October 18, 2013

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: What ‘Lean In’ Misunderstands About Gender Differences: What if difference between men and women turns out to be a phenomenon not of oppression, but rather of social well-being?

According to the authors, “Higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures.” New York Times science columnist John Tierney summarized the study this way: “It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France.”

Why should that be? The authors of the study hypothesize that prosperity and equality bring greater opportunities for self-actualization. Wealth, freedom, and education empower men and women to be who they are. It is conspicuously the case that gay liberation is a feature of advanced, prosperous societies: but such societies also afford heterosexuals more opportunities to embrace their gender identities. This cross-cultural research is far from conclusive, but it is intriguing and has great explanatory power. Just think: What if gender difference turns out to be a phenomenon not of oppression, but rather of social well-being?

Consider, in this regard, the gender disparities in engineering. An article on the Wharton School website laments the paucity of women engineers and holds up China and Russia as superior examples of equity. According to the post, “In China, 40 percent of engineers are women, and in the former USSR, women accounted for 58 percent of the engineering workforce.” The author blames workplace biases and stereotypes for the fact that women in the United States earn only 20 percent of the doctoral degrees in engineering. But perhaps American women earn fewer degrees in engineering because they don’t have to. They have more opportunities to pursue careers that really interest them.

Maybe women are different because they can be.