Note: The following essay is based on a contribution to European Parliament member, Teresa Giménez Barbat's project Euromind, and to the related event “Gifted Women, Fragile Men,” which was held at the EU parliament buildings on March 28, 2017.
When I was in Amsterdam in 2008 to talk about my recently published book, The Sexual Paradox, I was interviewed by a senior editor of a major daily newspaper. She had reached the age when she was unlikely to have small children at home and as the executive editor of a major daily, she was at the pinnacle of her career. Despite this executive status, she worked part time and had always worked less than a full week. I asked why. “Wednesdays are for my family and friends,” she told me, “and Friday is piano day. Practicing the piano is essential to my happiness and I want to make sure I have time for it.”
I was stunned. Working full time—if not at least 60 hours a week—is de rigueur for professionals in North America. Not so in the Netherlands, where almost half of the population works fewer than 40 hours a week. This is especially true for Dutch women, over 76% of whom work part time. Legislation enacted in 2000 protects the jobs of anyone who wants to work part time in the Netherlands. If they move from full to part-time for any reason, they can neither be fired, nor refused benefits. Yet even if this arrangement is open to women and men alike, the number of women who take advantage of it eclipses the number of men. While three-quarters of all women in the Netherlands work part time—two-thirds of whom have no children at home—that figure is only one-quarter for men.1
It is one of the most egalitarian societies in Europe, yet most Dutch women want something different of their working schedules than most Dutch men. The assumption that women would always choose what men choose—if it weren't for the social and cultural forces holding them back—is a presumption I question in The Sexual Paradox. Nine years after its publication and 50 years after the sexual revolution of the 1970s, I'm wondering what has changed. Do we still expect the majority of women to adopt male-determined goals as their own? Or do most women in industrialized nations have something else in mind when they make life decisions?
We should look at other measures of success aside from the male-typical indices of sheer earnings and positions of power when we consider what women want.
I propose that we look at other measures of success aside from the male-typical indices of sheer earnings and positions of power when we consider what women want. Astronomical salaries and C-suite positions are grand if those are one's life goals. But what if other values are front-and-center for many women? What if we shift our lens from money to measures of personal happiness, feelings of belonging, personal health, and the health and well-being of children?
When we do that it, becomes clear that women in many industrialized nations are still stymied—not necessarily by the patriarchy—but by the expectation that they should “lean in,” and always choose what a man would, whether it's a STEM career or the number of hours one wants to consecrate to it. Let's take Silicon Valley as an example. Extreme workaholism characterizes work in the high tech sector. “Working 18 hours a day. Every day. No vacations, no going on dates, no watching TV,” is how the Silicon Valley work ethic was described in the New York Times by Dan Lyons, one of its former denizens.2 No matter how much they might earn in IT, the evidence shows that the majority of educated women put a premium on other life priorities.3 But suggesting as much is to be vilified publicly and to commit professional suicide, as former Google software engineer James Damore discovered when his memo was leaked about why uneven sex ratios persist in Silicon Valley. Fifty years after the birth of second-wave feminism, it is still taboo to express the idea that many women find happiness and fulfillment in ways that might diverge from the male norm.
“Money is not the only thing affecting people’s happiness; it's not remotely the whole story,” said British economist Baron Richard Layard in 2014. “People must understand that they would do well to preserve their human relationships; they should give them a higher priority than how much they earn.”4 As I point out in The Village Effect, this is more commonly a female perspective than a male-typical one.5 And when we do put our lens on happiness, the countries with the highest average scores include Denmark and the Netherlands.6
So let's return to the Netherlands for a moment. The legal and social thumbs-up given to part-time work may be one reason why Dutch women and children are happier than those in other industrialized countries, where women's levels of happiness have fallen since the 1970s even as their professional opportunities and material lives have improved.7 The expectation that women succeed on all fronts, which often means mimicking if not surpassing many men's extreme work schedules, producing “perfect” children who live in flawless, immaculate homes, not to mention maintaining a youthful figure and dressing elegantly, has created impossible standards that women cannot meet—thus creating levels of satisfaction that can be the inverse of their earnings.8 With no time for their relationships, children, or other interests, their levels of happiness plummet. But as we have seen, Dutch women, the majority of whom work part of the week, have more time for activities and interactions that they find fulfilling.
