Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Taking Sex Roles Seriously

This is the title of a book by Steven E. Rhoads who seems to be an economist with not very many publications. Some reviewers call it a 'scholarly' work which might be a nice way to say that it was written by someone who has no expertise in judging the field, yet has unrelated letters after his name. I could do a few of those, too.

Anyway, Rhoads argues that sex roles are pretty much biological, that men are aggressive and criminal-minded and that women are nurturing and home-minded. Sounds like he really hates men, doesn't he? Yet his proposals are to make it easier for women to stay at home and not to have careers which would just make women unhappy.

This is a very conservative book, or rather a wingnut book, and I haven't actually read it. This makes the level of knowledge Rhoads and I have about equal on the subject matter of his book, but of course I really should read it to write about it. In my defense I could note that I have read a passel of similar books, all, by the way, written by men who seem worried about the possible demise of male supremacy, and they all rehash the studies that show differences in various behaviors by sex and then leap from that to telling how the society should be structured.

In this leap they tend to ignore the question whether these measured differences are biological, socially constructed or both, and they tend to take studies which show that some characteristic is shared by, say, 60% of women and by only 40% of men and then argue that all women share this characteristic and no men do, and so on. In other words, they tend to draw false conclusions from data (and not always from good data) and then quickly rush from these to rather sweepingly generalized policy conclusions.

More recently, these little books receive an air of authority by quoting gene research or differences in the PET scans of brain by sex. This sounds like the writers really know their stuff. The problem is that the research they are referring to is at its initial stages and doesn't provide the kind of evidence these books assume must exist somewhere. Moreover, there is a possibility that the relationship between genes and the environment is much more complex than the nature-nurture dualists assume. It's even possible that environmental conditions may turn some genes on or off. Likewise, differences in the brain images have been found to develop with behavior. One study found that the long-term memory part of the brain grew in those individuals who passed the very demanding street map test for taxi drivers in London. This means that referring to research about genes or pictures of the brain doesn't actually guarantee that any differences so spotted are inherent.

But I suspect that none of this matters for the writers of this genre. I rather imagine them beginning with the conclusions they wish to reach and then going backwards, picking and rejecting evidence, finding anecdotes and cutting out parts which don't work, and so on, until they finally write the Introduction in suitably sober and impartial tones.

It's sad, because the field of sex differences deserves better researchers and better writers. It would also be nice to have a similar field of sex similarities with journals which would publish all those studies that find no discernible sex differences at all, but that is unlikely to happen. The stakes are far too high for that for those who take sex roles 'seriously'.

Finally, the important note that every feminist must add to posts like this one: No, I don't believe that all sex differences are socially constructed. But I also don't believe that all women are the same and that all men are the same or that there is no overlap between these groups. I believe that men and women are fairly similar, to be quite honest. Certainly much more similar to each other than to anything else I can think of.
My information about Rhoads' book is based on Cathy Young's article. Imagine an anti-feminist attacking another!