportunity. In 1973, at the age of sixteen, I worked for my father. In those years he was a garment manufacturer's agent and for two summer months we companionably drove around rural Québec in his wood-paneled station wagon, the back loaded with a dozen navy sample bags filled with women's uniforms and sleepwear, each bag the size of a fridge and weighing about seventy-five pounds. With new respect I discovered the labor that financed our suburban, middle-class life. His years on the road eventually put three kids through college, my mother through graduate school, and would underwrite his own transition to a successful law career. The work was often lonely and physically exhausting, and like many work landscapes at the time, it was 99 percent male.
By then I was sure that a women could and would do any job a man could. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had laid it all out: biology was not destiny. "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman." There was no such thing as a maternal instinct humans were not like animals with observable, fixed habits, like rutting deer or baboons who flashed their pink behinds. We were above all that. As humans, we were "forever in a state of change, forever becoming," an existentialist take that certainly matched my sixteen-year-old worldview. So women could be defined by their current situation and their possibilities, but that was it. If there was a healthy demand for nurses' smocks and peignoir sets, it was because society defined women as caregivers and sex objects. But soon all this would change. Of course, I knew nothing about the gulf between this feminist classic and the particulars of the writer's own life, how de Beauvoir allowed herself to be treated by Sartre, not as an equal, but more as an enabler and procurer of pretty young women, some of them as young as I was at the time. But that wouldn't have mattered. What happened in the forties and fifties was history. This was now.
Coming of age at the cusp of second-wave feminism, my expectations diverged sharply from those of previous generations. Unlike the women who matured during the Depression, I counted on an education and a career, not just a job. And like my friends, I didn't think getting married and pregnant was a sufficient future plan. It was precisely the one that had trapped our mothers. In 1963 Betty Friedan had shredded the idyll of postwar domesticity in The Feminine Mystique, portraying suburban housewives as burdened by endless chores, whiny children, and an unnamed, enveloping anomie. These were the original desperate housewives, and Friedan's strident demand that women reject that scenario was not just hot air. "We swallowed it whole," recalled my mother, who had married at nineteen and then spent the next eighteen years at home "wiping the same stretch of counter over and over." (According to the sociologist Juliet Schor, a middle-class mother of three did an average of fifty-three hours of housework a week in 1973.) Galvanized by Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and others, that 1973 summer, my mother started a graduate degree. All her friends were doing the same, returning to jobs they had before they married, or seeking professional training that would allow them to work for pay.
There were other signs of a major societal attitude shift. The birth-control pill had been legal since 1969 in Canada, and some of my high school friends were already on it. A robust postwar economy had launched our sense of infinite possibility, but The Pill boosted it skyward, along with the idealism and individualism of the Vietnam era. None of us expected to have our aspirations curtailed by pregnancy or marriage or to have anyone tell us what kind of work we should or could do. The Female Eunuch had just been published, and I was an instant convert to Germaine Greer's lusty prose. Women were conditioned to have the characteristics of a castrate, she wrote, listing passivity, plumpness, timidity, languor, delicacy, and preciousness as the female virtues that were lauded by men, and thus obediently emulated by women. "The new assumption behind the discussion of the body is that everything that we may observe could be otherwise," she wrote. Her italics captured the self-assurance of the era and its hopefulness. Everything was mutable. If only women rejected their conditioned roles by refusing to be men's handmaids, by avoiding "menial" jobs like teaching or nursing, and by abandoning the clothes, cosmetics, and even the household appliances that enslaved them, it could be a different world. The assumption was that men had it made; they were the standard, the ones to be emulated. Only when women dumped their female personae and took on men's roles would they truly be equal. It was true that many women in my family and social circle were plump, but I didn't know any who were remotely passive, delicate, timid, or languorous. Still, the idea of a complete overhaul had appeal.
Feminism, along with the sixties zeitgeist, had instilled a powerful belief in the freedom of choice. Behind the cultural facade, we were equal to, if not the same as, men. And once artificial barriers came down, many women assumed we'd lead similar lives. In fact, more progress had been made in my generation than in the previous 150 years, during which American women struggled but failed to have the same constitutional rights as had been granted to former slaves. Having been lucky enough to have been born when I was, I benefited from the hard-won achievements of second-wave feminism. Enforced domesticity didn't come crashing in on me at the age of twenty. I simply took it for granted that my views had as much value as any man's, and that I had the same rights to education and employment, to vote, to own property, and to decide if and when I'd have children. That I took these truths to be self-evident proved how far women and society had traveled in a short time.
