Gender and agendas

<strong>The Sexual Paradox: Troubled Boys, Gifted Girls and the Real Difference Between the Sexes</s

This is a fascinating and complex book, highly controversial and often infuriating, in which the Canadian developmental psychologist Susan Pinker attempts to draw together all the evidence proving that there are vast gender differences. Pinker's premise can be misread in various ways, but it is not quite as bad as it initially sounds. She argues that men and women have been sold short in recent decades thanks to the feminist movement's assertion that the sexes are basically the same. Her aim, however, is not reactionary. She claims that by respecting gender difference, we can make life fairer and easier for men and women alike, instead of labouring under what she sees as a politically correct pretence.

Pinker uses an uneasy mixture of biology, psychology and sociology to argue her case. Least convincing - despite their multitude - are the biological and neurological explanations, which seem largely to be backed up by sociological data and individual case studies. Men are "programmed", she claims, to "mature later, compete fiercely, and die younger". And, yes, all this can be backed up with myriad statistics. Men drink, smoke and use lethal weapons more than women and they are more at risk from violence and suicide. But how much of this really is innate and unchangeable and how much is cultural and sociological? The question remains unanswered.

The book's most incendiary chapter explores the motivation of women who abandon high-flying positions. Pinker tries to show that such women are more than capable of their jobs and that they feel supported and promoted ("I never felt there was a glass ceiling"). She argues that they leave only because they want different things out of life from their male colleagues, and suggests that they should not be belittled for making this choice. "One of the profound gifts of second-wave feminism," she writes, "was to give women the opportunity and the right to pursue their interests and goals."

True, but surely the choice of a handful of women does not prove the existence of innate gender differences. Won't some people (regardless of gender) always gravitate towards high-income, high-stress jobs, and others recoil from these? Pinker wants to show that the conventional male work model is not necessarily the best, or one that many women are interested in. This is a good point. However, it has nothing to do with biological determinism. It merely backs up the assertion that different people want different things out of life. And it is something of a red herring in a world where many women do attest to discrimination and the existence of a glass ceiling.

She draws on hundreds of studies that have pointed towards gender differences, but many of these examples feel unconvincing, or at least too nuanced to be persuasive. Pinker may dislike what she calls the "vanilla gender assumption" - the idea that there should be no difference between the sexes - and she finds excellent case studies to show that statistically this is simply not the case. Yet the all-important and hugely problematic "why" is never quite answered.

Some of her blanket statements are wildly irritating. In the chapter on language, she asserts that "male brains are simply less versatile when it comes to language, written or spoken" (and cites plenty of erudite studies). But surely such distinctions, even if scientifically proven, are largely meaningless when we all know that there are so many exceptions to these rules, exceptions dependent on education, family, opportunity?

The Sexual Paradox feels very much as if it is written from a specific, North American standpoint. I could not stop myself thinking that many of the attitudes Pinker challenges simply do not exist over here. The book takes as cultural givens that the market is king, that work is the most important thing in life, and that it is somehow "shameful" to empathise with other human beings, or want to spend time with your family and not work a 60-hour week. Pinker is right: these aims should not be embarrassing or "feminine": they should be celebrated and encouraged in all civilised societies.

"Over the past decade there has been a shift in economics from an exclusive focus on measuring money and profit to examining what drives longevity, satisfaction and happiness," she writes. It makes sense, naturally, that no one should measure himself or herself against old-fashioned, stereotypical "male ambition" as a recipe for a great life. Qualities that women have developed, such as empathy and altruism, she argues, are becoming more highly valued. Possibly. But, as Pinker herself also notes, women do not have a monopoly on these virtues. So why flag them up as "female attributes"?

Pinker's conclusion wants to have it all ways: "There is no biological evidence that suggests that women should stay home and raise babies. Nor is there proof that men and women are indistinguishable, and with the same opportunities will value the same things and behave the same way." Still, the reasons behind these differences appear as confusing and inconclusive as ever. This book leaves one distinct impression - possibly unintentional: that life - and human nature - is far too complicated to be looked at exclusively through the prism of gender.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?