Valentine's fray

Gender roles have traditionally been rigidly defined by most cultures, but the feminist and women's rights movements have resulted in a convergence between the sexes. Can men and women be truly equal, or is the drive to impose equality fueling the battle of the sexes and bringing us into conflict with fundamental biological differences? Oksana is joined by psychologist Glenn Wilson to delve further.


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Oksana Boyko:Valentine’s Day has long attracted controversy, both because of its commercial nature and its religious origins. But more recently it has also been placed at the center of the ongoing gender revolution. How has our concept of gender changed over the past few decades and will it survive at all? Well, to discuss that, I’m now joined by Glenn Wilson, Visiting Professor of Psychology at Gresham College, London. Professor Wilson, thank you very much for your time. Now, back in the 70s people used to talk about the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ but now it seems the concept of gender is far more prominent and far more confusing. Why do you think that is?

Dr Glenn Wilson: Well, certainly the relationship between the sexes is changing towards greater equality of sex roles and political rights. Interestingly, over the last 100,000 years or so, the fossil record suggests that men and women are becoming more alike. There is convergence of the genders, so it’s quite possible that that process will continue.

OB:It’s interesting. I remember that Henry Kissinger once famously said, “No one will ever win the battle of the sexes because there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy,” but I wonder if that would apply to the genders as well, because with the advancement of women’s social rights, it seems women are really winning across the board, at least in Western societies.

GW: Certainly women have gained a great deal in terms of equalization of salary, though that process is not complete. There used to be a feminist argument that men and women were virtually identical under the skin and that any differences between them were a result of the way that they were brought up, or the social pressures that were laid upon them. I think that we can pretty much dispense with that theory at the moment, because science has proved beyond all doubt that there are very fundamental and important biological differences between men and women.

OB:Now, you said earlier that there are records, archaeological records, that show the roles of men and women are becoming more equal over the last few decades, probably even centuries, but there’s also an argument that could be made that this process of social advancement of women is not really so much through equalizing their social roles, but rather piling additional social expectations onto women. Because if we look at even the most progressive Western countries, women are still carrying most of the burden in terms of household chores, they’re still doing much of the child-rearing activity, and that in addition to putting in the same hours at work as men. And so, is it really women gaining that much or them just becoming much more prominent, not only in terms of their social roles, but simply carrying most of the burden for humanity?

GW: Yes, well there are many women who are unhappy about the changes that feminism has brought because, as they say, it’s even more stressful for them. Women are supposedly better at multitasking, and they very often have to be, because they have to be good at work and then they have to go home and clean the house and look after the children. So, there are many women who feel that the feminist movement has just made life more and more difficult for them.

OB:Would you agree with the argument, since you just mentioned women’s ability to multitask, and obviously since you believe in evolution, I think many people would agree that this is essentially a product of evolutionary development – women’s multitasking ability – do you think that ability in and of itself makes women better positioned for the times of uncertainty, especially the economic uncertainty that we are facing at the moment?

GW: Yes, there’s no doubt that men and women have slightly different skills profiles. This has evolved and it can be observed in brain structures. There was a recent study coming out of Pennsylvania, which showed that if you look at the way male and female brains are typically wired, males have wiring going from front to back, which enables them to connect perception with physical skills and would enable them to develop as tennis players, for example,and golf players. Women have cross-wiring; it goes between the left and right hemispheres, with the result that they can connect verbal processes with feelings and emotions on the right side, so that when women talk to one another, it is very much intimately tied up with what they are feeling about things. Men tend to use language in a much more logical, analytical way.

OB:There is also a tendency, I think, in the West, to equate women’s rights and gender equality. Many people treat those two concepts as synonymous, but I wonder if you believe that is the case? I mean, I may have the same rights as my male peers but, I think, when it comes to social expectations and social norms, they are still quite unequal. Do you agree with that?

GW: It’s a very complex area. There was a recent survey about asking women whether they liked chivalry or not, and the majority of them actually did like men to help them put their coat on and give up their seat for them on public transport, whereas a lot of men were thinking that women would be insulted if they did this, that things had reached the point where women did not want to be patronized in this kind of way.

