Tuesday, January 18, 2005
My third post on the Lawrence Summers speech won't be up until tomorrow, because I haven't written it yet. Instead, I have read a discussion thread (courtesy of emjaybee in my comments) about the meaning of this speech, and I remembered just why I hate it when the topic of innate gender differences crops up. I had forgotten how all sorts of quite nasty people crawl out of the woodwork and state categorically that things are as they are for a good reason, that all is predestined and that the current sexual division of labor is the optimal one.
Funny how these debates never surface when a study claims that women do something better than men. Let me tell you an anecdote (which, as I described in my previous post, has no generalizability): I once taught a university course which started with some discussions of the I.Q. measure. This wasn't in psychology, so the treatment was relatively short, but for some reason I mentioned to the class that Binet's initial attempts to create such a measure caused one sex to have a higher average, so he adjusted the test until both girls and boys tested the same on average. There was some whispering and rustling in the audience, and this was among the male students. A couple of them got somewhat upset and wanted to know if the test still could have been seen as valid. I then explained that it was the girls who tested higher on the original test before Binet modified it, and somehow the adjustment was not longer causing either whispers or upsets.
I'm not sure what was going on, but the impression I received was that at least some of the male students had a prior idea about which sex should have scored higher. - Anyway, it was interesting.
The question of gender difference is not something one can discuss in unregulated arenas without invoking the idea of gender inferiority, and especially the inferiority of women. Misogynists, in particular, always believe in great and immutable gender differences, and such differences are the rationalization of their feelings. More generally, anti-feminists base their arguments on inherent gender differences, for without such differences there would be no logical reason to be an anti-feminist.
This makes a feminist approach often seem as if one is advocating the thesis that men and women are exactly the same from a biological point of view, even if one is saying no such thing. A feminist who believes in innate differences between the sexes has the extra burden of seeming as if she or he is agreeing with the misogynist or anti-feminist first, before going to argue that difference does not mean inferiority. In my experience this seldom works. But I'm not sure what would work.
Note also, that those who argue most heatedly for the case of innate gender differences appear never to suggest that such differences should be ameliorated by education or other environmental modifications. We do this with congenital problems all the time, and it might make sense to do with other characteristics, too. But this part is not in the political agenda of this group. The political agenda being that status quo is perfectly swell.
And, finally, it is odd how many commentators are willing to let go of their rigorous standard with respect to evidence and science when it comes to this issue. In the comments thread I linked to, at least two people advocated Stephen Pinker as an expert with respect to this question. His work is in linguistics, but what he says about sex differences appeals to the innate-and-immutable-nothing-can-be-done-about-it school.
I almost forgot: An interesting new argument seems to have cropped up (at least it is new to me),and that is the beautiful and harmonious complementarity between the biologically innately different sexes. While such complementarity may be very beautiful in some cases, it seems to assume that all women are like the average woman and all men like the average man, and it says nothing about the not-so-beautiful "complementary" relationships that have large power differences in them. Not to mention very different financial rewards.