Biology, Feminism, Science / Tech, Spotlight

How Feminism Has Constrained Our Understanding of Gender

This week Melinda Gates said that she is committing $1 billion to promote gender equality by doing things like dismantling “harmful gender norms.” To many people, this sounds like a wonderful idea, but in reality, how effective are gender equality strategies that blame inequality solely on social factors such as gender norms and stereotypes?

Professor Alice Eagly, in her paper “The Shaping of Science by Ideology: How Feminism Inspired, Led, and Constrained Scientific Understanding of Sex and Gender,”1 explores the ways in which feminism helped to create the now widely held misconception that gender is simply a product of social influence.

This feminist misconception is not simply a dry academic fossil from the nature-nurture debate—it’s a flawed notion that has become central to how we treat men and women in all areas of life. This one-sided view of gender has caused problems in a range of areas, including therapy, the workplace, sports, and the law. Much of Eagly’s expertise relates to workplace psychology, so this is the area on which she focuses.

The central problem highlighted by Eagly, who is herself a feminist, is that ignoring the biological influence on gender has “allowed mainstream feminist psychology to produce a description of the phenomena of women’s disadvantage as rooted in the external environment—in the patriarchal structures of families, task groups, organizations, and nations. In this understanding, the individual psychological attributes of women have little, if anything, to do with disadvantage.” (Eagly 2018, p.877)

Eagly says that the feminist view of gender relations has become such a dominant narrative that when psychologists have tried to promote women’s careers by encouraging them to be more confident, it has been met with hostility from feminists. Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of “leaning in” (women taking the initiative by confidently speaking up at meetings and volunteering for challenging assignments) was extremely popular with the public.2 However, it was derided by feminists like Christine Williams3 because the “lean in” concept made women responsible for climbing the career ladder by their own individual efforts, rather than presuming women’s efforts were relentlessly impeded by societal-level problems, such as gender stereotypes.

Feminist research into sex differences has typically concluded that the number of sex differences is small, and therefore unimportant, thus making the logical error that a small number of differences means those differences are inconsequential. This error is exposed if we think of the small number of genetic differences between mice and humans (five percent) compared to the similarities (95 percent). Feminist research routinely overlooks or discounts examples of cognitions and behaviours that show sex differences. The large number of such differences, their mapping onto gender typicality, and their appearance around the world, are all facts that call into question the idea that gender differences are negligible, and suggest that such differences cannot be explained by socialisation alone.

“We Still Have a Long Way to Go”?

“Feminists fail to recognize the positive trends,” says Eagly, which keeps them in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction despite major advances. She lists examples of such advances in the US workplace, including the following trends in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics):

  • in academic science, women have a better chance than men of being interviewed and receiving offers;
  • experimental simulations of academic hiring in STEM found a strong favoring of women over equally qualified men;
  • the careers of female and male psychology professors progress at similar rates after securing a tenure-track position;
  • female business management job candidates have recently begun to enjoy a wage premium over men because of their diversity value.

These and other trends highlighted by Eagly, including #MeToo, call into question how realistic it is to see women today as an oppressed class. It strikes me as likely that a cognitive distortion called gamma bias  skews the way many people see gender issues, causing not only a selective blindness to women’s gains, but a hyper-focus on instances in which men seem to have an advantage. Ironically, this phenomenon has yet to reach the consciousness of experts on unconscious bias.

Women’s progress in the workplaces is impressive, especially given the notorious “leaky pipeline” in STEM career progression. Career dropout has been a stubborn problem to those in the gender equality industry, and has been impervious to gender quotas and measures such as Athena SWAN. Although it continually perplexes people in the gender equality industry, many observers recognise that the leaky pipeline is caused by a mixture of career preferences and lifestyle choices, not least, the very understandable decision made by many women to put their career on hold in order to raise children.

Eagly points out that it is becoming clear to more and more people that it is disempowering to promote the idea of gender being merely a product of the environment. Traditional feminism was accused last year in the Chicago Tribune of being obsessed with a “dreadfully tired script,” and that “constantly telling people they are victims isn’t so empowering after all.”4 Any script that describes an eternal struggle for power between two classes, men and women, has parallels with Marxist ideology, but Eagly wonders if the focus of feminist studies on social factors and patriarchy reflects the “politically liberal ideology [focused on human, social and civil rights] shared by the majority of investigators,” as compared to the emphasis on the spirit of individual effort and entrepreneurship emphasised people like Sheryl Sandberg (Eagly 2018, p.877). It is easy to see how individualism might allow women to enjoy a greater sense of having control over their destiny, and allow women to take more ownership of their achievements.

Eagly suggests that although ideology can inspire research, the shared political ideology of scientists can also become a straitjacket: “ideology is the most difficult of biases to erase because its advocates seldom recognize or acknowledge it. Still, as social scientists, we are responsible for improving our science.” (Eagly 2018, p.882)

How Can this Problem Be Overcome?

