Tuesday 23 April 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Trying to homogenise the sexes is doomed to fail - men and women are simply different'

Female-specific roles: Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor at the launch of the Gender Equality Action Plan 2018-2020 back in November. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Female-specific roles: Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor at the launch of the Gender Equality Action Plan 2018-2020 back in November. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Patricia Casey

For centuries, men and women have had different roles in society because they were regarded as different biologically and psychologically.

These differences distinguished them from each other in a number of respects. Men had different genes and organs compared to women, hence visible proof there was an underlying biological scaffolding to explain the variable behaviours and emotions. In earlier societies, men were hunters and gatherers, while women were the nurturers. Many will have read 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' by John Gray (1992), pointing to the different perspectives that inform relationships between the sexes.

In more modern times, men did the outdoor heavy work, women the household, comparatively lighter chores. Men were the breadwinners, women the homemakers. Men are physically stronger and more physically aggressive, women more emotional and less directly aggressive.

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This binary perspective changed in the 1970s and 1980s as more women entered the workforce, in particular academia, in areas such as gender studies, anthropology, sociology and psychology. Gender theory was then born, although it had been in gestation for several decades.

It promulgated that men and women in society need not operate according to fixed biological determinants and that any such differences were not innate but social and culturally determined. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, in the 1920s, a forerunner of gender theory, found that in other cultures men engaged in tasks that were feminine and vice versa.

Much later Simone de Beauvoir, in her classic book 'The Second Sex', wrote that "One is not born, one is made a woman". This perspective has now filtered down to dominate thinking about the respective roles of men and women, across the West.

In the media, in academic institutions, in fashionable middle-class dinner parties, there is a belief there are no differences between the sexes and any that do exist are culturally determined.

It follows logically that there should be no differences in the proportions of men and women in various trades and professions such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also known as Stem subjects).

In this country, it has been suggested there should be female-only professors in some subjects so the 50/50 gap can be filled with more female professors in selected subjects like Stem. There is also a deficit of females entering politics and now gender quotas for elections have been agreed. Writing in 'Psychology Today', Leonard Sax reported a neurophysiology professor at Lund University, in Sweden, had the temerity to say some differences between men and women might be biologically determined. For this, he was castigated by the students and an investigation launched by the dean of the medical faculty.

Affirmative action to entice women into areas in which they were hitherto not involved begs the question as to why are they not entering these disciplines?

The converse for men is not discussed. Adherents to gender theory say there is no explicable reason except conscious or unconscious gender bias from the patriarchy while those on the opposite side argue that women are just innately less interested or have other priorities. Perhaps women do not have any affinity for politics or plumbing just as men eschew social work or primary school teaching. That's not to suggest that individuals from either sex are not entering these respective professions but that in general they choose others in much larger numbers.

Studying the brain activities and linkages of babies in the womb enables us to understand if these affinities for particular disciplines or certain behaviours are hard wired in us or if they are socially determined. A study from the US, published in 'Cognitive and Developmental Neuroscience', studied more than 100 third trimester pre-born babies. It examined sex and gestational age-related connections in 16 brain networks. It found that the functional connections between males and females were different even in utero and concluded that "these observations confirm that sexual dimorphism in functional brain systems emerges during human gestation". In other words, differences between the sexes are apparent in brain function even during pregnancy.

A collaboration between neuroscientists, published in 'Nature' in 2011, followed subjects through to adulthood. It found the greatest brain differences between males and females were in the pre-natal period. Some of the differences were non-existent in adults. If the social constructionists are correct and gendered behaviour is learnt, then there ought to be no differences in the pre-natal period and over time huge differences should emerge between men and women as they have had long-term exposure to cultural stereotyping by the patriarchy. These findings show simplistic explanations regarding differences between the sexes are at best premature and possibly misleading.

While society may have some role in forming our character, there are other innate factors at work that are part of the make-up of men and of women.

If true, these findings would suggest that attempts to homogenise the sexes are doomed to failure. Time will tell, but perhaps the biblical observation "Man and Woman He Made Them" will prove to be a timeless truth.

Irish Independent

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