Prospect debate: Sex at work

Kingsley Browne v Rosalind Arden
This exchange originally appeared in Prospect, October 1998

Does evolution explain why there are so few female chief executives and why women earn less than men? Or is this an abuse of science?

24 August 1998

Dear Rosalind,

Many feminists (and others) argue that discrimination and sexist conditioning are responsible for the scarcity of top female executives and for women's lower average pay. In the past, these may have been adequate explanations. But the persistence of large disparities between the sexes at a time when discrimination is socially unacceptable and legally actionable, and when many employers go to great lengths to attract and promote women, makes such explanations suspect.

One alternative explanation for the persistence of these differences is biological: women are inherently less likely than men to possess the traits which contribute to workplace success. This explanation runs counter to the teachings of standard social science, according to which the human mind is programmed by society to create sex differences in temperament and behaviour that go beyond 'real' differences in reproductive function and physical strength. Because the two sexes are largely interchangeable, any differences in outcomes must be caused either by different treatment or different programming.

The findings of modern biology and psychology render these assumptions untenable. Many traits which were once thought to be the products of upbringing are now known to have a genetic component. Indeed, sex hormones - acting first on the foetal brain - are important contributors to average sex differences in temperament, and to some cognitive abilities. These psychological differences have significant consequences in the workplace.

Evolution has left a different imprint on the temperament of the two sexes. Men, unburdened by pregnancy and lactation, have competed among themselves for access to females, because they can increase their reproductive success by increasing their number of sexual partners in a way that women cannot. Historically, the currency of male reproductive success is status and resources - the criteria by which women choose mates. High-status males were able to obtain more mates, thereby leaving behind more of their genes than did their low-status counterparts. For much of history male status came from skill at hunting and warfare, and from the capacity to dominate and lead others by force of arms, personality or intellect. It is no surprise, therefore, that men are more disposed to engage in the risky, competitive and aggressive behaviour often necessary to reach the top of hierarchies.

Women, on the other hand, have not traditionally enhanced their reproductive success through matings with multiple partners or by achieving extra-domestic status. Rather, they were more likely to enhance their reproductive success by providing direct care for their children. The historically close tie between female reproductive success and maternal care has created stronger bonds between mother and infant than typically exist between father and infant; it has left most women averse to risks which might deprive the infant of its main carer.

Sex differences are also useful in understanding women's lower average pay. Women tend to work fewer hours, occupy less risky jobs and be less likely to rate pay as one of the most important job attributes. When women marry, and again when they have children, they reduce their investment in the workplace. Men often respond to marriage and parenthood in the opposite way.

Current workplace arrangements are a predictable result of behavioural sex differences in a free labour market. Men make more sacrifices to achieve status; higher investment leads to higher returns. It is not surprising to find mammalian mothers loath to separate from their helpless young or at least to be separated from them as much as single-minded commitment to a career requires. When left to their own devices, men and women - on average - make different choices.

This is not to say that there is no discrimination against women. My point is that even in the absence of discrimination we would expect differences in the workplace. The mere fact of disparity is not evidence of discrimination. Of course the fact that workplace differences can be explained in evolutionary terms does not mean that they are good or immune to modification. However, an intelligent decision about what, if anything, to do about them requires a proper understanding of their origins.


Kingsley Browne

26 August 1998

Dear Kingsley,

You describe neatly the key points of the Darwinian framework with which I find no fault. The recognition that human minds as well as bodies have been shaped by natural and sexual selection is a genuine epiphany which deserves celebration. As a parent of children of both sexes, I observed striking sex differences in behaviour well before my first cappuccino at the Darwin Café. My young son would convert any graspable object into an imaginary vehicle, while my daughter spurned many offers of toy cars and trains.

The tabula rasa model of the human mind is certainly not one I would advance. You are right that men are more likely to be more competitive, risk-taking and aggressive. But your argument lacks sensitivity. For a start, I am averse to the wholesale mapping of evolved sex differences on to the workplace. I am particularly appalled by your complacency with regard to differential earnings between men and women (especially where the jobs themselves are equal). Darwinian arguments are very persuasive in showing the origins and function of human universals. But difference between men and women in the workplace is not a good example of a species universal. Opportunities for women vary from country to country and over time: more jobs have opened up for women in recent decades and, in Europe alone, different countries have widely varying proportions of men and women in positions of power. The simplest explanation seems to me that some countries have adopted social changes which facilitate more equal power-sharing between the sexes.

Sex differences are over-reported and give a misleading view of men and women. Women are said to be more able verbally and men more able spatially, yet the overlap is overwhelming. Sex only accounts for 1 per cent of the variance in individual verbal ability, and men are only a little ahead in the domain of visual-spatial ability (which shows the largest magnitude of sex difference). Knowing the sex of a potential employee will tell you little about their ability. This is also true for what psychometricians call g - the 'active ingredient' in general intelligence. The most recent comprehensive analysis of the data mountain on psychometric sex differences clearly shows that men and women do not differ on g.

