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What is a Sexist?

Recognizing the existence of differences between men and women should not be considered a regression for the women’s rights movement.

What is a Sexist?

What kinds of statements about men and women constitute sexism? Is it sexist to say, for example, that on average, men are taller than women or that women live longer than men? Most people already accept the obvious truth that men and women differ in these physiological respects, and it would strain credulity to argue that such statements are sexist. Suggestions about psychological differences, however, can stoke controversy.

Pressing the issue further by claiming that psychological and cognitive differences might partly explain wage gaps, employment gaps, and the like, will certainly invite harsh rebuke and likely a charge of sexism. Like “racist”, the definition of “sexist” seems to have ballooned in such a way as to include any claim about average differences between males and females from the neck up. Some feminists, in particular, fear that assertions about differences between men and women threaten the social progress we’ve made over the past few centuries. Perhaps they have a point (as we discuss below). But we should consider whether such an expansive definition of sexism is helpful, or whether it actually represents a hindrance to moral progress.

A Troubling history

For millennia women have been subjugated by men, who have used social norms, religious injunctions, and legal restrictions to reinforce their power. For example, the widespread cultural practices of female genital mutilation and foot binding are two egregious examples of men impinging on the health and wellbeing of women.

Many Chinese women a century ago were convinced that they should bind their daughters’ feet out of tradition. And many African women today are convinced that they should destroy or remove their daughters’ clitoris because religious purity requires it. Some European societies used the power of the state to punish “witches”, on the assumption that certain women were cavorting with the devil and thus presented a risk to both corporeal bodies and immortal souls. Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, in fact, still treat witchcraft as a capital crime. In short, refuting the idea that men have a history of subjugating women requires one to simultaneously ignore both history and current events.

Similarity without Sameness

Despite previous and ongoing problems, we’ve made enormous progress. For example, in Western countries like the United States and Australia more women than men graduate from universities, and the pay disparity between men and women is shrinking rapidly (though some of the gap remains as men and women scale the corporate ladder). Because there is still work to be done in the quest for female equality, many are on guard against claims that might deter women from pursuing the same goals men do. But facts are even more stubborn than pay gaps, and some extreme feminists have responded to factual claims about sex differences by flatly denying that there are two biologically distinct sexes, or by accusing those who argue for the existence of sex differences of “sexism.”

As we’ve urged for the term “racist,” we should strongly resist overextending the term “sexist,” and reserve it for people who treat one sex as superior to the other, or who fallaciously use information about sex differences to justify treating individual men or women as mere members of a group. In a prime example of linguistic overreach, Christina Hoff Sommers recently defended herself against charges of misogyny and sexism for emphasizing how small average differences between the sexes might lead to substantial differences in career choices and social interests. The fact that Sommers, a tireless advocate for equal treatment of women, might be considered a sexist for asserting that men and women are not the same is astonishing.

As irony would, perhaps, have it, some of the most compelling insight regarding the biological differences between men and women has come from female scientists. Diane Halpern, for example, has made the case that there is strong evidence for some biologically-based differences in cognition between the sexes. These differences are generally small, and are mediated by a complex array of biological and environmental factors. But the existence of such differences is an empirical claim — it matters not at all whether we would prefer that these claims were false. Our political beliefs are uncorrelated with empirical truths.

Perhaps nowhere are the sexes less alike than on measures of violence and aggression. We have yet to locate a human society on the planet in which females engage in more overt displays of violence than males. Now, one explanation for this ubiquitous pattern could, of course, be that every culture on the planet socializes their little boys and little girls in exactly the same way, thus forcing little boys into the role of the physical aggressor in every human society. It would be miraculous indeed that, despite widespread differences in cultural traditions, every mother and father (from to New York to New Delhi) raised their children in precisely the same manner so as to induce more violence in males. Alternatively, we could embrace insight from evolutionary biology, and accept that men and women are different in some of their proclivities in part because of evolutionary pressures that shaped those differences in our species.

Abilities or Interests

In fairness, charges of sexism are less likely to come when discussing violence, and much more likely to follow from assertions about differences in psychological traits across groups. More controversial is the claim (repeated by Larry Summers) that although average IQ is similar, the distribution for men and women differs such that men are more likely to be found at the high and low end of the IQ spectrum. Men are further out in the tails of the curve, as a social scientist would phrase it. This, coupled with differences in certain kinds of spatial reasoning, may go some way toward explaining why STEM majors at elite universities are more often men than women, but also why low-skilled men are becoming less employable than women, and are dropping out of the workforce at higher rates in industrialized countries.

Apart from small differences in cognitive styles, men and women often have divergent interests and temperaments, driven partly by biological differences that exist across groups. Small differences in abilities or interests can lead to significantly different outcomes — including the kinds of careers men and women choose, their relative ranking of the importance of family and career success, and even the kinds of literature and movies they enjoy. Consider too that many biological differences that exist are likely to be exaggerated by culture, as the division of labor tends to encourage people to sort themselves into college majors and job occupations that they’re reasonably good at and enjoy doing.

The more important point here, though, is that even in the absence of differences in cognitive abilities, there still may be differences in interests that can help explain different outcomes. To take one example, Steven Pinker argues that “there are consistent differences in the kinds of activities that appeal to men and women in their ideal jobs.” For example:

[T]he desire to work with people versus things. There is an enormous average difference between women and men in this dimension…And this difference in interests will tend to cause people to gravitate in slightly different directions in their choice of career. The occupation that fits best with the “people” end of the continuum is “director of a community services organization.” The occupations that fit best with the “things” end are physicist, chemist, mathematician, computer programmer, and biologist.[1]

Summing up

Two things can be true simultaneously: women and men can differ on average for certain traits, and any given man or woman might possess talents, interests, and abilities that suit them well for certain careers and hobbies, and less so for others.

As Pinker has argued, “it is crucial to distinguish the moral proposition that people should not be discriminated against on account of their sex — which I take to be the core of feminism — and the empirical claim that males and females are biologically indistinguishable… Whatever the facts turn out to be, they should not be taken to compromise the core of feminism.”

Most importantly for our current discussion, charges of sexism should not be launched against people who have argued for the existence of differences between men and women. And “sexist” should not be a catchall term used to describe any verbal misstep, lewd comment, or even crass joke. Real sexism is far more insidious than that — despite how distasteful we might find any of those behaviors to be. Charges of sexism should be restricted to systematic mistreatment of people based simply on their biological sex, or the gender with which they identify.

While it is true that sexism need not be consciously motivated by malice to exist, it remains all too easy to infer that any disparity in behavior or outcomes between men and women must be a result of discrimination, bias, or injustice. We have come too far to derail the efforts of prior feminists who advocated tirelessly for women to be treated as individuals. If we confuse the moral imperative to treat people as individuals, with a desire that two groups be statistically indistinguishable, we have made a mistake.

We do not need biological sameness in order to have equal treatment. We need equal treatment, full stop. Recognizing the existence of differences between men and women should not be considered a regression for the women’s rights movement. Charges of sexism should represent a precision beam, capable of shining a light on instances when a person is actively discriminated against, solely because of their sex or gender. If everyone is a sexist, then no one is. And for moral progress to continue, we need to know who the real sexists are.

[1] Pinker is summarizing research conducted by Richard Lippa in the 1990s. Pinker’s remarks are taken from an excellent overview of the state of research (as of 2005) into sex differences:

The Science of Gender And Science Pinker Vs. Spelke A Debate

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