A Brief History of How We Fail Women

Women were raised with the idea that we have a choice – a choice to be single or not, to have kids or not, to delay marriage, to pursue a career or not, to have it all, to live our lives the way we want to… or not. Female empowerment by way of the pill, Sex in the City, and a steady backlash towards Marie Claire all created a compelling feminist march.

And choice sounded good until hitting the reality of biology.

Feminist back-tracking all the way to mainstream 60 Minutes and others inundated female consciousness with some alarming counsel:  career women risk infertility, miscarriage and general unhappiness. So don’t wait; there is a deadline for “having it all.”

It was a lose-lose situation. Choose a career and risk having a family, or choose a family and risk having a career. The biological clock guaranteed you couldn’t have both. Many women tried – and failed – to sneak marriage in at just the right moment to have a career without kids for a few years, but not too late that the fertility window closed. It turned out only women of privilege could pull that off, and only through the latest scientific advancements.

Despite reality, choice brought about certain expectations. Women were expected to fill the same categories as men. If men shot guns and went to war, women should not only be able to do the same, but with the same performance. Women could hold public office or play sports or fix houses just as well as men.

None of that happened in large numbers however. After 30 years, women today aren’t represented in positions where men have traditionally held power, and still can’t close the salary gap. Faced with such disheartening realities, scientists, journalists, and feminists decided the reason wasn’t because discrimination and difference are still rampant (apparently, society is too evolved for such a notion), but rather that men and women are different.

The differences extend far beyond having a penis or a vagina, and supposedly prove that women simply aren’t interested or wired to thrive in traditionally male-dominated areas like say, math.

Brain scans show that women aren’t good at math so women will never be engineers, technologists, or scientists. Women are too empathetic to be CEOs. Women aren’t competitive enough to be in start-ups. Career blogger Penelope Trunk exemplifies the prevailing attitude in a recent post: “It’s outdated to think there are no differences between men and women. And once we accept there are differences, we need to study them instead of downplay them.”

Trunk goes on to make the argument (with brain scan images and all) that “we can say, with a decent amount of certainty, that the average girl is as good at math as the average boy,” because of decades of data.

Author Cordelia Fine argues in her methodical and myth-busting book Delusions of Gender, that “[those] who argue that there are hardwired differences between the sexes that account for the gender status quo often like to position themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness,” but these claims made by so-called experts are “simply coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.”

And that veneer is easily cracked. The things that hold women back aren’t biologically wired, but socially and culturally ingrained. Fine methodically turns popular science on its head to punch a giant hole in neurosexism.

“Although it’s not yet clear what it is, exactly, about neuroscience that is so persuasive, it’s been found that people find scientific arguments more compelling when accompanied by an image showing brain activation rather than, say, a bar graph showing the same information,” reports Fine.

It turns out white versus gray matter in the brain is a relatively useless determination of what creates gender difference. The real cause is something that’s much easier to understand, but harder to accept – we create it, every day.

Gender is socially constructed to the point that simply asking a person to mark whether they are male or female, or having a person write their name, will prime their behavior and actions, and affect how they achieve on tests and in life.

Most data will show men test better than women in math. But when women are tested on their math ability and told that “despite testing on thousands of students, no gender difference has ever been found,” they “outperform every other group – including both groups of men. In other words, the standard presentation of a test seemed to suppress women’s ability, but when the same test was presented to women as equally hard for men and women, it ‘unleashed their mathematics potential,’” reports Fine.

Trunk isn’t alone in propagating neuro-falsehoods, however. We’re now told that to walk into a classroom or workplace without knowledge of how the brain works (and how certain abilities are biologically pre-determined) is actually detrimental in terms of treating both genders equally.

Well-loved VC Fred Wilson recently posted an interview with his wife Joanne Wilson in which she argued gender difference starts “from the time you come out of the womb. Boys gravitate towards blocks. Girls gravitate to the dolls. That’s a generalization but in general, its true. I look at my own kids – my son, gamer extraordinaire. My daughters used to play those games but then they lost interest.”

Wilson is wrong on both accounts – as a result of gender priming and salience, gender difference starts far before a child exits the womb.

“Women who knew the sex of their unborn baby described the movements of sons and daughters differently,” reports Fine. “All were ‘active,’ but male activity was more likely to be described as ‘vigorous’ and ‘strong.’ Female activity, by contrast, was described in gentler terms: ‘Not violent, not excessively energetic, not terribly active were used for females.’”

And the gravitation for young girls and boys towards certain types of toys is not because of a biologically ingrained or wired reason, but because children start learning the gender ropes early on. Fine reports: “As they approach their second birthday, children are already starting to pick up the rudiments of gender stereotyping.”

It is no mistake that having not achieved equality by choice, or through the impossible success of “having it all,” that women are now being told that they are just born that way (as women) with all the rules and limitations the gender entails.  It is no mistake these supposed biologically ingrained differences are too large to surmount. It is no mistake that while consciously reported beliefs are modern, progressive and indicative of an enlightened and evolved society that unconscious actions and behaviors are remarkably reactionary and indicative of the large discrimination, difference and inequality that still exist.

It is no mistake gender is one of the most salient social constructions. And it is no mistake the construct consistently fails women.