Still, it never occurred to me that women would choose to do this kind of work, the work my father did for years. Sure, his earnings amply supported a family of five. But hoisting sample bags, working alone on the road, and only rarely seeing his family and friends? I mean, how many women would really want to?
What women want, and why they want it, is half of what this book is about. The other half is about men, and whether it makes sense to see males as the base model when we think about women and work. Thirty-odd years after my first summer job, I wondered whether biology is, well, if not destiny exactly, then a profound and meaningful departure point for a discussion about sex differences. Most women in the West are now in the workplace. But gifted, talented women with the most choices and freedoms don't seem to be choosing the same paths, in the same numbers, as the men around them. Even with barriers stripped away, they don't behave like male clones. So I began to wonder what would happen if all the "shoulds" the policy and political agendas were shifted to the side for a moment to examine the science. Would female really look like an alternative version of male? As a developmental psychologist, I could see that males were hardly a neutral, homogeneous group. Instead of being what de Beauvoir called "the absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique is defined," it was clear that boys and men demonstrate a wide range of biologically based foibles that make many unpredictable, others fragile, and still others reckless or even extreme. If anyone is oblique, it's males.
For me, the question of whether males really fit our expectation of the standard, neutral gender what I'll call the "vanilla" gender started in my pediatric clinic waiting room. Over twenty years of clinical practice and teaching as a child psychologist, I had seen mostly males. Boys and men with learning problems, attention problems, aggressive or antisocial boys, those with autistic features, those who didn't sleep well or make friends, or couldn't sit still, dominated my practice and that of every other developmental psychologist I knew. Research confirmed the gender breakdown of my waiting room. Learning problems, attention deficit disorder, and autism spectrum disorders are four to ten times as common in boys; anxiety and depression twice as common in girls. From the point of view of learning and self-control, boys are simply more vulnerable. Defining their strengths and weaknesses, and teaching others how to, had been the focus of the first half of my working life. I had been at it so long that many of my first charges were now adults, and to my surprise, I began to see some of them featured as success stories in the press. One had become a designer of international renown. Another had made money as a financial analyst and was leapfrogging from one investment bank to another. A third had become an electrical engineer who had pioneered an invention. A fourth was a chef on his way up. And there were more. These apparently fragile boys had overcome their early difficulties through the support of parents and teachers, who, after all, were attentive and observant enough to seek out a psychologist, presumably only one of many steps they might have taken with that child's welfare in mind. But it occurred to me that there might also be a biological thread. In some, there seemed to be a flip side to early male vulnerability. Many of these initially fragile boys continued to have obsessive interests or an appetite for risk that set the stage for their careers. Meanwhile, many of the girls their age who were light-years ahead of them in classroom learning, language, social skills, and self-control opted for paths that would not necessarily lead them to the highest status or the most lucrative careers. They had other goals. So even if being male made childhood a bumpier road, as adults at work, the situation was reversed.
In The Sexual Paradox I examine the trajectories of these two extreme groups fragile boys who later succeed, and the gifted, highly disciplined girls who eclipsed them in third grade as a way of exploring sex differences. These apparent opposites challenge our assumptions. We expect that the fragile boys will continue to struggle. We expect that high-achieving girls will shoot right to the top. That so many in these groups violate our expectations tells us something important about sex differences. If boys and girls, are on average, biologically and developmentally distinct from the start (and I'll walk you through some of the more intriguing evidence), wouldn't these differences affect their choices later? Could men's and women's diverging developmental paths and different work priorities be linked? The History
The idea that there are inherent differences is a sensitive issue in the present because it provided cover for abuses in the past. Until the mid-twentieth century, a rigid gender gap enforced by law and tradition was the rule. Except for a tiny elite, few women had any choices. And without choices, what they wanted was moot. They could take in boarders, washing, or piecework, but up to the Second World War, married women couldn't be hired in most states in the United States, Canada, or Britain (Australia's civil service banned married women until 1966). So single women who got hitched were duly sacked, barred from jobs in most schools and offices, precisely the places where women were most likely to find work. Factories had always employed women but usually paid them less, so unions saw them as a form of scab labor that undercut men's livelihoods. Even after the privations of the Depression and the war years, when women were aggressively recruited to factory and munitions jobs to keep the economy chugging along, having a wife who "didn't work" and earning a "family wage" were seen as a woman's privilege and a man's duty. Never mind Rosie the Riveter, who flexed her biceps on recruitment posters and was "on a sharp lookout for sabotage, sitting up there on the fuselage," according to the popular song. When the war ended, there were gains for some women, especially for black women, but for most there was a regression to the status quo. Gender discrimination was rife, and with no birth control, few formal jobs, and little access to money or property, women were often trapped by their circumstances.
