Recognizing Women’s Choices As Their Own

by Elizabeth S. Bernstein

If we find that society values the traits and skills that are associated with being male and devalues the traits and skills that are associated with being female, then it is time to rethink societal values instead of denying the existence of biologically based male-female differences. —Diane F. Halpern, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (2012)

Two months ago I wrote about the gender wage gap in the United States, and the fact that the careers of women vary from men’s in ways which align with the values which women express. Compared with men, women rank helping people higher and maximizing earnings lower. They express less willingness to commit actions which may harm others for the sake of profit. Their tendency to emphasize interpersonal relationships is reflected not only in the paid work they engage in, but also in the greater likelihood that they will reduce or exit employment to care for children or other family members.

While writing the piece I read a great deal of online commentary. There was the occasional nod towards the possibility that biology had something to do with the different inclinations on which men and women were acting. Far more common, though, were the explanations which pointed to women’s actions being steered by extrinsic forces – “social norms and expectations” that women will care for family members, “multitude of messages that women get from society about what sorts of jobs they should pick,” “the way that society views the bond between mothers and their children,” “unique socialization histories which instill more negative reactions to ethical compromises,” “persistence of stereotypes that drive women toward service labor.”

The emphasis on expectations and socialization over biology is hardly surprising. As the sociologists Shannon Davis and Barbara Risman write in their article “Feminists wrestle with testosterone: Hormones, socialization and cultural interactionism as predictors of women’s gendered selves,” feminists “worry that any nod of the head to biology will backfire.” Still, the conclusion of Davis and Risman’s own study was that both culture and biology (specifically exposure to prenatal hormones) influenced the degree to which women’s personalities evidenced “masculinity” or “femininity” (the latter of which the researchers suggest might better be called “nurturance and empathy”). There is no logical reason, Davis and Risman write, that feminists should deny that biology “shapes some part of our personality structure,” but neither should that justify “providing differential opportunities, constraints, and privileges to women and men.”

To that end, Davis and Risman’s recommendations include the need to “socialize boys and girls in a gender convergence model.” In the political arena, progressive policy in the U.S. has long been informed by the expectation that if we do just that, and if we additionally adopt appropriate policies of support to working women, it will be possible to reach the goal of virtually identical career trajectories for men and women, with equal earnings across a lifetime and workplaces staffed with equal numbers of men and women at every level.

Yet the opening of a broader range of opportunities to women does not always result in movement towards gender convergence. In certain respects, the more unconstrained women are, the more their paths seem to diverge from men’s. That certainly seems to be the consequence of some of the famously family-friendly policies of European nations. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a requirement that part-time jobs be offered with no hourly wage penalty. Far more women than men take advantage of the opportunity to work part-time, with the result that there are few females at management levels. In Denmark, the availability of a year of paid parental leave hasn’t eliminated the wage gap between fathers and mothers, and may even exacerbate it. Broader cross-cultural comparisons show the same pattern: measures like these which create a greater range of economically viable alternatives, though gender-neutral on their face, do not seem to increase the likelihood of men and women working in similar occupations and positions.

By the same token, in the United States the wage gap is not highest in low-income occupations. It is highest among professionals who experience the least financial constraints and the most freedom to shape their jobs. (MBA’s would be one case in point.) A related phenomenon is that when economic times are bad, the wage gap narrows. When families are strained, there may be little choice but for everyone to bring in what income they can. When times are better, the differing priorities of men and women again make themselves felt. Referencing among other factors the fact that men work more overtime than women, a representative of Make It Work, a campaign for “advancing economic security for working women, men and families,” wrote in a 2014 Washington Post piece about the gender pay gap that “[I]f the U.S. economy continues to grow, we may well see progress reversed.” It is a statement which lays bare a tension not often expressed – that if your prime focus is gender convergence, an economic easing likely to be welcomed by both men and women does not qualify as “progress” unless women respond to changed conditions, like the availability of longer hours, the same as men.

But women and men don’t respond in the same way to any number of circumstances. While that fact is certainly explained partly by cultural influences, the evidence that biological factors are also at play has been growing for decades. A 2016 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research devoted entirely to sex influences on the brain was described by its editor as “heralding a zeitgeist shift”:

The past 15 or 20 years in particular witnessed an explosion of research (despite the prevailing biases against the topic) documenting sex influences at all levels of brain function. So overpowering is the wave of research that the standard ways of dismissing sex influences (e.g. “They are all small and unreliable,” “They are all due to circulating hormones,” “They are all due to human culture,” and “They don’t exist on the molecular level”) have all been swept away, at least for those cognizant of the research.

