(Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

September 24, 2020   6 mins

When I was a kid, my dad would walk away from the table after every meal and leave my mum to clear the dishes. In time, my brothers began to copy him. I thought it was unfair on Mum, but as the only daughter, it left me with a dilemma. Should I assert equal standing with my brothers and leave my dishes for Mum to clear up too? Or should I help her out of solidarity?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I reached adolescence already angry about sexism, and was barely into my teens when I discovered Simone de Beauvoir. In The Second Sex, she argued that men systematically oppress women by characterising them as the Other — that is, as whatever men don’t want to be. “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” she claimed. That is, while male and female humans have different biology, what oppresses women is the way those differences have been exaggerated and turned into a way of denying us our full humanity.

As a teenager, seeing my mum defined as the Other (specifically, “the one whose job it is to do the washing up”), de Beauvoir’s writing spoke to me. I felt as though I and my mum should both have equal standing with my dad and brothers, that we weren’t really that different, but that a noxious set of assumptions and stereotypes had already started shoving me into a different box. And being in that box automatically made me second-best.

Growing older, I tried to make sense of the relationship of those stereotypes to actual people. Because there’s no denying that the stereotypes themselves have a basis in fact. Numerous well-replicated and cross-cultural studies have shown that, as Scientific American put it in a 2019 article:

“On average, males tend to be more dominant, assertive, risk-prone, thrill-seeking, tough-minded, emotionally stable, utilitarian, and open to abstract ideas. […] In contrast, females, on average, tend to be more sociable, sensitive, warm, compassionate, polite, anxious, self-doubting, and more open to aesthetics.”

Research in this area is generally careful to emphasise that these traits are descriptive, not prescriptive. There are lots of competitive, risk-taking, abstract-thinking women, just as there are cooperative, egalitarian and aesthetically-oriented men. But the evidence does suggest that “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” stereotypes are, on average, borne out. Does that mean, though, that de Beauvoir was wrong and this is all just biology? Are women just naturally better at washing dishes and looking after babies?

Team Nature invites us to believe that sex-linked personality differences evolved over the development of the human species for survival reasons. The field of evolutionary psychology itself is complex and full of live debates, but the pop-science version of this perspective is well understood. Men, we’re told, have evolved for fighting, hunting, and competing with one another to attract as many females as possible, so as to spread their genes around. In contrast, women are less aggressive, while the greater physical cost to women of gestation and child-rearing means we’ve evolved to place more emphasis on commitment in relationships.

These differences are the stock-in-trade of art and literature — think of Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, or Byron’s Don Juan. But if Team Nature maintains that Don Juan’s philandering is really an evolved drive to maximise his reproductive fitness, Team Nurture insists that what matters in the dynamic between Lydia and Mr Wickham is the sex-linked disparity in their socio-economic situations and upbringings.

Were Lydia not compelled by the unfair social expectations of her day to spend all her time trying to get married, who knows what she might have achieved? Others on Team Nurture argue that if we could only stop treating male and female children differently — buying them colour-coded toys, rewarding boys’ boisterousness and girls’ compliance and so on — then sexism would just fade away.

From this perspective, arguments for a biological basis to sex differences look suspiciously like patriarchy in a lab-coat. A 2017 Pew survey found men more likely than women to ascribe sex differences to biology than women. Perhaps it’s no surprise: after all, it’s only a few steps from citing papers that suggest women have evolved to be more nurturing than men to suggesting this means women are naturally better-suited to doing all the washing up, a convenient viewpoint if you’re not a woman.

And indeed, in the dating battleground, a variant of the ‘nature’ narrative often serves to excuse ‘hard-wired’ male promiscuity. Tabloids report studies suggesting that smiling evolved as a means of getting laid, while articles about dating are full of concepts borrowed from evolutionary psychology. And the concept of ‘hypergamy’ — the notion that women have evolved to prefer partners with resources and status – has migrated from peer-reviewed journals to the ‘manosphere’, where it’s become a bleak narrative of biologically-determined sexual despair for low-status males.

So the bien-pensant world of egalitarianism is Team Nurture, while incels, tabloids and dating columnists are Team Nature. Of course the reality is a bit of both; it should be clear by now that it’s not really possible to separate ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. And the models themselves are both shaped by, and in turn help to shape our cultures: Incels have built a worldview around the “males compete, women choose” model of human mate selection, but some scientists argue that evolutionary psychology itself exaggerates how far apart men and women are.

