Are men and women different? If so, are those differences significant today?
Recently I’ve had two discussions with men about the differences between men and women. Each time, after a long drawn out debate, it has come down to this:
“But men and women are different. If they’re not, how come men and women don’t compete in sport?”
Or the slightly different version:
“You can’t think men and women can be equal in all working conditions. What about physical labour?”
It is generally at this point in the conversation when I feel a sense of deep exhaustion and despair coming over me. I feel the need to seek out the bottle store, climb to the bottom of a bottle of wine and go to sleep. So now, having done the aforementioned and recovered suitably, I will attempt to restore some dignity to the debate about women’s and men’s differences.
First, most differences between men and women are socially programmed. In fact, we have equal numbers of muscles in our body in nearly all the same places, which means that we can physically use those muscles as needed. Part of the historical explanation for women’s supposed inability to beat men at sport (though they have done so before) is because they are not encouraged to live in their bodies in a powerful way but are instead encouraged to be small (see crossing legs rather than sitting with them open and throwing like a girl) and to move in small movements. In essence, our historical proclivity to being ladylike has left us less physically able in many cases. When women are physically able, or too physically able for our social norms, we question whether they are in fact women.
Second, explanations of a system of difference based on extreme physical examples (e.g. sprinters, rugby players, etc) is not really useful. Put the average man in a race against Usain Bolt and he will be beaten. Put the average man in a race against Caster Semenya, and I bet you he will still be beaten. Perhaps pitting Caster Semenya against Usain Bolt would have a different result, but see the first explanation for possible causes. If that doesn’t work for you, try to see them as two incredibly fast individuals, one of whom is faster.
Third, how valuable is intense physical strength in our modern world? It is 2012. The world is ruled by technology and capitalism. Our world is run by people (mostly men, sadly) who look like this, not like this. In short, physical strength ceased to be relevant in most professions a very long time ago. This is no longer a prehistoric world where our ability to construct things with our hands and biceps is essentially valuable. It’s a world where our brains and wealth are more important.
Being head of state, head of a school, a doctor or the head of NASA does not require big guns, but sadly men are still leading many of these professions. Why?
Because history is relevant. The particular traits in a person (determination, strength, courage, fearlessness) that we value in today’s world are a throwback from centuries where you had to be an aggressive individual to survive. Times were tough, and you needed to be a cold bastard to survive them. The fact that we value these traits in people over traits like compassion, empathy and a connection to their emotions is not ahistorical. The fact that patriarchy nurtured the first set of traits in men and the second in women is not ahistorical. Our differences are not ahistorical. These differences let down men and women.
Our social differences are not permanent, and we have to work on changing the value system so that we can appreciate deep and complicated individuals instead of caricatures of men and women. If we are able to do this, then we can begin to celebrate differences between us as differences between individuals, rather than an ahistorical reason to have a man in a job that a woman is equally capable of doing.