Eagly draws upon the work of one of the greats of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, for a solution. Lewin suggested that every psychological event depends both upon the person’s inner state and at the same time the environment, with variation on the relative importance of each in different situations.5 In Eagly’s view, researchers should simultaneously consider social regulation and self-regulation to recognise that although the external environment may exert an influence on behaviour, “individuals usually have some personal choice, at least outside of totalitarian societies.” (Eagly 2018, p.880) In addition, Eagly urges researchers to consider the possibility that early-appearing behavioural sex differences (e.g. toy preference, which can be seen from 9 months postnatally)6 may be result of the complex interaction between nature and nurture, including epigenetics, and to look beyond feminist critiques of biological science, such as those by Cordelia Fine.

If social policy suffers, then society suffers, and that’s why Eagly’s paper is so significant. A world that has been told—falsely—for decades that gender is merely a social construct, is a world in which a well-intentioned multi-billionaire can throw a huge amount of money at gender equality, despite admitting that this is “only a small fraction of what’s necessary.” But what if the reality is not so much a leaky pipeline as an unstoppable tidal wave of women’s choices? What if money can’t make mother nature go away?

As professionals, we all need to take responsibility for making sure that psychology provides a solid scientific evidence base from which to promote wellbeing and growth, not an ideology of half-truths taking us on a perpetual road to an unreachable Utopia.

 

Dr John A. Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, clinical hypnotherapist, author of over 60 peer-reviewed publications in psychology & health, and co-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (2019).

References:

1 Eagly, A. H. (2018). The shaping of science by ideology: How feminism inspired, led, and constrained scientific understanding of sex and gender. Journal of Social Issues, 74(4), 871-888. https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/josi.12291 First published Nov 4th 2018.
2 Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York, NY: Random House.
3 Williams, C. (2014). The happy marriage of capitalism and feminism. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 43, 58–61. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0094306113514538c
4 Wilhelm, H. (2018). Commentary: It’s true: These days conservatives can’t be “feminists.” Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-wilhelm-conservatives-feminists-jessica-valenti-heather-wilhelm-feminism-0527-story.html
5 Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. https://doi.org/10.1037/10019-000
6 Todd, B. K., Fischer, R. A., Di Costa, S., Roestorf, A., Harbour, K., Hardiman, P., & Barry, J. A. (2018). Sex differences in children’s toy preferences: A systematic review, meta‐regression, and meta‐analysis. Infant and Child Development, 27(2), e2064. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/icd.2064

Comments

  1. I work in tech. At one briefing about a year ago, our boss practically begged us to find more women to bring onto the team. At another company, a female engineer was hired onto our team without even a technical interview by team peers (our standard practice), in what I can only assume was an attempt to fast-track her hiring*.

    Despite these efforts from company leadership, the ratio of male to female engineers in my environment is ten to one or higher. I have asked many female friends who yearn for a better career why they don’t learn to code. After all, I was hired with a non-STEM degree on the strength of mostly self-learned knowledge which is available to anyone with an internet connection. They, to a person, told me they simply weren’t interested in the field.

    I still am not really sure why I should even care that the ratio of males to females is so lopsided in STEM. First of all, there are gender inbalances in many jobs. Second of all, I’m not sure what a woman can bring to an engineering position that a man can’t.

    * This did not end up working out well. She was transferred to a non-technical role and later quit the company for a position which more closely matched her previous engineering experience.

  2. There is no reason in the world why you should care, although you should pretend to, to appease your company’s political officer (HR).

    You have plenty of other things to worry about.

  3. I think the reason why everybody cares is that STEM jobs generally higher paying jobs and if we want to close “wage gap” we need to get more women to make more money.
    I myself am a woman in IT field, started in the 80s, enjoyed it, it is easy for me, I’d say, am pretty good at it (didn’t break anything, as I like to say) but can say that it’s definitely not for everybody and requires certain mindset. Never once in my life I experienced discrimination, I draw higher salary than all, but one, men in our company (it’s nice to have access to back financial data), and that man is our owner. I guess, women just need to realize their worth and be more confident and the constant narrative that they cannot get as much as men definitely not helping, especially during salary negotiation.

  4. “constantly telling people they are victims isn’t so empowering after all.”

    Celebrating individual achievement or demanding individual responsibility conflicts with the activist message “you need me.” The victim narrative is only empowering to the activist. It says, “you are a failure that can not succeed without me.” The individual responsibility narrative says, “you can do this” (Apologies for being repetitive with a past post) To allow others to label you as a victim of society robs you of power. It is like the old dispute in the Middle Ages of if the Pope crowns the King at coronation, it infers the Pope is above the King ie. the king maker. If others can dictate your position in society, those persons have dominion over you.

  5. If you are a woman in IT and like it then great. My experience is that there are very few women candidates when recruiting and those that exist are sought after and command a premium simply for being women. Many companies want to have a more balanced engineering workforce but there just aren’t many women candidates so they are in demand.
    To be honest this has been my experience since the 80’s I have been part of or have overheard many conversations in which there was an explicit goal to recruit more women and when assessing candidates that being female was an advanatge. I have never heard any suggestion for bias the other way. The reason there are few senior women engineers is:

    • Few study engineering or the physical sciences
    • Those that do frequently do nto take up engineering as a career
    • Many women engineers transition into mor epeople orientated roles, project management, support, sales etc
    • Almost all take a big career break when having children.
    • Many do not return form the career break.

