The War against Human Nature II: Gender Studies (Part 1)

In my last Quadrant article (June 2012) I described the isolation of Australian social sciences from behavioural biology and suggested that this weakness had given free rein to utopian ideologies. Human nature is slow to change. It is a conservative force. As such it is an obstacle for ideologues who desire transformational social change. The last thing a utopian wants to discuss is how society reflects human instincts. Better to avoid the subject altogether to create a parallel universe where imagination, passion and interests might collude. In this article I extend this thesis to gender studies, with emphasis on women and work. 

Gender is an obvious choice of subject for testing the acceptance of biology in the social sciences because the differences between men and women are known to have a strong biological component (more of which presently). And gender relations are increasingly important within work organisations. The trickle of women into extra-household work roles has become a flood. Women outnumber men in some work categories, including as university graduates entering the workforce. Work relations between unrelated men and women have become a normal part of life, intensifying issues of equal opportunity, discrimination, sexuality and rank, and female leadership. This has resulted from women having unprecedented freedom of lifestyles, though choices still inflict trade-offs, most notably between career and children. Does the advice given to citizens, government and business take human nature into account? At the end of this article I discuss some biological aspects of gender and work, concerning dominance relations between men and women. Before doing so it is necessary to size up the amount of behavioural biology in the media’s coverage of gender, in university gender studies programs, and in Simone de Beauvoir’s classic formulation of women as eternal victims. 

Gender in the media

The media are a useful starting point for assessing the understanding of gender in public culture. The media influence public perceptions by filtering information and helping to set the limits on legitimate discussion. Unopposed criticism of ideas or social categories (sex, age, ethnicity) sends powerful messages to the public about the relative standing of ideologies and interest groups. Media content also reveals the information being received from various experts—the universities, government and political activists. 

Media reports and commentaries concerning gender and work address several themes. 

Reports of behavioural research findings. There is a trickle of these reports, a recent example being an American study that found a preference among voters, male and female, for politicians with lower-pitched voices. The authors speculated that this could explain some of the under-representation of women in elected office.[i]

Bettina Arndt is an Australian analyst who has included biological factors in her discussions of sexuality since the 1970s. Her most recent book, What Men Want (2010, chapters 3 and 4), is based on interviews and refers to research in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and sexual physiology. In a recent article Arndt discussed women’s tactics in attracting men, such as dressing to show breasts.[ii] Her story, appropriate titled “Busted: The Politics of Cleavage and a Glance”, combined anecdote, interviews and behavioural science. She drew on research on male–female differences in sex drive to argue that women who dress sexily in public are flaunting their sexual power and running risks, sometimes with unpleasant results. Another article was titled “Why Successful Women Lose the Dating Game”.[iii] Arndt reports that in 2006 many Australian women lacked partners: almost a third aged in their early thirties and a quarter in their late thirties. This was almost double the 1986 figures. A contributing factor was women’s preference for similarly qualified men, combined with demographics. In 2006 there were 88,000 single graduate women in their thirties but only 68,000 single graduate men in the same age group. “The thirties are worrying years for high-achieving women who long for marriage and children—of course, not all do—as they face their rapidly closing reproductive window surrounded by men who see no rush to settle down.”

Arndt’s articles attracted criticism for allegedly exonerating sexism and misogyny. She has come under fire from the gender studies movement for the same reason. One columnist, Josephine Tovey,[iv] disagreed with Arndt’s blaming the sexual signals emitted by women and not men’s failure to control their behaviour. Only men are to blame for their bad behaviour towards women because men should “grasp the concept that looking sexy doesn’t necessarily make you sexually available”. The two parties talked somewhat past one another, Arndt focusing on cause and effect, Tovey on morality. Both sides of the exchange made good points, but confirmed Arndt’s premise that many young women hold to the expectation that their sexual behaviour, including sexual displays, will not have evil consequences because they should not. 

Female disability. This is a common type of gender story, usually alleging the unfair under-representation of women in an occupation or role, such as blue-collar jobs and executive and board positions in business. A related focus is causes of female under-representation, such as male discrimination, stereotypes, and inadequate child care. This category also includes reports of sexual harassment suffered at work, such as the spate of trials of male naval officers charged with harassing female shipmates.[v]

Reports of female disability often assume that anything less than 50 per cent representation of women demonstrates inequity. The 50-50 rule drives or excuses much of the passion of women’s advocacy. It is the semi-official reason to “wear the ‘F’ label with pride”.[vi] The rule is often the only analytical aspect of a disability claim. An example is a recent article titled “Gender Imbalance in Need of Repair”, which describes attempts to get women into male-dominated trades.[vii] The article assumes that women avoid the construction, automotive and electro-technology workforce only because of stereotypes and opposition by a tribal culture, rejection and ridicule. Why else would women not want to be panel beaters? (A biological answer is reported below.) The effort is being made to benefit women by opening up work opportunities, though justification is sought in the universal good of economic efficiency. Pru Goward, the New South Wales Minister for Women, explained, “We need to work with industry to secure a competitive labour force in our state … industry can’t afford to pick the best from only 50 per cent of the population.” Strangely, the initiative did not come from employers or from government departments concerned with economics but from women’s advocates.