Second-wave feminism changed all that, along with our expectations about what would happen next. Women became an undeniable presence in the workplace, their numbers ballooning in a single generation my own. In 1930, 25 percent of the workforce was female. In 1950, it had risen to 29 percent, but by 1975 it had become a wave of more than 40 percent, reaching 47 percent by 2005. Women got the vote in 1918 in Canada, 1920 in the United States, and 1928 in Britain, but it was only in the 1970s that women began to flood educational programs that trained them to become doctors, lawyers, and architects, just a few of the careers formerly identified as male. This generational attitude shift was duly reflected in public policy. Through the sixties and seventies, equal-rights laws were introduced in Britain, the United States, the European Union, and Canada that made it illegal to discriminate against women or to pay them any less than men. Ironically, given its role as the tinderbox of social upheaval in the sixties, the United States was alone among Western countries in failing to marshal enough momentum to write gender equity laws into its constitution despite thirty-five years of debate and rollicking support for the idea. Instead there were targeted statutes that made workplace discrimination and sexual harassment illegal (the 1963 Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and prevented publicly funded schools from offering programs on the basis of sex (Title IX, enacted in 1972). A long time coming, these statutes still created controversial fallout. While eliminating obvious injustices such as separate pay scales for men and women and infelicities like "boom-boom rooms," where male employees socialized with strippers, the laws also whitewashed any fundamental differences between the sexes, creating absurd situations where allowances for pregnancy or all-male soccer teams suddenly became discriminatory practices. Still, there was no doubt that an overwhelming social movement was afoot in the West, one aimed to redress the inequalities of the past with protective legislation and affirmative action programs designed to bump up the numbers of girls and women in schools and workplaces.
Gender equity legislation and the thinking behind second-wave feminism, so formative for the baby-boom generation, had unintended effects. Together they created the expectation that all differences between men and women were created by unjust practices and therefore could be erased by changing same. With new laws and policies in place and women making up almost half of the workforce, there was a leap of faith that it was only a matter of time before all occupations would be split 50-50. Equal numbers of men and women working side by side, doing exactly the same work for exactly the same number of hours and pay, seemed a logical extension of the sixties-based egalitarian ideal. So when 50-50 didn't happen in all jobs by the year 2000, there was a vast feeling of letdown. "Full equality is still a distant promise," wrote British journalist Natasha Walters in 2005, about the fact that women's salaries when averaged are 85 percent of the average male salary. "What's Wrong with This Picture?" ran the headline of a 2007 article by the Feminist Research Center, which reported that "at the current rate of increase it will be 475 years, or not until the year 2466 before women reach equality with men in the executive suite." (At 16.4 percent of all corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies in 2005, that estimate for women isn't quite right. At current rates of increase, it would take another 40, not 475 years, to have female and male CEOs in equal numbers, according to projections by Catalyst, another women's research group.) Still, the assumption seemed to be that if the social order had really changed, women would be exactly like men by now. They'd make the same choices, opting in equal proportions for chief executive positions, careers in theoretical physics, or political office. Even among women who haven't chosen such fields themselves, the wider the discrepancy from 50 percent, the greater the sense of chagrin. That's because it is largely taken for granted that gender discrimination is what is behind these numbers. And though discrimination still exists both Wall Street and Wal-Mart have faced recent class action suits by women who feel their advancement has been blocked as I talked to high-achieving women and started to look at the data, it became clear that women's and men's interests and preferences are also skewing the picture. Equal opportunity doesn't necessarily lead to equal results. In fact, women's preferences stand out in higher relief precisely because they do have options. By looking at what has changed dramatically in thirty-odd years, and what has changed just a little, we can get a feeling for the pursuits women choose once doors are opened to them.
