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|Written by Kelsa Staffa|
|Tuesday, 06 October 2009 00:00|
Susan Pinker's book, The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap, focuses on the differences between young boys struggling in school and young girls successfully navigating the educational and societal expectations with ease. She followed up with these children or similar ones, once they established themselves in the corporate worlds. Pinker often found that the boys with the learning problems or behavioural problems have turned into high-powered and successful professionals, while the clever girls often chose to leave their top-level professional positions or not enter them at all in favour of something that they feel is closer to their hearts.
I agreed with many of the ideas that Pinker presented while I was reading, but later found them lacking when discussing the book with a friend. I frowned and said, "Yes, but . . ." It was Pinker's examples that got to me. The high-powered lawyer that "hasn't worked at a paying job for years" is mowing her lawn in an affluent neighbourhood during the middle of the workday morning. A content stay-at-home mother of two with the idyllic pushing-of-the-pram. Ugh. There is nothing so difficult to relate to as a young, recently graduated professional than deciding to throw away a career and a socially accepted future in the professional world to pop out babies or seek a spiritual path of personal enlightenment. Pinker mentions that New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin addressed these "opt-out" women in 2003, citing that some said, "I don't want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm," and "I don't want to be famous; I don't want to conquer the world."
As Pinker says, in today's society girls are brought up to believe that they can be anything they want to be. Since the highest salaries and greatest prestige remain with doctors and lawyers, why wouldn't girls choose those routes? Why not prove that while they might not be physically equal to men, they are hardly the inferior sex? Our society recognizes two areas in which you can excel: physically or mentally. Never mind the spiritual, never mind the emotional. There are few (if any) famous social workers. There are few (if any) famous stay-at-home moms. For recognition, you need to dominate in one of the "accepted" ways.
Which is sucky for women. Animals evolve a certain way due to environmental and biological conditions. Men evolved to be strong, fast, and physically powerful so that they could go on long treks to hunt for days for food. Women . . . well, women stayed at home. They cared for each other and cared for the young and wounded. Women had a very different role to play in society until relatively recently. Gracile australopiths appeared 3.9 to 3.0 MILLION YEARS AGO. And you expect less than the last century or so of social conditioning to change the gender disposition of females?
Now don't get me wrong. I absolutely agree that there are exceptions to every single rule. Men as nurses. Women as physicists. But let's think about two cases, which are similar to many of the cases and anecdotes that Pinker presents in her book:
Danny is in what used to be considered "women's work." He spends the day tending to the needs of others with compassion and empathy. He listens to stories, genuinely cares about his patients, and bonds with the residents of the nursing home where he works. While Danny might earn the derision (not always intentional or even realized) of his male peers, his female peers often appreciate his sensitive side and attention to emotions and less tangible life qualities
Janice is in what used to be considered "men's work." Like Danny, she is fighting against a stigma, whether conscious or unconscious, about her line of work. Unlike Danny, she has very few people on her side. Janice has the scorn of her male colleagues because she is rising above her place and the resentment of her female peers because she is acting like the Big Bad (Male) Boss.
No wonder it's more tiring for women in positions of power. As Pinker notes, more women are leaving high positions to focus on other aspects of life. Quality of life cannot be entirely quantified and, as such, has far less social standing than it should (at least for the lawyer who refuses her offer of partnership and the mom who gives up her career for her children). 3.9 million years versus the last few centuries . . . sheesh. My hat goes off to all the women who are thriving in the stressful and demanding atmospheres of the top echelons.
The book is likewise difficult to quantify. It's true, and Pinker's evidence is compelling, that boys who struggle early in life often turn out to be extremely gifted in ways that school systems do not measure, or purposely fight even harder in life to be the best of the best in order to prove everyone wrong. And I can believe that, since even my current entry-level job brings me undue amounts of stress and the constant burning desire to succeed that women might choose a career change when they just don't want to deal with the pressure anymore. But I have the uncomfortable feeling that I agree with Joan Walsh of Salon when she wrote that "Belkin's piece is a real-time snapshot of a small cohort of privileged 30-something white women." Does everyone really have the option to leave their jobs behind?
My overall feeling about the book is this: certainly, the evidence provided makes complete sense, and I'm sincere when I say that the book itself is dead fascinating. But my original reaction to the book was an instant eyebrow raise at comparing struggling boys and successful girls in school. Pinker's approach is similar to making assumptions about apples based on only Macintosh apples and oranges based on only mandarin oranges, and then comparing the two. Looking at one subsection of each gender is not enough to start making broader generalizations about each gender. What about the successful boys in school? The struggling girls in school? Why did Pinker ignore these?
The book was interesting, and I recommend it for remarkable personal stories of success and overcoming obstacles -- not to mention bringing to light career alternatives often available nowadays. I do, however, urge readers not to make gender assumptions based on the often anecdotal evidence provided.