The 50-50 rule also provided the rationale for a report critical of female under-representation in Australian theatrical companies. The press coverage of the report was limited to two data points: 21 per cent of big productions had a female writer and 25 per cent had a female director. The article did not quote any behavioural description of discrimination. The report stated that concerted efforts to “level the playing field” began thirty years earlier. But then it implied that not much levelling had been achieved, based only on the number of female writers and directors. On the same basis the sex ratio was described as inequitable and male directors were likened to arrogant monarchs. “It’s embarrassing and protectionist and reeks of elitism”, one interviewee was quoted as saying. The report suggested that one cause of female disability in this case was lack of superlatives for female achievement. Up-and-coming male directors and writers were described as “wunderkind”, “hot” and “sexy” but there were no such terms for female talent.[viii] The claim of disability was given some more solid backing by a subsequent letter to the editor from a management consultant involved in mentoring arts executives. Her practical (though uncosted) advice on how to boost female numbers was to “offer childcare, flexible work options, maternity leave and ongoing professional opportunities” as well as mentoring and leadership training.[ix]

The arbitrariness and selective application of the 50-50 rule is apparent in some media reports. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald reported an improvement in the gender gap in starting salaries for university graduates.[x] Overall, women still earn about 3 per cent less than men in their first appointments, though there is considerable variation. Women do worst in earth sciences, earning 14.3 per cent less. But in biological science they earn only 1.7 per cent less than men. Curiously, the article does not report graduates’ average grades. The claim of female disability would have been much stronger if the sexes had had the same quality of degrees across all disciplines. Compared to women, do men achieve better in earth sciences than they do in biology? If so, the market mechanism would be matching salary to qualification, at least to some degree. Further investigation might reveal more market influences. But these considerations are not part of the key statistics provided by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWWA).[xi] Neither are there relevant data on the government website responsible for documenting graduate careers.[xii] The EOWWA does report that Australia has more women than men with degrees, both bachelor and postgraduate. But it is quality within discipline cohorts, not quantity overall, that is relevant to the equity question. The data provided are insufficient to conclude that there is any female disadvantage in starting salaries.

The rule looks shakier still considering that women’s starting salaries often surpass those of men. This is the case in the physical sciences, the social sciences, veterinary science, agricultural science, social work and pharmacy. Do women’s grades surpass men’s in these disciplines? Moreover, women outnumber men in many disciplines—in veterinary science the ratio is 80 to 20. This is a stunning violation of the 50-50 rule. Yet there were no letters to the editor protesting discrimination against men, no speculation about negative stereotypes of male vets, no calls for affirmative action scholarships to attract young men to university. In practice the criterion means the “at-least-50-per-cent-women-rule”. The one exception was Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan’s[xiii] call for post-feminist thinking. Sheehan noted that girls were outperforming boys at high school and that women were 60 per cent of university undergraduates and almost the same percentage of postgraduates. He concluded that “society needs to address this growing imbalance”. Sheehan was noting a trend already detected by the biosocial scientist Lionel Tiger in his 1999 book, The Decline of Males.

Despite its irrationality the 50-50 rule has been in service for many years. In 1994 the then chairman of the Australian Research Council stated that women were still under-represented at postgraduate level in some areas. “The fundamental difficulty is that there is a general lack of gender balance,” he said.[xiv] The priority was not overcoming discrimination or lack of opportunity but building up the numbers of women. It would not have been much of an improvement in logic to argue that equalising the proportion of males and females would remove female disability; but it would have been principled.

