Posts Tagged ‘Psychology and Gender’

Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter One: Gender (pt. ii)

November 19, 2012

Work and Philosophy:  Psychological Interlude

Chapter One:  Gender (pt. ii)

     Today, legal thinking and philosophical ethics are still wrestling with how to deal with gender differences.  On the one side  are the “difference feminists,” like Will Kymlicka and Iris Marion Young, who assert that it is necessary to act to insure equal opportunities and rights, which might mean taking legitimate differences into account.    For example, it is a biological fact that reproduction is more time-consuming for women than it is for men.  In the traditionally male-dominated workplace, it makes perfect sense to everybody making the rules (that is, the men) that pregnancy and maternity leave should be covered by sick-leave and vacation time.  Why should women get time off to make a baby, when I can’t get time off to write a novel?  Aren’t we both being creative?  The fact that this means that women had to choose between parenthood and career while men could reproduce and work without having to sacrifice either just didn’t seem like a problem.  Any woman who wants to be treated like a man can simply give up having children, and the problem is solved—except that reproduction is a fundamental human right and need, as is vocation, and a system that demands one person choose while another doesn’t is unjust.  Kymlicka points out that if women had made the rules, we wouldn’t have such notions as “reproduction is a luxury so pregnancy is either an illness or a vacation.” We probably wouldn’t allow companies to require high-level executives to work eighty hours a week, and we’d probably accommodate children in the workplace.  But where the rules are made by one group which has power, the rules tend to reflect the interests of that group.[1]  Once the rules are in place, there is no need for “arbitrary discrimination;” just treating everyone “the same” will be sufficient to keep women in second-class status.  In some cases, it may be that neither the women nor the men really even see an injustice, since everyone is treated “the same” and no one has asked whether the rules themselves might be skewed.  But when the rules are questioned, it may lead to changes.  Some years ago, Publix Supermarkets had a policy of hiring women as cashiers and men as stockers.[2]  This seems like a chain of common-sense assumptions with little deliberate malice:  women are more personable so make them cashiers, men have the upper body strength so make them stockboys, stockboys get to know what makes the store run, its merchandise, so they are the logical choice for management.  The fact that this meant that women could work for years and see grocery bagboys get promoted to become their bosses again and again just seemed like a natural reality, I suppose.  But the women saw it as un unfair system, and eventually the EOC and Publix settled with Publix paying damages and agreeing to change its management recruitment policies to be more gender-neutral in fact, not just in word.
In sexual harassment law, principles are even more confused.  The standard position, championed by such legal authorities as Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is the “reasonable person” principle:  an act is sexual harassment if a “reasonable person” would consider it to be so.  But who is a “reasonable person”?  In the court case Ellison v. Brady, 924 F. 2d 872 – Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit 1991, the Court applied what has become known as the “reasonable woman” standard:  what would a reasonable womanconsider harassment?  Is the complainant being rational from her own perspective?  I can best illustrate this from a television drama:  A woman, wishing to reconcile with an ex-boyfriend, uses her key to come into his apartment, light candles, and strip naked to wait for him.  It turns into a fiasco when he comes home with another woman.  Later, she and another woman are discussing the incident, and one points out that if a man did such a thing he’d be arrested for sexual assault.  What is for a man perhaps flattering or perhaps embarrassing can be, for a reasonable woman, a mortal threat.

The contrary argument is that people are people, and that, as Richard A Wasserstrom put it, gender should be no more relevant than eye color.[3]  His basic argument is fairly simple and plausible, and is essentially the same one behind the Brown v. Board of Education ruling:  “separate” means “unequal.”  Once you start distinguishing between groups and declaring one to need special treatment, you designate some as inherently less capable than others.  If past attempts at psychological monism have led to a tendency to treat males as more “human” than females, that is not so much a refutation of monism as it is a refutation of an overly narrow and sexist vision of “human nature.”  Similarly, some racists define the ability to visibly blush as an essentially human trait, so that darker-skinned people are not human; it’s insane, but the alternative isn’t to just give up trying to find a definition of “human nature” that transcends race.  Likewise, we should find a conception of human nature that doesn’t set gender-related characteristics in the center, but rather one that recognizes them and marginalizes them appropriately so we can focus on a true and full understanding of what it is to be human.  This is the logic behind much of the current law concerning sexual harassment law.  Jurists such as Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg favor the “reasonable person” standard, whereby gender policy is judged according to what a hypothetical “reasonable person” of any gender would consider acceptable.  To do otherwise, it is argued, would create two legal standards for “person,” and rob the law of its objectivity and universality.