Apart from intelligence, other important factors in choosing employees include personality, health and availability. In jobs which require team players, co-operative skills carry a premium. Leadership skills are valuable, too, but let us not conflate competition and leadership - competition can be about self-promotion, whereas good leaders draw out the best aspects of others in the team. Stability, conscientiousness and a sense of humour are also important attributes. It would be surprising if these characteristics were not heritable to some degree, but nobody has discovered sex differences in such traits.

Leaving health aside, what about availability? It is striking that the countries which have a greater proportion of female politicians are the countries where childcare is a real option. Lest we talk past one another, yes, I do agree that on the whole, mothers and fathers have different relationships with their children. This is not to say that babies provide women with all the validation they need. Mothers need the daily stimulation afforded by employment as much as fathers do. And many fathers claim that they would welcome more flexibility in employment so that they do not have to devote all their children's early years scrambling up the slippery pole of work hierarchies.

The modern world is far removed from our ancestral psychological nursery; it is poor science to pretend that stockbroking is like hunting and that staying at home with a small screamer is what women have evolved to cope with. Although we concur about the failure of standard social science, I am not sure what a Darwinian perspective adds to our understanding of workplace differences. Men may well have some motivational differences from women. But the differences are rarely about ability, and status counts for women, too: schoolgirls are as quick to assemble a pertinent pecking order as schoolboys. You say that women are less likely than men to possess traits that contribute to workplace success, I say that we have configured modern society in such a way that we fail to exploit the best in men and women.

Kind regards,

Rosalind Arden

27 August 1998

Dear Rosalind,

It is gratifying that we agree on much of the core of my argument. We agree that men are likely to be more competitive, risk-taking and aggressive and we agree, I think, that these traits are related to corporate achievement. While it is true that workplace sex differences are not identical worldwide, the universal is that men everywhere (on average) are psychologically disposed to seek high-status positions. There is no society in which women have as much extra-domestic power as men, hence the universal 'patriarchy' about which feminists complain. (Incidentally, schoolboys choose games specifically designed to produce winners and losers more often than schoolgirls.)

You chide me for down-playing the similarities between the sexes, but you understate difference by saying that men are only 'slightly ahead' in visual-spatial ability. On most such measures, the male mean is 0.3 to 0.5 standard deviations above that of females, a disparity which by itself ensures a substantial disproportion of males at the highest levels. Although the male mean for mathematical ability is only 0.10 to 0.25 standard deviations above the female mean, men outnumber women by roughly two to one among those scoring in the top 10 per cent. The more rarified the group, the more disproportionately male, which is why, without a very large thumb on the scale, women will never make up 50 per cent of engineers or fighter pilots.

It does not follow, as you imply, that because the top jobs are predominantly male that the low-status ones are predominantly female. In the US, approximately 40 per cent of management positions are held by women. In fact, 'female' jobs are rated, on average, as slightly higher in status than 'male' jobs. Again, the male variance in status is greater, meaning that both the highest and lowest-status positions are disproportionately male. No one seems to care, however, that those at the bottom are mostly men.

A more serious charge is my 'complacency with regard to differential earnings (especially where the jobs themselves are equal).' The latter point, by the way, is a red herring. In the US, only a small portion of the 'gender gap' is a result of differential earnings for the same job. Most of the gap is a consequence of the sexes choosing different jobs. And about that, yes, I am complacent: I fail to see why, if sex differences in occupational outcomes are a consequence of choices made by individual men and women, we must do something about them.

You say that mothers need the stimulation of employment as much as fathers do. The empirical data doesn't support that assertion. Large numbers of women voluntarily absent themselves for many years from the workplace - not just women who are forced to stay at home for lack of childcare, but highly educated women who voluntarily quit highly paid jobs to be with their children. Also, for many more women than men, part-time work is the preferred arrangement.

The fact that many fathers would like more time with their children does not tell the whole story. Opinion surveys show that working fathers are less dissatisfied with long hours than working mothers. Moreover, although many fathers might welcome more flexibility, they are not willing to take the cut in status and pay that would be required to obtain it. What they really mean is that they would like greater flexibility in addition to their high wages and status. Who wouldn't? Women, it seems, are not the only ones who would like to 'have it all,' but the fact is that no one can.

Women have never had things so good. Neither, of course, have men. Women did not clamour to do men's work until men's work became considerably safer and more pleasant. Women's successful push for workplace equality came after machines had made the job of keeping house easier and after the working conditions of the ugliest part of the industrial revolution had dramatically improved. Many feminists seem to think that because women's lives have been difficult, men's lives must have been easy, never stopping to think that a hard life has always been most people's lot.



28 August 1998

Dear Kingsley,

Risking the charge of churlishness, I protest that it is not the core of your argument with which I agree; rather, it is the Darwinian framework for thinking about human nature. The core of your argument seems to be that selection pressures explain differences in success and status between men and women; I think they only make a modest contribution.

I agree that there are specific instances when biological differences between men and women will show up. Women might well be a rarity in professional basketball, premier league physics and Field Medal league mathematics. There are good evolutionary explanations why more males suffer from mild mental retardation and why more males exist at the extreme ability level. But there are women in both of these groups, too. And something must account for the fact that there are more women doing jobs deemed to be the exclusive domain of men a few decades ago.