The cavalier disregard of male disability is a remarkable feature of the women’s movement. An example is the promotion of female representation with no sunset provisions. Consider the University of Western Australia’s equity and diversity policy, typical of the genre. It interprets the legislation as an open-ended mandate to employ women: 

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 requires that the University formally adopts a policy and a programme for its implementation. One objective of this legislation is to improve the participation of women in all areas of employment.[xv] 

The goal of improving the participation of women “in all areas of employment” is revealing. There is no limiting clause, such as “until unfairness is eliminated”, despite the Act specifying its goals as the promotion of equal opportunity by removing barriers to women.[xvi] It seems inappropriate to increase women’s participation where there is no evidence of disability. Genuine equal opportunity policy would advocate elimination of unfair discrimination without specifying any numerical targets. But if the 50-50 standard is to be adopted, consistency demands that men’s participation should be encouraged when it falls below that level. The demand should become urgent when the disparity, either way, applies over a broad range, such as the 60-40 ratio of female-to-male graduates from Australian universities.

This lack of interest in men’s disability conflicts with feminism’s enabling ideology. The movement has sought legitimacy through its appeal to individualism and equality. Policies of equal opportunity and affirmative action are justified by appeals to fairness. No mandate has been secured from taxpayers to discriminate against men or to perpetually favour women once equality of opportunity has been achieved.

The 50-50 rule is too useful to abandon. In the case of the Herald article on graduate pay, it was salvaged in two ways. First, there was no talk about male disability but much about the good news that some women were overcoming the gender pay gap. Second, the EOWWA stated that males had the advantage in fourteen disciplines and women in only six, and that the maximum male advantage in pay was greater than the maximum female advantage. The EOWWA’s director concluded that the gender pay gap was still a problem. The same evidence allows us to conclude that males also suffer lower starting salaries in some disciplines or that perhaps there is not enough of a gap to worry about. Is it the season to prune the grievance bureaucracy? On the contrary, the Labor federal government is pressing ahead with anti-discrimination legislation that requires businesses to prove innocence when accused of bias.[xvii] 

Female chauvinism. Categorical claims of women’s superiority and disparagement of men are common in the media, despite the rejection of any hint that males might have their uses. An article that celebrated the rise of female executives of arts companies, stated: “Women are more collegiate as a rule, more focused on the objective, men have some other issues. They have been in roles longer and there is a great sense of entitlement.”[xviii] Michelle Ryan, a British psychologist, suggested in an opinion article that women are better equipped to lead in times of crisis.[xix] Such generalisations escape criticism or censorship. Even high-profile examples pass under the otherwise stern watchfulness of the PC police, such as this choice defamation from Germaine Greer: “Australian men generally avoid women; Englishmen actively torment and belittle them.”[xx] An example that combines chauvinism and a claim of female disability comes from a speech by Barack Obama in May. The speech was reported in the New York Times and was republished in the Sydney Morning Herald[xxi] without editorial comment.

Speaking to a graduating class at a women’s college in New York City, Obama mixed reasonable values of equal opportunity with claims of female superiority. He regretted that only men signed the constitution in 1787 and criticised that document’s failure to guarantee equality of sex and race: “we can assume that there were founding mothers whispering smarter things in the ears of the founding fathers. [Applause.] I mean, that’s almost certain.Obama decried the fact that women are 3 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs and occupy about 20 per cent of Congressional seats. He stated that the lack of women CEOs—in other words CEOs’ maleness—was one cause of outdated workplace policies. Urging women to run for office, he concluded that “Congress would get a lot more done if you did.”[xxii] The remark received laughter and applause, and neither the New York Times reporter nor the Herald noted Obama’s sexism. Such rhetoric would have been condemned as bigoted if Obama had touted male superiority. Its acceptance by the leftist gatekeepers of public discourse raises doubts as to whether high principle is the only engine of feminism.

Invidious statements about men are sometimes combined with racial slurs, white males combining two favoured targets of cultural warriors of the Left. The report on women’s role in Australian theatre discussed earlier carried the quote: “[Artistic directors] say ‘I only choose what’s best’. So why is there a predominance of white, middle-class men?”[xxiii] In a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece that made some interesting points, a female management consultant stated: “Most directors in boardrooms come from the same pool: pale, male and stale.” The article made clear that staleness was due to paleness as well as maleness.[xxiv] 

Female success. These stories report the success of women in previously male-dominated occupations, and discuss how to further increase female representation. An example is a report on the fast food vendor McDonald’s, 50 per cent of whose senior executives are women, far above the 8 per cent norm.[xxv] High-ranking female police officers are given favourable mention[xxvi] as are female executives and company board officers.[xxvii]

Natural women. These are expressions of traditional female perspectives and values undisciplined by radical feminism, although they are sometimes written by women with feminist credentials. Such articles occasionally break through with a refreshing heterodoxy. Bettina Arndt quotes men and women bidding in the marriage market and writes about women’s biological clock, being attractive and high-powered, and the fierce demand for quality men. In the Sydney Morning Herald Adele Horin reviewed research on the happiness brought by children, concluding that while there are ups and downs, “children are a gift that keeps giving”.[xxviii] Then there are women struck by the pangs of child hunger: 

I will never be pregnant, never be protected by the father of my child, never be loved as the mother of his child, never love like you love, and never be loved as you’re loved. I will never mean as much to anyone as you do. Imagine that, mums. 