The difference feminists argue that this sort of “assimilationist” model perpetuates sexism rather than preventing it; and they have an ally in Darwinian psychology.  For example, Robert Wright has argued that evolution has shaped female and male brains differently, and given them different needs, desires and capabilities to fit the requirements of survival in the savannahs where humans originated.[4]  This leads males to be less selective sexually, since quantity of mating opportunities is a better strategy for the gender that does not have primary responsibility for nurturing the unborn and newly-born young.  This in turn leads males to have different attitudes towards sexual harassment, suggesting that legal protections should take gender into account; and it raises many issues concerning maternity leave and worker’s rights regarding on-site childcare, for example.  Males have testosterone, the hormone most associated with competitiveness; this suggests that some of the reason men tend to rise to the top of organizations is because men are driven to do so while women are content to stop.  Wright thus argues that the equity feminists have it all wrong; male and female minds are in fact different, and any ideology that ignores this essential human reality will fail.  Wright has more sympathy for the “radical feminists” like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who at least admit the existence of essential psychological differences based on gender.  Equity feminists have resisted Darwinian arguments, fearing that evolutionary theory could be used to justify all manner of oppression of women.  The classic example is the argument that men are inherently unfaithful so women should just accept it, while women are inherently monogamous so one who cheats is not only wicked but unnatural.  Less blatantly self-serving, the argument can be made that since women don’t compete for high-ranking executive jobs, we should just accept that men will run society.  But Wright argues that this is a mistake.  First, it is possible that women’s different psychology can be beneficial to society, and it should be encouraged.  Second, this is a variation of the naturalistic fallacy.  The fact that women don’t tend to promote themselves as vigorously as men says nothing about whether companies should accept that fact, or actively combat it by proactively seeking to recruit women to management positions.  Saying women and men have “different’ brains does not say one should be considered inferior.  It doesn’t really say anything at all about public policy.  What we do with the insights science provides is a matter of value judgment and moral priorities.  Essentially, Wright argues in favor of the “difference” approach:  laws and social policies should recognize the different needs and contributions of the two genders, and seek to provide equal opportunities for individuals to pursue their needs and offer their contributions, even where providing equal opportunities might mean taking gender differences into account.

Scientifically, there is too much evidence that male and female brains/minds differ to deny it.  The argument rather is how much they differ, and whether these differences are significant enough to require legal recognition and accommodation.  And partly because the science itself is unresolved, and partly because it is resisted by some and distorted by others, it is unlikely that we will resolve the legal and moral questions anytime soon.  Certainly, gender and changing gender roles has affected how Americans view work as much or more than any other force.  At this country’s inception, gender roles were largely accepted.  It was even seen as pointless, by men and by many women, to allow women to vote, since their husbands or fathers would handle that for them.  Women ruled the home and men the rest of the world, and both were considered essentially unsuitable for the other’s role.  In law and in the minds of most Americans, it was assumed that there were two human natures.  That began to change with the suffrage movement  in the 19th Century, with women finally gaining the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920.  In the Second World War, women flooded the workplace as men left for war overseas; and in the 1950’s a second wave of feminism was born as women sought to hold onto the rights that labor and economic independence had given them.  Today, the once “common sense” differences between men and women in the workplace are being renegotiated and relitigated  daily.  Do men and women have essentially different natures, and essentially different agendas at work?  Is the “glass ceiling” a result of male oppression or female choice?  How far should the law go to enforce equality?  What is the difference between sexual harassment and natural interaction between males and females?  How far should the law, or employers go to prevent harassment?  Should all dating and sexual interaction between coworkers be banned?  Should employees be allowed to socialize and keep their private lives private?  Can employers be held liable for the results of relationships between coworkers that go bad?  Can females sue employers for not promoting enough females? Can males sue employers if they feel they were passed over just to maintain a balanced number of male and female promotees?  Should women get special treatment, such as extended maternity leave and leave for sick child care while still being eligible for promotion, while men continue to work 60+ hours a week to earn promotion?    Or should men, too, be allowed extended paternity leave at employer expense, exactly the same as the women who actually did give birth and actually may be nursing?

From my perspective, I want to ask:  how does the possibility of psychological pluralism and gender difference affect our understanding of work?  Does it say anything about the essential rights of workers, or essential needs?  Does it say anything about our attitudes towards work?  Are there “male” workers and “female” workers, or are there “workers” who happen to be male and female—-that is, which is most important to deciding workplace justice and the philosophical understanding of work:  gender or economic activity?

[1] Will Kymlicka, “Sexual Equality and Discrimination:  Difference vs. Dominance;” in Morality and Moral Controversies:, pp. 572-75

[2]  Ellen Foreman, “Publix Suit At Head Of Class:  Sex Discrimination Case Is Largest Class Action In U.s. History”, Sun March 17, 1996 (

[3] Richard A. Wasserstrom, “On Racism and Sexism:  Realities and Ideals;” in Morality and Moral Controversies:  pp. 576-81

[4] Robert Wright, “The Evolution of the Female Mind:  Feminists, Meet Mr. Darwin;” originally published in The New Republic, 28, November 1994