Thursday, September 08, 2005

Same Difference

Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, is the Great Liberal Hope against the rising contender, the wave of “essentialist” writings about sex and gender – that it, those which take sex differences seriously. But Same Difference’s punches are weak and wide of the mark. In the end, it is the aging egalitarian argument, grown soft after three decades of hard fights and rigged victories, that looks tired.
Barnett and Rivers, Boston-area feminist professors since the height of the second wave, argue that men and women are basically the same. The differences that now exist are because men have more power or because boys are girls are socialized in different, patriarchal ways. When women are in power they will act the way men do, and vice-versa. Men and women (or even boys and girls) say they want different things because society trains them to limit the aspirations of girls and the emotions of boys. This has been the standard feminist strong program for three decades. What Barnett and Rivers think is new, as their subtitle suggests, is that the current wave of scholarly research and popular bestsellers which does take sex differences seriously is a major cause of the gender differences we see now.
Barnett and Rivers have fun with a few popular soft targets, notably John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, and Women Are from Venus and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. They also offer fair questions about the small or unusual samples on which some influential studies rest, most especially Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice and Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering. They are most perplexed, I think, by much-honored feminists, like Ms. Woman of the Year Gilligan, Chodorow, Eleanor Maccoby, and Felice Schwartz, who think men and women are actually different in some important ways. To Barnett and Rivers this is a sellout of the progress that women have made in achieving public success like men.
Their greatest scorn, though, is for those they call Ultra Darwinists. By this they mean both actual sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, like David Buss and Steven Pinker, and a whole range of brain researchers and hormone experts who have been impressed with the enduring effects of biological sex differences. Here Barnett and Rivers' analysis is marred again and again by logical errors and distortions. The repeated logical error is confusing the sensible claim that men and women as a group tend to behave in particular ways, with the clearly false idea that each and every man and woman behaves in those gender-specific ways. This is what I think of the basic problem in teaching sociology: a true generalization about a group does not necessarily apply to each individual in the group. All serious researchers acknowledge that there are many individual men and women who are exceptions to their sex's norm, and that the overlap between the two curves is great. Barnett and Rivers, though, rarely give their opponents credit for this nuance, nor do they always clearly show that they understand the distinction between group and individual themselves.
The distortion that Barnett and Rivers engage in, though, is so egregious and frequent that I think it goes beyond error to deliberate bad faith. When “Ultra-Darwinists” note that men and women as a group have a biological propensity to do X instead of Y, Barnett and Rivers turn this into a claim that their opponents are saying men and women must do X and are incapable of doing Y. The well-established finding, for example, that at the highest levels of math ability there are more men than women is distorted into a claim that women are incapable of doing high level math. And the dozen or so places in which Barnett and Rivers do acknowledge differences in behavior between the sexes, they simply assert must be due to different (partriachal) socialization.

Errors and distortions help no one. The legitimate arguments that Barnett and Rivers offer amount to no more than caveats and calls for nuance. They do not touch the basic thesis that there really are enduring and consequential differences between the sexes. They do not, therefore, even attempt to engage the more interesting argument, as I see it, that these differences are complementary and mutually beneficial.
The most puzzling failing of Same Difference, though, is their almost total disregard of sex differences in giving birth and in raising infants. This has long been a weakness of the kind of egalitarian feminism that Barnett and Rivers represent, which is primarily concerned with the public life of high-achieving (and often childless) adult women. Still, much of the interest in the new study of sex differences comes from women who are feeling the conflict between absorbing public careers and motherhood, a conflict that their husbands do not seem to feel in the same way. As I read the research, sex differences in adults are at their greatest when a couple is trying to raise an infant – differences which are not as strong earlier and later in the life cycle. Sylvia Ann Hewlett shows in the poignant Creating a Life that the main reason women do not hold half of the very top jobs is mostly due to a conflict between totally absorbing careers and motherhood. Yet Barnett and Rivers, in the chapter devoted to this subject, transform their opponent's discussion of work vs. motherhood into a question of workplace inflexibility which forces women to work “insanely long hours.”


Anonymous said...

You write over my head! Keep working though, you're figuring all this out :). Also, you ought to tell them about coffee.

Anonymous said...

I am compelled to leave another comment, because otherwise Blogger says that this post has 1 comments and that hurts my soul.