This was written by Bibi Lynch, a woman in her forties, after realising she could not conceive.[xxix] 

In the foregoing review I found little use of biological information. Science reporting on sex differences was thin and discussion of sex differences was rare. Apart from Bettina Arndt, most of the exceptions praised female superiority or criticised male shortcomings, such as Barack Obama’s condescending speech. Neither did the themes reflect an even-handed concern for both sexes. I found only one report (by Sheehan) of male disability. The emphasis on female disability is reflected in the name of such government agencies as the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency. Cannot fairness cut both ways? Instead, as described above, the media frequently reflect hostility towards men. This hostility enjoys a privileged status, somehow evading censure.

Hostility is also directed at women who deviate from core radical feminist ideology, such as Bettina Arndt. In addition to critical reviews, gender studies students organised a demonstration against Arndt when she gave a talk at the Australian National University in 2011.[xxx] Arndt admits that her writing does not draw on that body of knowledge.[xxxi] Academic lawyer Cathy Sherry described the intolerance shown towards feminists who oppose abortion. Although that is not her position, she had been subjected to vitriolic attack by left-feminists for expressing different views on women’s issues.[xxxii] 

Gender studies in the universities

The near absence of behavioural biological content in media discussions of women and work raises questions about the content of gender studies courses at the nation’s universities. Questions also arise from the double standard applied to male disability. What are they teaching our children, who go on to become journalists and commentators and teachers themselves? How true and wise are the theories and perspectives they provide? Could the situation be as bad as the 1980s and 1990s when the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology’s entry for gender stated that socialisation, not biology, produces male and female behaviour?

To assess the place of biology in university gender studies programs I searched university websites. The Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association (AWGSA) lists related studies programs at Australian universities.[xxxiii] Among the thirty-nine universities listed, links were provided to twenty-three departments and institutes at twenty-one universities. These twenty-three provided the focus of research. My search for biological content in these centres began with examination of the linked sites. This was a shallow sweep of all the links. Mentions of biology were to be followed up. There was no need. Of the twenty-one linked pages that contained information about course content, none mentioned hormones (endocrinology), animal models, genetics, ethology, sociobiology, behavioural ecology, evolution or evolutionary psychology. Such themes might have been named in further linked pages but they were not present on the initial pages or in the course lists examined. Ideological orientation varied from indeterminate to positions on the Lleft. Sixteen of the centres expressed radical ideological leanings in course content, either through teaching about feminist theory, criticism of traditional society, or (only) female disadvantage. No courses expressed a conservative orientation, including anti-feminist criticism or pro-male advocacy. At least eight centres taught gender in concert with other forms of “inequality” or “oppression”, such as racism, colonialism and “heteronormativity”.

Interestingly, gender studies is largely a female activity. Of the twelve institutions where faculty were listed, women are always the majority of academics. The larger institutions to which they belong have smaller proportions. The closest match was at the Australian National University, where the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies has six female faculty from a total of eleven, while its host, the School of Culture, History & Language has thirty-seven out of 107. That’s 55 per cent women in gender studies versus 35 per cent in the enclosing faculty. At La Trobe University the corresponding figures are 78 per cent and 53 per cent; and at the University of Melbourne 75 per cent and 50 per cent. Lack of information about staff did not allow comparisons to be made at several universities. However, it is difficult not to read the sex ratios in gender studies as remarkable when there is a near absence of men. All the remaining schools for which data could be found—the gender studies programs at Flinders, Macquarie, Monash, Adelaide, UNSW, and one at South Australia—taken together, have 102 female but only seven male faculty. The disparity does not appear so extreme from a biological perspective. Naturally women are more interested in women’s affairs than are men. The problems are analytical and ideological. Deviation from 50-50 is often taken as proof of discrimination or invidious stereotyping, used to justify and enforce reverse discrimination, the expenditure of public funds, and the re-education of males. And it is done without reference to sex differences in interests or talents. If a skewed gender ratio among engineers or panel beaters is unacceptable, why not also among gender studies faculty? Why not among veterinary students or university students as a whole?

