In my previous post about the “Are Men Finished?” debate hosted by Slate and Intelligence Squared, feminist scholar Christina Sommers observed that Americans are falling prey to a “Women are Wonderful” bias. This is interesting for two reasons: the idea that women are now impervious to judgment, and the use of science now being used to support women’s natural advantages in the workplace and home.
Societal Crush or Earned Respect?
The idea behind the “Women Are Wonderful” theory is that Americans are now perpetuating a reverse discrimination of sorts. The pendulum of female empowerment has swung so far in the other direction that society is now actively discriminating against men. We’re is using overhyped science and biased news reporting to support generalizations that claim women are far more qualified (wonderful) for careers due to natural ability as well as being superior moral human beings. Men cannot catch a break due to this new social distortion, and women can do no wrong.
First, I don’t think society is so enamored with women that it’s completely blind to women’s poor behavior. Plenty of reality TV shows like Bachelor/Bachelorette, Bad Girls Club, Bridezillas, The Hills, Jerseylicious, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives, Super Nanny, Teen Mom, and Toddlers & Tiaras show women acting … well … far less than wonderful. Fictional characters in dramas like Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girls, Sex in the City, and True Blood often don’t behave any better. Not to mention documentaries like Snapped, which chronicles real life stories where women have been accused or convicted of murder. Society seems plenty interested in watching and depicting women acting poorly.
Second, I think the perspective that’s missing in regards to the numerous scientific studies and news stories favorable to women is that we have some reparations to make. The reason why it’s more socially acceptable to talk about women’s natural abilities or strengths, and not men’s, is that society has a long history of telling women they didn’t have any. For a long time, it was ‘common knowledge’ that women were weak, irrational, unable to be objective, incapable of stressful work, lacked the natural ability to be leaders, etc. Men and women believed this made-up, culturally biased narrative as actual fact. After generations of perpetuating these cultural myths, society has amassed a huge, juicy pile of dubious facts that are tempting for scientists to prove wrong.
Generalizations Based on “Science”
However, I do agree that generalizations about men’s abilities could in time turn into discrimination against men just as easily as it caused (and continues to cause) discrimination against women. Many social scientists are already concerned about the impact of biases against poor men and men of color. So how can we view all the news reports and studies without internalizing a new set of harmful generalizations about the differences between the sexes?
#1. We admit that science is not the objective field we like to believe it is. Cultural biases permeate scientific analysis and interpretations of facts. A lot of studies don’t have the longitudinal data to rule out cultural influences in the outcomes. People, including scientists, are often unable to discern between skills, abilities, personalities and our own biased perceptions. And let’s remember how often scientific ‘fact’ changes from year to year – the scientific field is not immune to trends and group think.
#2. We stop overhyping small differences between the sexes. Yes, men and women are different. But men and women are far more similar than different. Most of the small differences in ability between men and women don’t make a big difference in the real world. Let’s focus on skills and not attach sex or gender to them. If we need more people who can do skill A than skill B, let’s find a way to teach skill A. I don’t think it matters whether more men or more women can already perform skill A.
A New Definition of Discrimination
I think Sommers’ observation hints at the bigger question of “What exactly is sex discrimination today?” It’s a lot harder to define today because its far more nuanced than it was in the past. It seems clear to me that discrimination occurs when men and women are denied the chance to compete fairly or a generalization is used to defend a shaky scientific conclusion. The difficult issues arise when culture and science intermingle enough to create a gray area.
Is it discrimination to say one sex appears naturally better at something? Personally, I think it’s hard to answer that question without looking at it in the context of systematic oppression against women. For women, there is always the danger that a statement favoring men will be used to excuse or validate past discrimination. For men, while there is the danger of future discrimination, I don’t feel as though a statement favoring women creates a large amount of risk for them. But that doesn’t make it right, only less harmful. Maybe a better question to ask is if one sex’s advantage really matters that much in our modern world?
There are times when we all rely too heavily on the stories we tell ourselves about men and women instead of accurately judging a person on the facts. Fortunately, I think we are at a point where Americans are beginning to separate the big picture (the national trends) from the small picture (the person in front of us).
Photo: Alex Masters