OB:I would also like to touch on one particular example, and that’s child rearing. There is a significant increase in the amount of time that men, especially in the West, spend providing direct care to their children, but I think it’s still only a fraction of the parental investment provided by mothers. I wonder if you believe there are natural or maybe even biological limits to gender equality?

GW: Well, I believe that women are actually naturally better at communicating with children, knowing what it is that they want and need and they’re also more motivated to take care of children than the average man. So that I’m sure that in the future we will continue to have some differences in sex roles that are based on evolved preferences and tendencies. It’s a very complex area. A lot of women tennis players have been demanding equal pay but they still want to play against other women, not against men. They concede the fact that men are naturally better at sport but they want a similar reward for playing against lesser opponents.

OB:Is this concept of gender equality really supported by psychological and biological studies? Is it just a concept, or can we really achieve that in real life?

GW: Well, I think the attempt to override sex-role differences completely is a luxury that can be afforded only by affluent countries. There is a lot of argument for a division of labor, whereby people develop skills that are specific to their own abilities and interests and that sex roles are complementary. Men and women are bringing different kinds of skills and expertise to a situation and therefore they can raise children jointly in a way that is more effective than having them parallel each other’s roles.

OB:Now speaking of raising children jointly – correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the idea of gender is very closely tied to the concept of the nuclear family and the distribution of labor within it, and this is where enormous changes are taking place at the moment. In the United States, I believe, four out of 10 children are now born out of wedlock. In Britain too, the number of single mothers is on the increase and, you know, it’s no longer associated with shame, it’s part of social norms for the middle class, but at the same time it’s very strenuous, both psychologically and financially. And I guess it’s a very loaded question but I wonder if it really constitutes a form of women’s empowerment or rather just a new form of patriarchy, where men get the best of both worlds because they get to pass on their genes without, you know, committing to spend too much resources on raising their offspring.

GW: Yes, that’s a problem that is rearing its head in Western societies most obviously, where males are able to escape responsibility for looking after and financing their children because the family units break up so quickly and governments have to decide how they’re going to deal with that. How they’re going to compel fathers to contribute to the upbringing of their children, at least in terms of financial resources, because otherwise they, the government, will be expected to step in and to back up the mothers.

OB:Now, all the social advancements for women that we’ve already discussed – they all come at a cost and there are also increasing issues with fertility, with single motherhood, with loneliness, various psychological issues, and I guess you would agree with me that evolutionarily, women haven’t changed that fast as social norms, I mean they still crave, you know, family bonds and social connection, and my question to you is whether female empowerment, at least as it is understood these days, is ultimately at odds with deep-seated psychological and probably even biological needs of women?

GW: Well, I think you’re absolutely right that the liberation of women has come at a cost and what I applaud is the ability of women to make choices, even if they are unusual choices for their gender. If a woman wants to fly an airplane particularly, then I think that’s an excellent thing, or be trained as a surgeon, but what we maybe shouldn’t be doing is putting compulsion into this matter so that half of MPs have to be women and half of the boardroom has to be female, because that will push us into conflict with some natural biological differences, which find their own level.

OB:You know, in clothing there is, the concept of unisex is increasingly popular – something that is suitable for both sexes, and I wonder if it would be too far-fetched to imagine a society that would be truly genderless, and would you like to live in that kind of a society personally?

GW: No, I think it would be terribly drab, rather as Chinese society became in terms of the clothing worn by men and women, so I think that men and women will incline toward those different modes of dress, and again any social compulsion to make them dress identically would be very unfortunate.

OB:Well, Professor Wilson, we have to take a short break now. But when we come back, gender roles have always been rooted in the concept of traditional marriage but as western countries take the lead in redefining this cornerstone social institution, how will it affect manhood and womanhood?

OB:Professor Wilson, earlier we were talking about this steep rise in single-parent households, and there are many downsides to raising children alone – downsides for children, for parents, for societies at large - and yet this model is becoming increasingly more widespread and it is often presented in terms of women’s liberation, so much so that any government’s effort to intervene or protect the institution of marriage is sometimes viewed with suspicion or even condemnation. I wonder if you think that government has any role to play in gender politics?