If we are trying to explain workplace differences, it seems foolish to pick on the extremes of any distribution. Let us talk about the 90 per cent of us who fall within striking distance of the population average in mental abilities. Top jobs in industry are not all held by people with excruciatingly high abilities. They are mainly bright, energetic and motivated - but not unusual. Higher male variance in mental abilities is irrelevant in business.

You say that occupational outcomes reflect individual choices which are biologically motivated. This is dangerously simplistic. As a white British woman, my choices are hugely wider than they would have been had I been born in a developing country. The political and economic framework of a country is a crucial determinant of the choices enjoyed by its people. And the nuance of a culture also influences how women live. Old boy networks, simple prejudice, companies' attitudes to parental leave - all these affect our capacity to choose.

The fact that women have children is clearly salient in any description of workplace inequalities. As a sometimes working mother, I often ache under the onus of having to choose between work and mothering. You say that educated women quit work to be with their children as if this derails my claim that women need stimulation as much as men. But mothers make their choices within a specific context. This context includes class, peer group pressures and variables such as what experts say about the costs and benefits of childcare. I have friends with small children who stay at home full-time, work part-time or work full-time. They represent a range of personalities and socio-economic groups. The feature they all share is their need for adult company. I am not saying that the entire edifice of modern commerce should be torn down to accommodate creches and flexitime, but I am saying that failure to respond to the needs of mothers contributes to workplace differences.

Come now: women did not wait for men to make the workplace safe before getting in on the act. The important recent influences on women's employment in Britain were the two world wars. While sadly liberating millions of young men from their mortal coils, the wars had the effect of liberating women from employment as domestics. I agree with you that there are a few jobs which seem unlikely to be filled by as many women as men - jobs which require immense physical strength, great height or extreme mathematical ability - but Darwinian thinking should not be coupled with unsightly political naïveté. In recent decades Britain and the US have made great strides towards greater equality in the workplace. Let's not pull up stumps and just say 'We've done enough, the rest is down to biology.' This is neither sense nor science.

Best wishes,


31 August 1998

Dear Rosalind,

We agree that the sexes have different psychologies but you believe this difference is irrelevant to the workplace, as if people's minds have nothing to do with how they make a living. You concede that men are more competitive, risktaking and aggressive and then deny that this explains why more men are found in fiercely sought-after executive positions.

You label my view that women's choices are influenced by biology 'dangerously simplistic,' yet you 'ache under the onus of having to choose between work and mothering' and write of the 'painful' experience of mothers in high-powered jobs who must reduce their time with their children. Where do you suppose this psychic pain comes from? It is a product of our evolutionary heritage that has left mammalian mothers reluctant to be separated from their helpless young. Men's self-esteem is more closely related to workplace success than women's, which is more tied to success in social (especially family) relationships. Thus, the psychic rewards of working are often different for men and women. To minimise pain and maximise pleasure, many more women than men choose (yes, choose) to fit work lives to families.

In the US, well over 90 per cent of workplace deaths are male, and men work in jobs with the most unpleasant working conditions. Why is that? Because the same risk-taking and resource-acquiring propensities that lead some men to take risks to become top executives cause other men to risk their lives in dangerous and unpleasant jobs to make more money to support their families.

A biological explanation for differences in outcomes is not an endorsement of their morality. One can accept my account and still argue that society should guarantee equal numbers of men and women in the cockpits of jets and at the helm of big corporations. The argument for equality of outcomes, however, should not be given the presumption of moral correctness. Rather, those seeking to invoke the coercive power of the state to equalise outcomes must be prepared to show that the benefits of their policies justify what are likely to be very high personal and social costs.

Best regards,


3 September 1998

Dear Kingsley,

Well, I have wadded up a few replies and thrown them in the bin. Let's not wrangle over whose views are more biological or Darwinian. Let me make just three points. First, equality of outcomes is a red herring. Equality of access typifies a healthy society. Quotas of women in cess pits and cockpits? Quelle horreur. I am not after state regulation; opportunity is the thing. Will women come to dominate world class physics? I doubt it. Yet if there is one woman who can make a contribution, let her. Welcome her. Do many men want to take care of their home and child? Only a few, but let's make it easier for those who do. Obstacles inhibiting women do still exist, such as inadequate childcare provision and men's failure to go halves on housework.

Second, let's not undervalue (typical) female strengths. Instead of accepting that aggression, competition and risk-taking lead to high status and that tolerance, consensus and co-operation lead to low status, why not recognise that these latter skills are highly valuable at corporate and government level? Consider Mo Mowlam's success in Northern Ireland. Would an aggressive risk-taker have been a better option?

Third, don't ignore the overlap. Although men and women are typically different, the overlaps are significant and we must be careful to treat people as individuals, not as representatives of groups. Some women are aggressive and some men are gentle persuaders.

We are not engaged in a zero-sum game between the sexes in which either men or women win the game of life. If evolutionary psychology has a role, it is to make us more aware of our own nature, not to proscribe possibilities. The good ship Daughter of Beagle needs alert look-outs if she is to avoid trashing her valuable neo-Darwinian cargo on the treacherous rocks of social conservatism. May she sail in uninteresting times.

Best wishes,