The simple answer to the above question is ‘yes’. Pro-feminist discourse usually emphasizes the full equality between the two sexes. And it is fair for women to demand a greater degree of equality when it comes to pay, sharing of housework, sharing of child care and family care, and other activities in social life. But, on the other hand, to say that men and women are the same in all respects would neither be at the service of increasing women’s social and economic advancement, nor will it help us to explore the very real biological, psychological and sociological differences in gender.
In politically correct speech today, it is apparently not possible to discuss very real gender differences without adding a long-winded preface that one supports most if not all of the practical political objectives of gender equality advanced by feminist groups. But I will venture the risk and devote this post to uncovering and stating the precise distinctions between the genders drawing from my personal experiences and some research that has been done on it.
Let me start with a personal observation. I have recently attended a seminar group, which had an about equal number of men and women, and we were supposed to debate for and against a proposition. I was naturally looking forward to debates like these, as it placed me mentally back into high school, where I had participated in the school debate team, and eagerly looked forward to engage other hormone-driven teenagers of my caliber. I never won any competition, but I relished the experience of defending my argument against others using evidence. To some extent, I was very much used to this environment, because I grew up constantly debating my brother on political and social issues, and he would sure be my devil’s advocate. I would make a proposition, and he would often attack it, even if he agreed with me. That would usually enrage me, but it taught me quite useful debating skills. What was even more disheartening when I was younger, was that my brother was three years older than me, and so he was much ahead of me, and I had to struggle even harder than him just to keep on par with his arguments.
So, there I was, a naturally groomed and passionate debater. I took careful notes of what the other side said, and then drew arrows underneath on the sheet of paper. Beside the arrow I would craft the counter-argument that came to my mind as quickly as I could, and use these notes in the rebuttal phase, where I made quick counter-arguments to weaken my opponent’s position. I sparred with the other guys, felt the increased heart beat and adrenaline, and savored every moment of it.
There was a teacher, who monitored the whole debate, and toward the end she noted that the women did not talk at all. So here I was cued in to pay attention to the gender dimension. When she finished the comment, there was one woman, who then raised her hand, and made her point of rebuttal after the debate was virtually over. Now that the teacher had pointed out what had appeared to be a problem to her, the one woman broke her silence. So what is the explanation for female silence?
I briefly discussed this issue with a few women and men in the seminar group, and was simply curious to know what the answer was. There is a great deal of subtlety, which I had received from one of the women. One of them said that they thought a little bit too slow, and their arguments had been made by the men, who were more forceful in raising their hands. Another reaction was that of cultural backgrounds (we have Asian and Middle Eastern female students), and women from foreign backgrounds were less willing to speak up, because they lacked linguistic competence (which can only partly account for the silence, because I thought their English language level was quite high). The other woman made a much more subtle comment and claimed that it was the action of the female teacher, which influenced their silence. She claimed that while the teacher was approving of the male comments, she was quite disapproving of the female students’ comments.
Now that is quite powerful, and let us consider the implications if her statement is correct. What does it mean if a female teacher behaves in such a way? This would all go back to biology. A woman admires what the man says, no matter how stupid and illogical his statement may be, because men have a certain ego, which needs to be stroked, and women know that, so that they are purposefully deferential, because that is what makes them a more attractive sexual partner for the man. On the other hand, women treat other women as sexual adversaries, and to the extent that that is the case, women will subconsciously want to put down other women. There are observational studies of how women behave in one way if they are with women only and if they are with men, when their body language becomes more flirty (see the documentary about 3min into the video).
Women will not always be other women’s adversary, and we can certainly see that when women sit down together to analyze their male dates or gossip about other women (which is the pattern that I have observed) over a drink, having much fun and bonding in that way. But there are certain biological patterns, which favor my interpretation of events.
Now, I hear your objection. Why would a middle-aged female teacher be interested in stroking the male ego of students half her age, and belittle other women equally half her age (i.e. both outside her league)? Why would crude biology help in explaining a purely academic setting, where other important highly abstract issues are discussed? My counterargument here is simply that people behave like people, wherever they are, whether hunting for animals in the wild or discussing philosophy in cozy seminar rooms. We cannot escape the way how we are wired and behave simply because we rationally state that we don’t behave like that in certain settings. Things like body language are pre-conscious. In other words, we do a revealing body movement, reflecting our innermost thoughts and feelings, even though our mouth says other things, which are socially more acceptable. By the time we realize that our body language is giving our true selves away, it is already too late, and we can’t do too much to alter it.
In this seminar and debate setting, the female students were apparently discouraged simply because they felt put down by their elder rival, who had the institutional power as a teacher, while the younger women, who were dutifully taught how social hierarchy works, practiced silence and mental retreat. Would these women have spoken out more if the teacher was male? Or would they practice submissiveness even more to impress the male teacher, while the male teacher does all the intellectual impression work and compete with his younger male students?
It is noteworthy to watch documentaries of female textile workers in the developing world, where there are only very few male workers. Female workers are more family conscious and more concerned about how work disruptions can completely stop the money flow to the family, thus harming the family, so they are less likely to go on strike than their more self-confident and self-centered men. Capitalist bosses, therefore, appreciate their obedient female labor force. So much for the male breadwinner model.
I am sure the example can be replicated in the educational system of developed countries, where girls are more well-adjusted, i.e. stir less trouble, than their male counterparts. That helps girls to be the teacher’s pet, and get better grades than boys, and get ahead in the school system until they hit the university, where their well-adjustment no longer helps them as much as creativity and unconventional thinking, which we also associate with the more rambunctious boys. So, yes, girls do tend to have much better educational performances than boys, but that is as much a function of social capital as it is of intellectual capital.
