I have recently noticed an article that several people have been tagging on del.icio.us under the general tag "gender." The article is Dr. Roy Baumeister's recent address to the APA, interestingly titled: Is There Anything Good About Men? I'm surprised that I haven't seen this appear on digg, but I did notice that the NYT blog has picked it up here.
Essentially, Baumeister explores how cultural systems shape action with respect to gender. I found his thesis fascinating and enjoyed reading the whole article.
What I found particularly interesting about his argument is that he rejects contemporary theories of gender (overwhelmingly shaped by feminist ideology) in favor of a complementary view of gender:
Hence this is not about the “battle of the sexes,” and in fact I think one unfortunate legacy of feminism has been the idea that men and women are basically enemies. I shall suggest, instead, that most often men and women have been partners, supporting each other rather than exploiting or manipulating each other.
Let’s return to the three main theories we’ve had about gender: Men are better, no difference, and women are better. What’s missing from that list? Different but equal. Let me propose that as a rival theory that deserves to be considered. I think it’s actually the most plausible one. Natural selection will preserve innate differences between men and women as long as the different traits are beneficial in different circumstances or for different tasks.
Ultimately, Baumeister argues that gender inequality cannot be adequately explained by feminist theories of patriarchy (which he rejects as conspiracy theories). Instead, he suggests that the proliferation of gender inequality can be explained by the way in which men's larger, more shallow social networks have progressed culturally while women have concentrated on close relationships that have enabled the species to survive.
I have re-posted his conclusion below and would commend the whole article to you.
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To summarize my main points: A few lucky men are at the top of society and enjoy the culture’s best rewards. Others, less fortunate, have their lives chewed up by it. Culture uses both men and women, but most cultures use them in somewhat different ways. Most cultures see individual men as more expendable than individual women, and this difference is probably based on nature, in whose reproductive competition some men are the big losers and other men are the biggest winners. Hence it uses men for the many risky jobs it has.
Men go to extremes more than women, and this fits in well with culture using them to try out lots of different things, rewarding the winners and crushing the losers.
Culture is not about men against women. By and large, cultural progress emerged from groups of men working with and against other men. While women concentrated on the close relationships that enabled the species to survive, men created the bigger networks of shallow relationships, less necessary for survival but eventually enabling culture to flourish. The gradual creation of wealth, knowledge, and power in the men’s sphere was the source of gender inequality. Men created the big social structures that comprise society, and men still are mainly responsible for this, even though we now see that women can perform perfectly well in these large systems.
What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and enemies in cultural competitions, which is probably why they aren’t as lovable as women.
The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring.
The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.
Again, I’m not saying it’s right, or fair, or proper. But it has worked. The cultures that have succeeded have used this formula, and that is one reason that they have succeeded instead of their rivals.