The absence of self-critical perspectives in gender studies centres indicates a robust level of solidarity or policing, also evident in the media. There appear to be few alternative theories or ideologies on the curriculum, certainly none that take biology seriously. It is what one would expect from a “tribal-moral” community as described by Jonathan Haidt[xxxiv] in the case of American social psychology.

I conclude that biology is generally overlooked in women’s and gender studies in Australia. A probable contributing cause is that much of the field is monopolised by a radical ideological orientation which rejects inconvenient facts. To double-check this finding I wrote to twenty heads of gender studies centres, those who could be identified. The seven who replied confirmed that there is no behavioural biological content in their courses or research.

In defence of these gender studies centres it should be noted that many are not based in the social sciences. In those cases the absence of biology is a general characteristic of the humanities and not unique to gender studies. Neither does that situation reflect on the social sciences, except insofar as it has a duty to maintain standards of truth in other disciplines. However, ten of the centres were either part of a faculty of social science or had an interdisciplinary make-up that included social science. Thus the foregoing survey of gender studies courses provides further evidence that biology is omitted from Australian social science. The omission is doubly significant because no social phenomenon is more subject to biological analysis than gender.

Part 2 of this article is here…

[ii] Bettina Arndt, “Busted: The politics of cleavage and a glance”, Sun-Herald, Extra, 12 Feb. 2012, pp. 1-3.

[iii] Bettina Arndt, “Why successful women lose the dating game”, Sun-Herald, Extra, 22 April 2012, pp. 86-7.

[iv] Josephine Tovey, “Low expectations, not necklines, to blame for misogyny”, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb. 2002, p. 13.

[v] “Sailor tells of her fear and distress after alleged spy episode in shower”, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 2011, p. 3.

[vi] Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Nov. 2011, p. 15.

[vii] Sydney Morning Herald, 19-20 May 2012, Trades and Services Careers, p. 28.

[viii] “Australia Council finds women are bit players in theatre’s ‘feudal system’”, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2012, p. 1.

[ix] “What’s needed to keep women in the arts”, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2012, p. 10.

[x] “Gender salary gap improves as women graduates get ahead”, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb. 2012, p. 3.

[xiii] Paul Sheehan, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 2012, p. 13.

[xiv] Carruthers, F. (1994). “Women gaining ground by degrees.” The Australian. Sydney, 18 April.

[xv] http://www.hr.uwa.edu.au/policy/toc/appointment_and_employment/equal_opportunity/eoaaps?childfx=on, accessed 18 May 2012.

[xvii] “Axe plan for sex bias laws: business”, Australian, 6 Feb. 2012, p. 1.

[xviii] “Exhibiting talent, women run the shows”, Sydney Morning Herald, 28-29 April 2012, p. 7.

[xix] Michelle Ryan, “Woman on a ledge: females called upon to lead in times of crisis”, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 2012, p. 11.

[xx] Germaine Greer, “Women’s struggles go beyond one day”, Sydney Morning Herald, 3-4 March 2012, p. 18.

[xxi] SMH 16 May 2012, p. 9, “Obama pitches for female votes”.

[xxiii] “Australia Council”, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2012, p. 1

[xxiv] “Diversity the answer for boardrooms”, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 2012, p. 11.

[xxv] “Taking McPride in gender policies”, The Australian, 5-6 May 2012, Weekend Professional, p. 3.

[xxvi] Sun- Herald, 29 April 2012, pp. 16-17.

[xxvii] “Exhibiting talent, women run the shows”, Sydney Morning Herald, 28-29 April 2012, p. 7.

“Fewer obstacles on the way up”, Weekend Australian, 10-11 March 2012, Weekend Professional, p. 2.

[xxviii] Adele Horin, “Children a gift that keeps giving”, Sydney Morning Herald, News Review, 19-20 May 2012, p. 18.

[xxix] Bibi Lynch, “Mothers, stop moaning”, Sun-Herald, Sunday Life, 13 May 2012, pp. 18-19. Originally: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/mar/31/mothers-stop-moaning-about-motherhood, accessed 29 May 2012.

[xxxi] B. Arndt, personal communication, 6 May 2012.

[xxxii] Cathy Sherry, “Feminism’s clique does not help the cause”, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Jan. 2012, p. 15.

[xxxiii] http://awgsa.org.au/study, accessed 1 May 2012.

[xxxiv] Haidt, J. (2011). “The bright future of post-partisan social psychology”, Talk given at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Antonio, Texas, 27 Jan. http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/jhaidt-819710-haidt-postpartisan-social-psychology/.

Leave a Reply