    If you look at any of the websites of professional organisations in engineering or the physical sciences
    they all have programs and are clearly making a big effort to encourage more women into the field. Now look at a female dominated field such as veterinary medicine or teahcing and they also have programs to encourage women and nothing for men. There is a lot of hypocrisy and it is not men who are advantaged in the workplace.

    The narrative that women are disadvantaged, that they are discriminated against and that they need assistance to suceed is the opposite of empowering and I think the opposite of the truth. That Feminists do not respect women’s own choices and preferences but think the only ‘correct’ choices are those aligned with stereotypical male choices is paticularily telling.

  6. Every man in software has a story like this.

  7. Gender norms largely exist for women’s benefit. Dismantling them is not good for women.

  8. I agree with what you saying. My post was more about that once I made my choice of profession never had I experienced any pushback because of me being a woman.
    And I do attend training and conferences and see that demographics of participants stays pretty much the same despite all the push to bring more females in the profession. So I do agree that girls just don’t want to do it, like I said, it’s not for everybody, to be successful, especially in the area where a lot relies on outcome of your work, you need to have certain traits. If you don’t, it’s just not viable for business making money to keep you employed, simple as that.

  9. In fact, modern feminists forbid women to be women, and women want just that.

  10. Yup. I am a woman in her fifties with a liberal arts degree who got into IT in my early thirties after realizing I needed a grown up job (no one saves for retirement being a barista). For the last ten years I have worked on many different teams almost all of them as the only girl. Never have I felt discriminated against or not taken seriously because of my gender or even my lack of a computer science degree(!). How did I do it in this allegedly sexist and ageist industry? By doing the work and solving peoples problems (shocking, I know). Also, to the credit of the guys I work with, none of them have tried to ‘help’ me by making things easier or felt the need to tone down their bro-ness (yay!).

    Who cares about which occupations have what percentage of men and women as long as we remember why we need to be potentially financially independent and realize the consequences of our choices (yes, this means you, trophy wives and stay at home moms. At least have some skill so that should something happen to your provider and his money your options are not Walmart cashier or prostitute).

  11. I sure wish some of Gates’ money would go into getting more men into ESL. I pity the one or two males where I work— you can tell they have no interest in infantilizing adult students (as we are obligated to do) or participating in the endless nattering over the idiosyncrasies of various students. They appear cowed and afraid to speak up against the push for safe spaces and warnings of potential harm should we show the wrong image in class…

  12. I guess an irony alert is needed here. Where exactly did the $1 billion Melinda Gates proposes to spend come from? Bill Gates perhaps? A guy? You would think Melinda Gates would have some sense of shame. You would think and you would be wrong.

  13. In the NLs, we have some 10 yrs regular discussions on the socalled ceiling for women. Why do women prefer to work only 2 or 3 days weekly, spend a disproportionate part of their time on (so called) non-essential household duties and children care, have less impressive careers and top positions, thus earn less than their partners. The feminists want to change this, but most women, obviously, not. Root problrm here: POWER, because earning less means being valued less. But, majority of couples don’t need all this extra money , and spend it on foibles such as expensive toys or holidays with the poor kids to Bali or the Bahamas.

    Good idea for Belinda: spend part of that billion in a good psychologist, such as Jordan Peterson,

  14. Look: this has been documented to death - male and female brains work differently. My stepdaughter is a product of the UVA liberal machine; now she has three children. These kids have not been coerced in any way to play with gender-specific toys, yet when I had twenty tons of gravel delivered to my driveway, my granddaughter couldn’t have cared less, but we had to physically restrain our three-year-old grandson from standing behind the truck as it dumped. As a very young farm kid, I was so fascinated by machinery that I nearly died from asthma after following the hay baler for hours, 'round and 'round the field in choking hay-dust.

    I did a second degree in EE several years back. Multiple girls were enrolled in the program - largely due to encouragement from “diversity” goals. As is typical male behavior, both I and the younger guys mentored, helped, encouraged, and protected these students aggressivly, but by the end of second year, only two remained. As an older (paternalistic-type, you might say) guy, I counseled these women multiple times as they struggled. The were academically brilliant, but THEY WERE NOT SUITED TO THE WORK AND WE/THEY ALL KNEW IT.

    We need to stop this gub’ment social engineering. Just level the playing field and let these situations work themselves out; it will be best for everybody.

  15. All true. Women do quite well in theoretical science (some parts), but not as well in engineering. Why? Quote from “Parity as a Goal Sparks Bitter Battle”

    "Another maverick is independent social scientist Patti Hausman, who drew flak at a women-in-science symposium at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “The question of why more women don’t choose careers in engineering has a rather obvious answer,” she says: “Because they don’t want to.”

    “Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors, or quarks,” said Hausman at the April symposium, sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering. “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”"

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