One of the most remarkable transformations over this period has taken place on the university campus. In 1960, 39 percent of undergraduate students were female. Now 58 percent of American university students are; indeed, women outnumber men on college campuses throughout the developed world. Their strong academic profiles and broad extracurricular interests in everything from debating to building houses for Habitat for Humanity have meant that high-achieving women have their pick of schools and disciplines. Professional degree programs in law, medicine, pharmacy, and biology, all fields formerly dominated by men, are now evenly divided or admit more women. Two highly competitive fields clinical psychology and veterinary medicine are now between 70 and 80 percent female. Clearly, girls and women are excelling in the classroom and making significant inroads outside it, so efforts to narrow the gender gap have succeeded in Western countries. Fifty-six percent of all high-paying professional jobs are now held by women, and women hold more than half of all professional and managerial positions in Canada and Britain.16 Even at the top echelons of business, where female executives have been notoriously absent in the past, a 2006 study of 10,000 Fortune 500 companies has uncovered an interesting phenomenon. While almost half the companies have no women at the helm, the other half promote more women to executive officer positions, and they move them up faster when they're younger and have less experience than men in comparable positions (the women are promoted after an average of 2.6 years on the job while in their forties, the men after 3.5 years and in their fifties). Currently, any gender gaps in pay are narrower than they have ever been. In contrast, there are many parts of the world where girls still can't go to school; are forced into labor, prostitution, or marriage as young teenagers; and as adults can't work outside the home or vote. But in Western democracies, what's the problem? Why aren't people celebrating?
One reason for the continued hand-wringing is that though women have flooded certain disciplines where they had been rare a few decades ago, there are still noticeable discrepancies in others. More women are studying engineering, physics, and computer science than ever before, but they are not exactly falling over themselves to enter those fields the way they have in medicine and law. Even with dozens of task forces and millions consecrated to increasing gender diversity, female enrollment in engineering in most schools hasn't budged past 20 percent. Men have entered teaching, nursing, and social work but these, too, remain predominantly female enclaves. Even with more choices, women still cluster in certain occupations, just as men continue to hang together in others.
And a second reason why people are concerned is that when earnings are averaged by sex, men still earn more. These global figures usually blend disparate occupations, different subspecialties, and work schedules into one undifferentiated blob. In the following pages we'll see how biologically based leanings and preferences might influence the telling details for both sexes. Boys' developmental differences may shine some light on why their school performance and university attendance lag behind girls'. Meanwhile women's priorities wide-ranging and often people-based infuse their career choices. Despite increased opportunities and affirmative action programs, many women routinely turn their noses up at many occupations now open to them, among them computer programming, cutting down trees for pulp and paper, and politics. From their educational profiles, it's clear that when it comes to making career choices, it's not a question of "can't." Nor is it a question of "shouldn't," as most formerly male dominions have made significant investments to recruit women. Yet the question of what they should or shouldn't do still dominates the women's stories here. One of the pressures gifted, high-achieving women feel keenly is to make the same choices as men. This brings us back to men, and whether it makes sense for them to be their models. The Extremes
"There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper," wrote the social critic Camille Paglia, and her quip hints at a biological truth. Compared to women, there are more men who are extreme. Even though the two sexes are well matched in most areas, including intelligence, there are fewer women than men at the extreme ends of the normal distribution. Men are simply more variable. Their "means," or the average scores for the group, are roughly the same as those of women, but their individual scores are scattered more widely. So there are more very stupid men and more very smart ones, more extremely lazy ones and more willing to kill themselves with work. There are more men with biological frailties, and more with isolated areas of brilliance, including men weighed down by other deficits, such as the very problems dogging the children in my waiting room. The bell curve simply looks different for males, with more men at the tail ends of the distribution, where their measured skills are either dismal, stellar, or a mix of the two. So even though male and female averages are the same, there are more male outliers and more "normal" women overall. Comparing men and women in the middle ranges one finds fewer sex differences, but at the extremes the picture looks well extreme.
Sex differences at the extremes was one of the issues that sank the former president of Harvard University, Larry Summers. This book was already under way in January 2005, when I received an e-mail from one of my literary agents. "Did you see this?" she wrote, attaching an electronic article from that morning's New York Times. Summers had made a speech to a science and engineering diversity conference on the origin of sex differences in high-powered university science faculties. His remarks launched more than a thousand articles in the press, sparked a year of bitter dissent at Harvard, prompted several public apologies from Summers, and ultimately a commitment of $50 million to hire and promote female and minority faculty at the university. Still, by 2006 he was forced out. What was the fuss about? Summers conjectured that there were three reasons for the paucity of women in high-level science and engineering faculty positions. The first was that these jobs are so greedy that many women avoid them. "What fraction of young women in their mid-twenties make a decision that they don't want to have a job that they think about eighty hours a week? What fraction of young men make a decision that they're unwilling to have a job that they think about eighty hours a week?" he said, adding that whether it's correct for society to ask for that commitment is a different question. His second point was about male variability. If men are more variable than women, then there will be more men at the very bottom and very top of the distribution. So in research positions in physics or engineering that compete for a tiny fraction of human talent at the very top end where there are not only very few women, but also very few men one might find more extreme sex differences, he said. This was not a new idea and was one that at least a dozen researchers had already mapped out. One Edinburgh psychologist, Ian Deary, had even documented the phenomenon after examining the records of more than 80,000 children, nearly every child born in Scotland in 1921. At age eleven, boys' and girls' IQ scores were no different, on average, Deary's team found. But the difference in male variability was unmistakable: there were significantly more boys than girls at the low and high extremes of ability.