GW: I think government can alter things perhaps by incentives, rather than by negative sanctions and compulsions, but we are past the point where we can tell people that they have to get married, that they can’t produce children out of wedlock and, if they do, they’ll take the children away and do something terrible.

OB:But we also know that single parents are statistically more likely to be poor, they’re more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems and they’re more likely to depend on social welfare, so it’s not exclusively an issue of individual choice. The government is expected to come in and help when times are tough.

GW: Well, certainly the government will be required to help people who do have problems of poverty due to whatever reason, and what we know from all the research is that all forms of social deprivation tend to accumulate in the one place, so that single-parent families will go with bad housing and poor education and poverty. Inevitably, these things all tend to accumulate in the same corners.

OB:Now, many studies suggest that a successful marriage is usually good for you. It is associated with increased life expectancy, with certain economic benefits. It also increases overall life satisfaction, and yet if we look at the most recent studies, it seems that all those benefits are increasingly conferred onto those who are well educated and rich. Marriage is essentially becoming a class thing, you know, decreasing among the poor and the middle class and yet staying fairly stable among the rich. Why do you think that is?

GW: I think that class inevitably does connect with marital stability and so does health and happiness, there’s no doubt about that. Again, it’s the same effect of everything accumulating in the same direction and the cause and effect is going both ways, so that if people are healthy and wealthy they are less likely to have a marriage breakdown.

OB:Now, in many parts of the world, the social changes we discussed previously, including the changes in female gender roles, are viewed as predominantly Western, as part of the Western value agenda, and certain countries are actively resisting it. I wonder if you think that these social trends are irreversible to some extent? In other words, are we likely to see any sort of counterrevolution aimed at preserving traditional, maybe even patriarchal gender roles?

GW: I think there are counter-movements. I think that the Islamic religion is one very powerful counter-force toward maintaining traditional marriages and values, which doesn’t suit the West, and just as they become more powerful, Western liberalism becomes more powerful and we have two sort of major civilizations apparently on a collision course.

OB:I think Russia also comes into the mix here, because I think that counter-revolution, the revolution, to or the movement to preserve traditional marriage, has also started here and it’s very interesting because traditionally, women were expected to be breadwinners and take care of their household. But most recently, most women are putting a lot of emphasis on just finding a good provider, but the problem is, of course, that male gender roles have changed as well and they are in no rush to tie the knot or be the sole provider for the family. So, my question to you is whether you think this idea of the nuclear family could really be preserved as a primary social union?

GW: Well, marriage and family is a social institution but I think it is also the way human beings would naturally tend to live without any state marriage licensing system and without any religious beliefs. I think there would be a tendency for people to gather together into family groups. What’s probably more unusual is the size of major cities today. We’re probably evolved to live in communities of about 150 people where everybody knows each other and there are powerful social constraints based on expectations of what your role will be within the community.

OB:Speaking about marriage equality, there is also a concerted effort in some Western countries, including in Britain, to redefine the concept of traditional marriage and what I mean is, of course, redefining the marriage from a union between a man and a woman to a union between two people of the same gender, and I don’t want to debate the merits of such moves per se, but what I would like to ask you is about the speed of this social change, because social norms usually take decades to change and crystallize, but with same-sex marriage, it seems to be happening much quicker that other contentious social issues. Why so you think that would be?

GW: Yes, the speed with which attitudes towards same-sex relationships has changed has been quite extraordinary. When I was growing up as a schoolboy, it was actually illegal to be homosexual in New Zealand, my home country. Now, we seem to have switched from a time where they might throw you into jail for homosexual behavior to a time where they’re more likely to throw you into jail if you express homophobic attitudes. The speed with which those, particularly the legal background to those, attitudes has changed is quite remarkable.

OB:I wonder if there’s enough research to support the concept of same-sex marriage in relation, at least, to children, because I think the issue of raising children is the most crucial here and whether or not children raised in same-sex households, as compared to maybe single-parent households or, you know, people of two different genders – if we really know that this doesn’t affect children, is there enough research to support that?