There’s also evidence that not only do men and women in egalitarian countries see themselves as more different than in more sexist ones, but when they’re asked to think about it, they exaggerate these differences. A study showed that if you test men and women on how they view themselves unconsciously, sex-linked differences are still greater in egalitarian countries — but the gap between the sexes is smaller. That is, if you ask men and women in egalitarian countries how they see themselves, they’ll overstate stereotypically ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits compared with the way they see themselves unconsciously.

On one level, this is a win for Team Nurture. After all, if sex-based personality differences were all down to our biology, they’d be consistent worldwide. As they vary in strength across cultures, we have to conclude our personalities aren’t wholly (or even mainly) determined by biology.

But if the differences are starker in egalitarian countries, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that over half a century of full-frontal liberal-feminist assault on sex role stereotypes has had less than zero effect. Even as we make ever more concerted efforts to purge sex role stereotypes from our public discourse, people’s identification with these stereotypes has grown more, not less, pronounced. So why, and how, could we have ended up amplifying sex-based differences (biological or cultural) in the course of trying to abolish them?

One study’s authors suggest that developed, egalitarian societies may simply offer men and women more freedom to be themselves. And if there is some biological element to the differences between men and women, then it will form part of the ‘selves’ we’re all now encouraged to ‘be’. Tell the whole population to ‘be yourself’, then, and we’ll all end up leaning into personality differences split ever more sharply along sex-based lines. Paradoxically, then, even frustratingly sexist phenomena such as the pinkification of girlhood arguably owe a debt to the modern emphasis on self-expression.

This poses an intriguing dilemma for feminism: if we could stamp out sexist stereotypes by forcing men and women to act against their inclinations, would that be worth it? I doubt there’s a feminist alive who’d want to make that case explicitly. And yet the well-meaning effort to shift everything into the realm of Nurture ends up doing just that.

Because while sex-based personality differences are real, and probably have some basis in biology, most of them really aren’t that significant in the modern world. Who cares about bodies evolved for fighting and hard labour, in a peaceful and highly industrialised society where manual jobs are now in the minority? No wonder women in the UK now earn as much as or more than men with the same age and qualification.

But when it comes to sex-based differences, there’s not so much an elephant in the room as an elephant in the womb. We may all be mostly roleplaying sex differences to start with, but in one respect the difference between men and women is irreducible. Women under 30 are cleaning up in the career stakes, but when we have kids — now on average around 30.6 years old — that reverses with a vengeance — for reasons that can’t be wholly equalised away by technology. Males can’t gestate, and nor can they breastfeed; it’s no coincidence that only 2% of parents have taken advantage of shared parental leave.

This in turn drives a specialisation in families that’s hard to shift later on even if you want to: as Sally Howard recounts in The Home Stretch, with the most egalitarian will in the world having kids is often the trigger for a divergence of roles in even a previously egalitarian partnership. And families may not even want to equalise roles again: the sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that longitudinal data show only around 20% of women prioritise career over family, with by far the majority preferring a mix. The numbers bear this out: ONS data show that even in families with children up to the age of 12 mothers are more likely to work part-time.

And yet policy efforts to address ‘women’s issues’ usual boil down to throwing more subsidies at getting women into the workplace. It’s as though the obvious inclination many women have to spend at least some time with our kids — even if that’s to the detriment of time spent at work — is a flaw to be remedied. And the benchmark against which we’re found wanting here, even by those supposedly advocating for sex equality, is men.

So it turns out we have it all backwards. In an effort to liberate everyone from oppressive sex role stereotypes, we’ve ended up with a culture of self-expression that exaggerates minor sex-linked differences in personality. In trying to free women from our biology, we’ve ended up encouraging everyone to roleplay cartoon gender roles. Meanwhile, for equally well-meaning reasons, we’re downplaying those sex-based differences in interests, priorities and preferences that are still real and irreducible — especially as they relate to motherhood.

In the process we’ve ended up with a vision of ‘equality’ that measures women on the same yardstick as men, even after we have kids, and tells us we’re letting the side down if we demur. Forget ‘pinkification’. The women’s movement must be franker about the only way women really are irreducibly different to men: motherhood.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.