For more than a decade, other researchers Amy Nowell, Larry Hedges, Alan Feingold, Diane Halpern, Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley, Yu Xie, Kimberlee Shauman, the Scholastic Aptitude Testing Service, as well as my own brother Steve had found and written about the same phenomenon, but in Summers' case it caused a furious uproar that wouldn't abate. "I felt I was going to be sick," said MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, who reported that Summers' comments upset her so much that "my heart was pounding and my breath was shallow." Summers went on to talk about a third factor socialization and continuing discrimination but few listened. His message about extremes, standard deviations, and greedy jobs had been distilled as "women are not as good as men at math and science." The electric atmosphere surrounding the discussion of sex differences became even more charged.
So the issue of biologically based sex differences was already in the spotlight when I stepped into the fray. But a chill had settled on many researchers' willingness to talk about their work. Several female scientists who are experts in the area declined to be interviewed; they didn't want to draw attention to anything that could be seen as politically incorrect, nor did they relish becoming magnets for criticism. When I asked a female social scientist why she thought highly intelligent, successful women might be making different occupational choices than men, she burst out angrily, "Not that again!" I naively asked, "Not what again?" "Not that choice thing again!" I had unwittingly touched a sore spot. Apparently in "choice feminism" women are free to choose whatever jobs appeal to them to work part-time, full-time, or not at all and still call themselves feminists. But this offshoot had ended up challenging the idea that any deviation from the male standard would be a retrograde step for women, as many smart and capable women were not making "male" choices. Never mind individual differences and desires. Equal opportunity for women a principle I hold dear was supposed to lead to a mathematically equal result. That it hasn't has sparked the incendiary Mommy Wars and a lingering feeling among scientists that the topic is taboo.
But scientists aren't the only voices in this book. Real people tell the stories of their careers and why they made their decisions. None of the profiles in this book are composites or fictionalized, although identifying details have occasionally been altered. The interviews with the men and women took on a self-reflexive quality, as all the women asked me to give them pseudonyms and the majority of the so-called fragile men insisted that I use their real names. As a result, the women whose stories are recounted here are referred to with a fictitious first name. When first and family names are used in this book, as is the case with most of the men profiled here, this is the person's real name. It was my decision to use pseudonyms for the few young men still in their early twenties, just in case they might regret being identified in a few years. Even though all the men had sensitive clinical histories, they seemed less concerned about appearing vulnerable than the women were about seeming uncommitted to their science or professional backgrounds. Although all the women spoke volubly and sensitively about their work experiences, three of the high-achieving women subsequently had second thoughts about participating even with pseudonyms and a change of costume and hair color. None of the men had these reservations. Perhaps these men had struggled so much for their successes that they saw them as triumphs. Perhaps the freedom of women to make choices is still too recent for them to feel invincible.
"Confidence is a very fragile thing," said NFL football player Joe Montana. While it's hard to imagine a quarterback as much of an authority on fragility, the unusual men profiled in this book and the underlying data show that men are neither standard nor generic. Nor are they always the right models for women's career aspirations. After all, many men demonstrate a wide range of strengths and disabilities that skews their development as well as their fortunes. Men are more prone to developmental disabilities, to get sick, hurt, or kill others. They are also more likely to work extreme hours at extreme jobs and to die younger. The Sexual Paradox shows how these characteristics are at least partly linked to biology. To be seen as variations on their own theme will give a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be male. And instead of viewing women as frustrated versions of this male model, gifted women will explain why, after trying it on, that model didn't quite fit.
In reality, neither sex is a souped-up or flawed version of the other. In this book, men are not given short shrift as unfeeling, uncomplicated louts. And women are not portrayed as hapless victims prevented from achieving their goals. The stories these two groups tell and the science behind them, are the ciphers through which I examine basic sex differences. These apparent opposites fragile men, gifted women provide an unusual lens on the gender debate. If they are extremes on a continuum, then whatever is driving them is also true for the rest of us.
Copyright © 2008 by Susan Pinker