You're probably thinking that a talk called "Is there anything good about men" will be a short talk! Recent writings have not had much good to say about men. Titles like "Men Are Not Cost Effective" speak for themselves. Maureen Dowd's book was called "Are Men Necessary?" and althoughshe never gave an explicit answer, anyone reading the book knows her answer wasno. Brizendine's book "The Female Brain" introducesitself by saying, "Men, get ready to experience brain envy." Imagine a bookadvertising itself by saying that women will soon be envying the superior malebrain!
Nor are these isolated examples. Eagly's research has compiled mountains of data on the stereotypes people have about men and women,which the researchers summarized as "The WAW effect." WAW stands for "Women Are Wonderful." Bothmen and women hold much more favorable views of women than of men. Almosteverybody likes women better than men. I certainly do.
My purpose in this talk is not to try to balance this out by praising men, though along the way I will have various positive things to say about both genders. The question of whether there's anything good about men is only my point of departure. The tentative title of the book I'm writing is "How culture exploits men," but even that for me is the lead-in to grand questions about how culture shapes action. In that context, what's good about men means what men are goodfor, from the perspective of the system.
Hence this is not about the "battle of the sexes," and in fact I think one unfortunate legacy of feminism has been the idea that men and women are basically enemies.I shall suggest, instead, that most often men and women have been partners,supporting each other rather than exploiting or manipulating each other.
Nor is this about trying to arguethat men should be regarded as victims. I detest the whole idea of competing tobe victims. And I'm certainly not denying that culture has exploited women. Butrather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by mento exploit women, I think it's more accurate to understand culture (e.g., acountry, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems- and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance itscause.
Also I think it's best to avoid value judgments as much as possible. They have made discussion of gender politics very difficult and sensitive, thereby warping the play of ideas. I have no conclusions to present about what's good or bad or howthe world should change. In fact my own theory is built around tradeoffs, so thatwhenever there is something good it is tied to something else that is bad, andthey balance out.
I don't want to be on anybody'sside. Gender warriors please go home.
Men on Top
When I sayI am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually "How can you say culture exploits men, whenmen are in charge of everything?" This is a fair objection and needs to betaken seriously. It invokes the feminist critique of society. This critiquestarted when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and sawmen everywhere: most world rulers, presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most CEOs of major corporations, and so forth - theseare mostly men.
Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. Itmust be great to be a man.
The mistakein that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, onefinds mostly men there too. Who's in prison, all over the world, ascriminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has neverapproached 51% female. Who's homeless? Again, mostly men.Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? US Department of Laborstatistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men. Likewise,who gets killed in battle? Even in today's American army, which has made muchof integrating the sexes and putting women into combat, the risks aren't equal.This year we passed the milestone of 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and of those, 2,938were men, 62 were women.
One can imagine an ancient battle in which the enemy was driven off and the city saved,and the returning soldiers are showered with gold coins. An early feminist might protest that hey, all those men are getting gold coins,half of those coins should go to women. In principle, I agree. But remember,while the men you see are getting gold coins, there are other men you don'tsee, who are still bleeding to death on the battlefield from spear wounds.
That's an important first clue to how culture uses men. Culture has plenty of tradeoffs,in which it needs people to do dangerous or risky things, and so it offers bigrewards to motivate people to take those risks. Most cultures have tended to use men for these high-risk, high-payoffslots much more than women. I shall propose there are important pragmaticreasons for this. The result is that some men reap big rewards while othershave their lives ruined or even cut short. Most cultures shield their womenfrom the risk and therefore also don't give them the big rewards. I'm notsaying this is what cultures ought to do, morally, but cultures aren't moralbeings. They do what they do for pragmatic reasons driven by competition against other systems and other groups.
Stereotypes at Harvard
I said thattoday most people hold more favorable stereotypes of women than men. It was notalways thus. Up until about the 1960s, psychology (like society) tended to seemen as the norm and women as the slightly inferior version. During the 1970s,there was a brief period of saying there were no real differences, juststereotypes. Only since about 1980 has the dominant view been that women arebetter and men are the inferior version.
The surprising thing to me is thatit took little more than a decade to go from one view to its opposite, that is,from thinking men are better than women to thinking women are better than men.How is this possible?
I'm sureyou're expecting me to talk about LarrySummers at some point, so let's get it over with! You recall, he was the president of Harvard. As summarized in The Economist, "Mr Summers infuriated the feminist establishment by wondering out loud whether the prejudice alone could explain the shortage of women at the top of science."After initially saying, it's possible that maybe there aren't as many women physics professors at Harvard because there aren't as many women as men withthat high innate ability, just one possible explanation among others, he had to apologize, retract, promise huge sums of money, and not long afterward heresigned.
What washis crime? Nobody accused him of actually discriminating against women. Hismisdeed was to think thoughts that are not allowed to be thought, namely thatthere might be more men with high ability. The only permissible explanation forthe lack of top women scientists is patriarchy - that men are conspiring to keep women down. It can't be ability. Actually, there is some evidence that menon average are a little better at math, but let's assume Summerswas talking about general intelligence. People can point to plenty of data thatthe average IQ of adult men is about the same as the average for women. So tosuggest that men are smarter than women is wrong. No wonder some women were offended.