Over the same time period, studies in the social sciences have likewise suggested biological bases for differences between men and women, differences which are consistent across time and cultures and which correlate with the mix of paid and unpaid labor in which women engage over a lifetime. In particular, women evidence a greater interest than men in people, contrasted with men’s greater interest than women in things. The difference is evident from infancy in children’s toy preferences, with girls tending to prefer dolls, and boys tending to prefer trucks. Evidence of a partial biological basis includes the early age at which these preferences are observed, with differences showing up in what toys infants choose down to one year of age, and even in what they attend to visually at five months. Beyond that, researchers have examined how children’s toy choices are influenced by exposure to sex hormones in utero, the studies including those in which normally occurring hormone levels are measured during pregnancy; those in which a genetic disorder causes girls to be exposed to high levels of male hormones before birth; and those in which expectant mothers have been prescribed hormonal treatments. The results of these studies “all point to the same conclusion: testosterone concentrations prenatally influence children’s subsequent sex-typed toy, playmate, and activity preferences.”

Cross-cultural comparisons also cast serious doubt on the theory that women are more oriented towards caring for others primarily because of gender role socialization. Around the world, women in comparison with men express that greater interest in people than things, show higher levels of altruism and trust, score higher on the personality traits of being agreeable and conscientious, and place a greater emphasis on what are called “self-transcendence values” (universalism, benevolence) than “self-enhancement values” (power, achievement). There is of course considerable overlap between the genders in all of these traits. Yet every one of the studies linked to in this paragraph also finds that the more prosperous and egalitarian a nation, the greater the differences between men and women on these measures. “Simply put, when the men and women of a nation perceive the most similar gender roles, receive the most similar gender role socialization, and experience the greatest sociopolitical gender equity, gender differences in personality are almost always at their largest.” Among the explanations offered for this phenomenon is that “increased independence and equality of women in the labor force may encourage them to express distinctive values rather than to accommodate their values to those of their husbands,” and that “the greater availability of material resources eliminates the gender-neutral goal of subsistence,” which “creates scope for attending to gender-specific ambitions and desires.”

It would be hard to overstate the complexity of human psychology. None of us exhibits traits which would be categorized as exclusively male or female. The differences between men and women are seen in aggregates and averages. Discrimination by gender is reprehensible precisely because the gender of any given individual proves almost nothing about their personality or abilities.

It would likewise be hard to overstate the complexity of influences on human development. It is clearly not a matter of nature or nurture. Not only are both significant, but their action is intertwined. In fact, while we conceptualize “environment” as something external to ourselves, in many respects from infancy on we influence our own environments as well as being influenced by them.

For those reasons, to explain the differences between men’s and women’s choices with reference to cultural expectations and socialization alone is reductive. If, as the evidence suggests, the tendency for women to prioritize the well-being of others has a biological component, then an insistence on ascribing it only to environmental influences is unfortunate in more than one respect. First, to treat an admirable value as an external implant is to hold that value itself at arm’s length. Second, to attribute women’s actions primarily to the meeting of external expectations locates their decision-making too little in their internal processes, in who they are, and too much outside of themselves.

What is at stake here is women’s agency, which is chipped away by each passive voice formulation about them being “guided” and “steered” to every choice that is not like a man’s. Surely one of the goals of feminism was to encourage women to be seen – by ourselves and by others – as subjects, and not objects. Yet the narrative about the ways that women continue to differ from men is too little about the things that women do, and too much about the things that are done to them. It is difficult to see that as empowering.

Women and men who reduce or exit employment to care for others deserve support. I wrote last month about the American Family Act of 2019, which would support all families of young children through refundable tax credits. Since then I am pleased to see that some Democratic presidential candidates have additionally come out in favor of providing caregivers with Social Security credits.

There is little doubt that such programs, though gender neutral, would be utilized more by women than by men. The reasons for that are multifaceted. But the fact that a woman does not follow a typically male career path is no justification for viewing her as though she has not so much acted as been acted upon.