Dutch children are better adjusted, too. When asked, 95% of Dutch children rate themselves as happy; the Netherlands is among the top-ranked countries on Unicef's 2017 report card on child well-being and health in rich countries. Indeed, when the United Nations assessed the health and welfare of children in industrialized nations in 2013, it found that the Netherlands was one of the best places in the world for children to grow up. This year's 2017 report card showed that of 41 countries, the Netherlands is still among the top 10 for children. Portugal, Iceland, and Spain now take the top three spots.9 Considering that the United States places #36th (Canada is 29th and the UK 15th) when rated on the well-being, health, safety, and education of their children, it is perhaps time to reassess our definitions of success. The idea that the male model—of career and what constitutes a happy and balanced life—should be the default setting for all women and families in all countries is not supported by the evidence about what people want most.
Yet stating that the majority of women might want something different of life from the majority of men seems even more explosive than it was in 2008 when The Sexual Paradox was first published. Indeed, whether any differences between male and female behavior exist at all in nature has become a highly politicized topic, with many arguing for complete gender fluidity across the human species.10 Observable group differences between the sexes are instilled by societal norms, the argument goes, and by stamping out gender norms we will eliminate any differences between male and female. We will become a gender-neutral society—even if, paradoxically, the default is still assumed to be male for both sexes.
Only in a world that values men's choices more than it does women's would working as a physician, behavioral scientist, or judge be considered a less worthwhile endeavor than working in tech.
This is an aspirational view. Though gender discrimination does exist and shouldn't be allowed to persist in a just society, the idea that we are all fungible is not supported by the weight of the evidence. Indeed, the latest scientific data tell us that there are powerful group distinctions between most women and most men, ranging from greater propensities toward overt aggression, zero-sum-game competitiveness, autism, alcoholism and suicide (men), versus covert aggression, wider interests, and a greater propensity to depression and PTSD (women).11 Given the choice, not many people would opt for the other sex's frailties.
And these biologically influenced differences help to form distinct life goals and preferences, among the rank and file, as well as among stratospheric achievers. A 2014 study on the careers of 1,600 intellectually gifted 13-year-olds—identified in the 1970s as being in the top 1% of mathematical ability—found that there were many similarities between the adult men and women when the researchers followed up on them four decades later. But there were also some fascinating and important differences. The gifted men were more likely to have gravitated to IT, STEM, and CEO positions. The gifted women were more likely to have chosen careers in health, education, business, finance, medicine, and law. (Only in a world that values men's choices more than it does women's would working as a physician, behavioral scientist or a judge be considered a less worthwhile endeavor than working in tech).
In addition to the type of career this gifted cohort chose, there were also remarkable sex differences in values that affected what type of work people wanted to do and how much time they wanted to devote to it. Overall, men as a group valued full-time work, making an impact, and earning a high income, whereas women as a group more often valued part-time work, along with the time for close relationships, family and community involvement. Gifted men devoted 11 more hours to work per week, for the last 15 years than did women, even when both worked full time. If they had their druthers, 30% of the women but just 7% of the men wanted to work less than full time at their ideal job, a finding echoed by other studies of educated women and men working in top drawer careers.12
“Both men and women overwhelmingly considered their families to be more important than their work and careers,” write the authors, Camilla Benbow, David Lubinski, and Harrison Kells, but:
[M]en, on average, were more concerned with being successful in their work and feeling that society should invest in them because their ideas are better than most people’s, whereas women felt more strongly that no one should be without life’s necessities. Collectively, men were more focused on their personal advancement and on the creation of concrete products, whereas women were more interested in keeping society vibrant and healthy.13
Both perspectives have value, that is, unless one reflexively prizes men's preferences over women's. And an increasing number of studies are being published showing subtle but perceptible differences in the ways men's and women's brains are wired.14 These studies are often criticized, not as part of the expected scientific vetting process but because they document the existence of findings that many people cannot tolerate. This may be because such research reminds them of the very real injustices of the past. Still, charges of “neurosexism,” leveled at behavioral scientists are a way to denigrate results one does not like. Even if we don't like the existence of global warming, for example, we cannot wish it away or diminish its existence by calling it something else. Similarly, name-calling does not negate empirical findings that make us uncomfortable.
In the face of data emerging from new technologies, genome studies, social neuroscience, animal studies and hormonal influences—which alter our brain architecture as much as they sculpt our bodies—denying the existence of any biological sex differences is tantamount to denying the existence of science. Moving from science to fashion and culture, if there were no differences between male and female, why would insisting that women act like men, indeed why would the fashion of cross-dressing persist and continue to engage us? Why adopt the habits of a different sex if they are no better or no different than another? When it comes to sex, a world without differences is not only a fiction. It is a more intolerant, unhappy—and ultimately a less democratic place.
Susan Pinker is a psychologist, author, and columnist whose recent books are The Sexual Paradox and The Village Effect. She writes about human behavior and lectures widely. Republished with permission from the Institute for Family Studies blog. Read the original, with footnotes, at IFS.