But that's not what he said. He said there were more men at the top levels of ability.That could still be true despite the average being the same - if there are also more men at the bottom of the distribution, more really stupid men than women.During the controversy about his remarks, I didn't see anybody raise thisquestion, but the data are there, indeed abundant, and they are indisputable.There are more males than females with really low IQs. Indeed, the pattern with mental retardation is thesame as with genius, namely that as you go from mild to medium to extreme,the preponderance of males gets bigger.
All those retarded boys are not the handiwork of patriarchy. Men are not conspiring together to make each other's sons mentally retarded.
Almostcertainly, it is something biological and genetic. And my guess is that thegreater proportion of men at both extremes of the IQ distribution is part ofthe same pattern. Nature rolls the dice with men more than women. Men go to extremes more than women.It's true not just with IQ but also with other things, even height: The male distribution of height is flatter, with more really tall and really short men.
Again, there is a reason for this,to which I shall return.
For now,the point is that it explains how we can have opposite stereotypes. Men go toextremes more than women. Stereotypes are sustained by confirmation bias. Wantto think men are better than women? Then look at the top, the heroes, theinventors, the philanthropists, and so on. Want to think women are better thanmen? Then look at the bottom, the criminals, the junkies, the losers.
In animportant sense, men really are betterAND worse than women.
A pattern of more men at both extremes can create all sorts of misleading conclusions andother statistical mischief. To illustrate, let's assume that men and women areon average exactly equal in every relevant respect, but more men at both extremes. If you then measure things that are bounded at one end, it screws up the data to make men and women seem significantly different.
Consider grade point average incollege. Thanks to grade inflation, most students now get A's and B's, but afew range all the way down to F. With that kind of low ceiling, thehigh-achieving males cannot pull up the male average, but the loser males willpull it down. The result will be that women will get higher average grades than men - again despite no difference in average quality of work.
The opposite result comes with salaries. There is a minimum wage but no maximum.Hence the high-achieving men can pull the male average up while thelow-achieving ones can't pull it down. The result? Men will get higher average salaries than women, even if there is no average difference on any relevant input.
Today, sure enough, women get higher college grades but lower salaries than men. There is much discussion about what all this means and what should be done about it. But as you see, both facts could be just a statistical quirk stemming from male extremity.
When you think about it, the idea that one gender is all-around better than the other is not very plausible. Why would nature make one gender better than the other?Evolution selects for good, favorable traits, and if there's one good way to be, after a few generations everyone will be that way.
But evolution will preserve differences when there is a tradeoff: when one trait is good for one thing, while the opposite is good for something else.
Let's return to the three main theories we've had about gender: Men are better, nodifference, and women are better. What's missing from that list? Different but equal. Let me propose that as a rival theory that deserves to be considered. I think it's actually the most plausible one. Natural selection will preserve innate differences between men and women as long as the different traits are beneficial in different circumstances or for different tasks.
Trade off example: African-Americans suffer from sickle cell anemia more than white people. This appears to be due to a genetic vulnerability. That gene, however,promotes resistance to malaria. Black people evolved in regions where malaria was a major killer, so it was worth having this gene despite the increased riskof sickle cell anemia. White people evolved in colder regions, where there was less malaria, and so the tradeoff was resolved differently, more avoiding the gene that prevented malaria while risking sickle cell anemia.
Thetradeoff approach yields a radical theory of gender equality. Men and women may be different, but each advantage may be linked to a disadvantage.
Hence whenever you hear a report that one gender is better at something, stop and consider why this is likely true - and what the opposite trait might be good for.
Can't Vs. Won't
Before we go too far down that path, though, let me raise another radical idea. Maybe the differences between the genders aremore about motivation than ability. This is the difference between can'tand won't.
Return fora moment to the Larry Summers issue about why there aren't more female physicsprofessors at Harvard. Maybe women can do math and science perfectly well butthey just don't like to. After all, most men don't like math either! Of thesmall minority of people who do like math, there are probably more men thanwomen. Research by Eccles has repeatedly concluded that the shortage of femalesin math and science reflects motivation more than ability. And by the samelogic, I suspect most men could learn to change diapers and vacuum under the sofaperfectly well too, and if men don't do those things, it's because they don'twant to or don't like to, not because they are constitutionally unable (much asthey may occasionally pretend otherwise!).
Severalrecent works have questioned the whole idea of gender differences in abilities:Even when average differences are found, they tend to be extremely small. In contrast, when you look at what men and women want, what they like, there are genuine differences. Look at research on the sex drive: Men and women may have about equal "ability" in sex, whatever that means, but there are bigdifferences as to motivation: which gender thinks about sex all the time, wantsit more often, wants more different partners, risks more for sex, masturbates more, leaps at every opportunity, and so on. Our survey of published research found that pretty much every measure and every study showed higher sex drive in men. It's official: men are hornier than women. This is a difference in motivation.