GW: Yes, there’s a considerable amount of evidence and it goes both ways. I think that there is little doubt that children are best served by having a mother and a father together in the home – so there’s a male and a female role model, and the world looks simple from that point of view. But it’s also fairly clear that children are better off having stable parents, even if they are same-sex parents, than having only one parent and better off that way than having parents who abuse them and maltreat them. The most important thing is to be raised in a loving home and it doesn’t matter quite so much the gender arrangement of the other people in that home.

OB:We are airing this program on the eve of Valentine’s Day and I heard some gay activists compare judges who perform same-sex marriages to St. Valentine who, as legend has it, was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. I wonder to what extend this same-sex marriage controversy is an outcome of the forbidden-fruit mentality because heterosexuals, as we discussed previously, are losing their appetite for marriage at the same time as the LGBT community seems to be making it the core issue of their movement.

GW: We’ve had same-sex partnerships in Britain for some time and that seems to work fairly well. The step toward calling it marriage and making it identical to male-female marriage is a further step, and it seems as though it’s going to go fairly smoothly at the moment. I don’t see any great problem with it, personally. A lot of people feel uncomfortable with it because the same-sex orientation is a minority one, but then it’s not so long ago that people who were left-handed got a hard time as well. Even in my school days, I remember left-handed people being compelled to change to the right hand for writing, when it was totally unnatural for them to do that. They suffered enormous stress – many of them developed stutters and stammers – and I see sex orientation as being parallel to that. I think that a gay orientation is inborn, so that by the time you’re born you’re pretty much on track to whatever sex orientation you have.

OB:I think this is a scientific consensus, but the question is a bit broader here, is the question of the social attitudes and as you pointed out, homosexuality was pathologized only a few decades ago, so for society at large it’s understandably taking some time to get used to that. What could be the potential ramifications of pushing these changes before the society comes to terms with it?

GW: Well it’s a very divisive issue, I agree, and there are some very entrenched attitudes on both sides. But I suppose it’s an area where I quite favor the legislation that will permit people to follow their own drums because very often, social attitudes will only change when the law steps in to defend minority interests.

OB:And finally, very quickly, it’s interesting that those countries that are more traditional in terms of their interpretation of gender roles, they also tend to be far more conservative on LGBT rights, and I know that another area of your expertise is the study of liberalism versus conservatism, and I think the main point that I took from your research was that liberalism and conservatism are, you know, they both serve an important evolutionary role. It’s not like one is good and one is bad, you know. They essentially provide a system of checks and balances, and I wonder if that conclusion, those findings, could be extrapolated to national and possibly even international levels? Why should all countries be the same? I mean, wouldn’t we all benefit as humanity if certain countries were allowed to be more conservative than others?

GW: Phew – that’s a very difficult one, obviously we must allow different countries to organize things in their own way but brutality, you know, sort of executing people for their beliefs and unconventional behaviors and so on seems to be taking it a little bit too far, so that I see, it seems to me..

OB:Absolutely, nobody is arguing for that.

GW: It seems to me that Western countries have a right to try to persuade other countries to alter their laws in a more liberal sort of direction and a more tolerant kind of direction, so that they can accept a greater spectrum of behaviors for their people.

OB:But what gives them this right to spread their liberal values? Because, as you argued in your research, you know, conservatism and liberalism is to some extent inborn, and I guess the same type of argument could be made for countries as well, because you know your propensity toward embracing change would also depend on your fear of uncertainty, you know, your previous experience as a country, your values, your traditions, and I don’t think you can change all that quickly overnight.

GW: Yes, you certainly get variation in liberalism and conservatism within countries and those two facets will argue with one another as to who has got the better perspective on things, where it seems reasonable to allow them to do that. Likewise, you’ve got differences across nations and there is no harm in a debate going on between nations as to who is organizing things in the better and fairer way. I think that’s inevitable. Attacking another country because they have a different religion or viewpoint on things is a step beyond one that I would argue for.

OB:Well, Professor Wilson, unfortunately this is all we have time for. I really appreciate you appearing on the show and to our viewers, if you like the show, please join us again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.