Taking Sex Differences Seriously – Introduction and Chapter 1

January 23, 2013 | Marian

It’s a dialogue we’ve all grown up amidst. My peers and I, even in high school, would debate the differences between men and women – “nature/nurture” arguments, social trends, personal preferences, and the whole gamut of a confused ideology we’d absorbed.

We girls didn’t want to feel lessened, diminished, or held back in any way. Sometimes, we’d even overcompensate by being extra ambitious and competitive, tough-skinned and snarky. The guys often seemed impressed with that.

Eventually, an honest guy would ask: “So, if girls really want to be just like guys, then why did she still cry when I treated her like just another guy? Oh, and how do we know if we should hold the door for her, or if she’ll get mad at us for doing so?”

We girls would counter with similar dilemmas. Why can’t men be both logical and sensitive? Overachievers yet multi-taskers? Professionally focused and successful while equally eager to cook and change diapers?

Fifty years ago, these kinds of questions didn’t plague self-aware adolescents. Clear-cut, albeit stereotypical, roles were accepted – even demanded. Pity the girl who liked to play football, or the boy who wanted to sew. Men were paid more, women were educated less, and everyone knew it.

But this sweeping approach to gender evoked a rebound. Many began claiming that men and women are not just equal – we’re fundamentally the same; it is merely societal conditioning that instills masculine or feminine traits.

Steven Rhoads, author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously, begins his argument here. He gamely acknowledges that,

Those believe in the fluidity of gender have evidence to point to,  (Page 3)

citing the vast, recent changes in male/female behavior. But then, he begins building his greater argument that gender is at least partially inherent, and established largely before a person is born.

Admittedly, this is a very evidence-based book. With fourteen footnotes in the introduction alone, you immediately sense that Rhoads wants to assemble a case, not a commentary. He’s candid about his intentions:

This book… argues that sex differences are large, deeply-rooted, and consequential… [and] presents evidence that these differences can be explained in part by hormones and other physiological and chemical distinctions between men and women. (4-5)

I see my task as explaining why the sex differences discussed are profound and why they should affect the way we think about specific policies and cultural issues. (6)

Wasting no time, he begins with the story of “Brenda” who was born without a penis, reconstructed as a female, given female hormones, and told “he” was a “she.” However, Brenda consistently acted like a boy, and ultimately declared that “she” was a “he,” marrying a woman, reversing his reconstruction, and living as a man.

Rhoads further considers similar studies:

Of the twenty-five who had been told they were girls, every single one had exhibited the rough-and-tumble play more characteristic of boys than girls. Fourteen had declared themselves to be boys… (2)

Two [other] children… who… had not been castrated or sexually reassigned… [were] raised as boys, fit in well with their male peers, and “were better adjusted psychologically than the reassigned children.” (2)

Rhoads believes this correlation shows that sex is fundamentally established before birth.

Scientists today would call this impact of testosterone on the developing brain a permanent “organizational effect” which cannot be altered in any substantial way. (3)

Rhoads notes that if differences between sexes are both distinct and largely unchangeable, our continued denial of this reality will only frustrate us. For example:

Mixing modern careers with the often unexpected or inexplicable need to bond with their young… can bring heart-breaking torment to some of our most talented women. (5)

Exploring this idea further, he surveyed university professors, a test pool likely to be androgynous, about their parental roles and paternity/maternity leave.

Most (though fewer men than women) agreed that “Families do best if the husband and wife share equally in child-care, household work, and paid work.”

The actual performance of childcare tasks, however, did not reflect the professors’ intellectual commitments. (9)

Fewer men took the offered leave, or used very little of the leave they took to do actual childcare tasks. Also, men enjoyed providing childcare less than the women did. Half of the women considered leaving the tenure track entirely, after having children, whereas only 27% of the men did. Women also felt more overwhelmed.

Rhoads doesn’t advocate a reversion to simple stereotypes – certainly, women can become doctors, and men needn’t always mow the lawn. Rather he simply urges us to accept, not deny, that sex differences are real and intensely relevant.

I’ve only started reading this book, but it seems to offer a thorough collection of research, and a kind, concerned voice adding to our discussion from his own chair. And in my experience, these dialogues are only improved with more participants – so we fervently hope you’ll join us in discussing Rhoads’ research, and its possible impact on our society.

Next week, we’ll start reading Chapter 2 (pages 14-28).

In the meantime, post your own observations, concerns, questions, and insights below!

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