Are there definite things we can say about intellectual capital among genders? Yes, the bell curve distribution for male intelligence is flatter than for females (Schrager 2015). In other words, there are more women of average intelligence than men, and there are more men that are very stupid or very intelligent than women. Is there some biologically useful explanation at work here? The one I found convincing was that women are the nurturers in the family, so they have to make sure that things get done in the domestic sphere. If you are too stupid, then it is not possible to raise children, and if you are too smart, then you are too distracted with abstract thoughts to care for your offspring. It would be biologically stupid, therefore, to have too many extreme cases of women. On the other hand, it is okay if a man does not focus on the domestic sphere. The intelligent people are required to carry the human race forward (the Albert Einstein’s of the world). But what can we say of the usefulness of the less intelligent men? To that I would ask in response, why should we assume that every person is useful for the human race?
What about sociology? Sociological gender analysis simply states that women are more silent than men in public settings, because society enforces the norm of men belonging to the public sphere and women belonging to the private sphere. Men and women speak about an equal number of words during the day, but men speak more in public (e.g. in public lectures or court rooms), while women speak more in private (e.g. with close friends and family members). In this account, one cannot say for sure that women know less or want to impress their male colleagues, but that social norms inhibit female speech. If we change social norms, we will change female speech behavior.
Hillary Clinton, not afraid to play the power politics game in the front row, had noted in her autobiography (the first one as first lady, not as secretary of state) that when she testified in front of the male-dominated Congress in the 1990s to defend her health care overhaul proposal, she felt like a speaking dog. One would not expect a dog to speak, and be surprised that she would utter intelligent and coherent statements. Clinton was apparently clearly violating the social norm of women not belonging to the public sphere. I can think of other examples where women are judged differently than men. Let us think of two managers: a man and a woman, and both react to their subordinate’s failures by screaming at them. The man will be perceived as authoritative, the woman as bitchy and unseemly.
This is the exciting area for feminists, because sociological analysis can show that women can break the glass ceiling, can push the boundaries of what is possible for women in the public sphere. That is perhaps one reason why my field is dominated by women. The women that I spoke to used excuses and rationalizations so as not to speak up during the debate. They mentally pre-empted their utterances, filtered it, calmed themselves down, belittled their own ideas, and refused to break their silence. I very much doubt that the women would be as silent with their close friends and family members. On the other hand, I can say as a man that this self-castigation seldom crosses my mind. If I get an idea, I find it important enough to raise it, because it is more important for me to get more knowledge and test my ideas than to keep them in secret and never find out. Once women gain enough self-confidence they can be quite powerful speakers and advocates of their own right, and be role models to other women.
But let us go back to the other famous public women, who are not afraid to raise their voice and defend their arguments. I have watched these Republican and Democratic debates, and as a reinforcement of the stereotype, there is a glaring lack of women among the contenders. There is Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump never hides his sexism, and bashes any woman he encounters and he just can’t help it, whether it is a female moderator (who apparently menstruates visibly in front of his eyes) or his fellow presidential candidate. Fiorina shot back at Trump, calling him out for his sexism, which should make any woman wary of supporting him for president. Maybe some women buy this argument from her, but Trump is strangely leading the polls and by a wide margin. He surely has less female support than male support, but Republican women are certainly not supporting Fiorina in overwhelming numbers or else she would not be trailing so far behind in the polls. I remember watching Fiorina’s comments during the debate, and her response simply was not very convincing. Her voice lacked the firmness, and the nonchalant self-confidence that her male counterparts had. Yeah, public appearance certainly matters.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is the clear leader in the polls. Her main challenger, Bernie Sanders, from the populist left is trailing her campaign by 25 points, and there is not much time left for him to catch up. The entire political establishment supports Clinton’s campaign, so if we were simply to judge the numbers, we could argue that my attacks on Fiorina miss the point. Maybe Democrats are just more civilized and progressive on gender issues than the bigoted, anti-women GOP (look at their cheap shot attacks on Planned Parenthood). The debates are, indeed, much more civilized in the Democratic Party, and Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley are clearly also supporters of women’s causes. I would say Sanders even more so than Clinton, because he proposes a higher minimum wage than her, which certainly benefits more women than men, as women tend to earn less.
But let us not get bogged down by the policy content, which is interesting in its own right. Let us look at the Democratic debates as observers of intellect, body language, facial expressions, and speech intonation. Clinton presented herself as an establishment figure, who wants to preserve the status quo. Her voice and appearance are rather calm and firm, and she rarely went off script. This may be said irrespective of gender, but women certainly have an added credibility when they are good girls intent on not rocking the boat. Sanders is her clear opponent to the left, his intonation is much more vocal and vociferous, and his male gender gives him added credibility as such a challenger to mainstream politics. When Sanders attacked Clinton’s Super PAC and her closeness to her Wall Street donors, Clinton could just gush in an embarrassed manner, and defend her nebulous (i.e. inexistent) plan to rein in Wall Street speculation.
Without pushing further with the details of the debate, I just want to ask you the following question: can you imagine the roles being reversed? In other words, imagine that Sanders is the establishment candidate, and Clinton is his left-wing challenger. It is like Segolene Royal (socialist) against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential elections in France. But she lost. Sarkozy lost five years later against her former partner, Francois Hollande. Remember the social norms: we expect women in public to be the good girls, the well-behaved students and workers- to draw from my earlier examples. The society does not appreciate Iron Ladies like Margaret Thatcher, whose determination to defend a small British island in the Atlantic scared the shit out of Argentina’s dictator. On the other hand, the society does appreciate an Angela Merkel, whose dull speeches are as exciting as those of boring lecturers. People crave the steady hand, and calm averageness of a reliable grandmother (though Merkel does not have children).
For whatever reason, women are more silent in public than men, and I have made my attempt here to explain why.