Segregation of the sexes is here to stay

Kingsley Browne

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times, 10 October 1998.

Isn't it strange that corporate executives who have been successful in so many endeavours have had so little success moving women into the executive suite? Although women's low representation is often attributed to discrimination and social conditioning, a more fundamental explanation is to be found in biology.

By many measures women have made astonishing progress in the workplace in the past 40 years. While women constituted only a third of the American workforce in 1960, today they account for 46 per cent of it.

The proportion of married women who work doubled in that period to 61 per cent and the sexual composition of the professions has altered dramatically. In 1970, only 4 per cent of lawyers were women. Today, the figure for new lawyers exceeds 42 per cent.

The proportion of female physicians increased from 10 per cent to 24 per cent between 1970 and 1995. In business, the change has been no less impressive. In 1972, women held only 18 per cent of managerial and administrative positions, compared with 43 per cent of such positions in 1995. In 1995, women constituted 59 per cent of America's personnel and labour relations managers, and 38 per cent of marketing, advertising and public relations managers.

Despite these striking advances, women are far from achieving parity in a number of areas. Many occupations remain highly sex-segregated. Among those in the US that remain 90 per cent or more female are bank teller (90 per cent), receptionist (97 per cent), registered nurse (93 per cent), and pre-school and kindergarten teacher (98 per cent). Among those occupations with fewer than 10 per cent of females are engineer (8 per cent), firefighter (3 per cent), mechanic (4 per cent) and pest exterminator (5 per cent).

Only 5 to 7 per cent of senior executives in large corporations are women, a phenomenon commonly attributed to what is known as the 'glass ceiling'. Although these figures are from the US, similar trends exist in other western countries.

Why have women been fully assimilated in some areas of the workplace but not others? Many assume that discrimination and social conditioning are responsible. In 1995, the US Glass Ceiling Commission announced with great fanfare that its $3m (£1.7m) inquiry had identified 'white male' attitudes and discrimination as causes of the discrepancies. However, it provided little evidence beyond the statistical disparities themselves in support of its predictable conclusion.

The conclusion was predictable, not only because the commission blamed the one group barely represented (only one of the 21 members was a white male), but more fundamentally because the finding followed logically from the pervasive dogma of standard social science, which holds that, apart from obvious physical reproductive differences, the sexes are largely interchangeable.

Observed sex differences in behaviour and personality are attributed to discrimination and arbitrary societal expectations. But what constellation of factors would cause women to be welcomed in many managerial and professional positions yet excluded from positions as top executives, engineers, pest exterminators, car mechanics and firefighters?

Modern biology and psychology may have at least a partial explanation for the apparent pattern of results. An ever increasing body of evidence indicates that the standard social-science assumption is simply wrong. Rather than sharing a single psychology, the two sexes possess minds that typically differ in important respects. This conclusion will come as no surprise to the man and woman on the street, who have always believed the sexes are different.

To many academics, however, it is rank heresy. One might invert George Orwell's dictum that there are some ideas so preposterous that only an intellectual could believe them and observe that there are some ideas so obvious that only an intellectual could deny them.

Even though they have distinctively human characteristics, humans are nonetheless animals, shaped by the same forces of Darwinian natural selection responsible for the earth's diversity of life. Natural selection operates not only on bodies but also on minds, and it has acted differently on the minds of males and females. We are not surprised that cows and bulls or stallions and mares exhibit different temperaments, so why should we think it odd that men and women do?

Evolutionary history has left different temperamental imprints on the two sexes, as it has in cattle and horses.

Because the minimum investment a man must make in his offspring is a single sexual encounter, while a woman is in it for the long haul of pregnancy and nursing, the sexes are in an asymmetrical position. A man with 20 wives will have many children, whereas a woman with 20 husbands would have no more children than a woman with one husband (and, given male sexual jealousy, she would probably end up with none). Men run a far greater risk of losing out entirely, however, because other men monopolise potential mates. Thus, the stakes of the mating game are higher in important respects for men than for women.

What traits distinguish reproductively successful and unsuccessful males? The consistent answer worldwide has been high status. Although the characteristics of male status vary by culture, for much of our evolutionary history, status has depended on skill as a hunter and warrior and on the capacity to influence others by force or wit. Because the quest for status entails competition with other men, men are predisposed to engage in the competitive, risky and aggressive behaviour that may be required to attain it.

Women, on the other hand, would generally gain no reproductive advantage through open competition for status or from exposing themselves to substantial risk. Instead, they have enhanced their reproductive success by providing direct care for their offspring, which probably explains why the bond between mother and infant is normally stronger than that between father and infant.

From an early age, males engage in more competitive and risky activities. Indeed, adding a competitive element to a task increases the motivation of males, but it decreases that of females. The tendency of males to engage in physically risky activity is well known, but extends beyond physical risk. Males simply derive a pleasure from taking risks that females are less likely to experience.

Risk orientation also seems to be related to achievement motivation, another trait for which sex differences exist. Because many achievement opportunities present the potential for loss, someone who hates losing more than he loves winning will be risk-averse and hesitant to act. Thus, an aversion to failure may lead women to avoid competitive situations.

To avoid a misunderstanding of my point, I should emphasise that these are just average differences. Many individuals do not match the generalisations, just as many individuals do not satisfy the generalisation that men are taller than women. But average differences between groups are highly relevant to group differences in outcomes. Participants in an activity that puts a premium on height, for example, would tend to be predominantly male even if selection is sex-blind.

The traits for which sex differences exist are important to the outcome in the the workplace. Successful top executives, whether male or female, tend to have dominant and competitive personalities.

Not surprisingly, many successful women were 'tomboys' as children. Successful executives are also risk-takers. Female managers are more inclined to shun risk, tending to concentrate in lower career risk' positions, such as jobs in the public or non-profit sectors.

In corporations, they tend to occupy staff positions - such as human resources or governmental relations - rather than line positions. Line positions are riskier because success and failure are often obvious and the positions are more directly related to corporate profits. Such positions are also typically prerequisites to further advancement.

Although single men and women exhibit different labour market behaviour, marriage and parenthood substantially amplify the difference. Men increase their hours and promotion-seeking behaviour while women decrease theirs, consistent with a male psychology inclined towards seeking status and resources and a female psychology inclined towards caring for offspring.

These differences explain why sex differences for a given age cohort increase over time, as more and more women either drop out of the workforce altogether or scale back their commitment in order to spend time with their children.

It is sometimes said that 'today's woman' is more career-oriented than in the past, implying that sex disparities will disappear over time. That same observation was, of course, made in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as well. The central issue lies not in how career-oriented these women are early in their careers, however, but whether this career orientation persists throughout the childbearing years.

If the large number of highly successful 'baby boomer' women who left the workforce to care for their children is any indication, the average career trajectory of 'Generation X' women (the generation now in its 20s and entering the workplace) is likely to begin to diverge from that of men at least by around the age of 30.

Although many acknowledge that the relationship between mother and child is a primary contributor to workforce disparities, they blame corporations and government for failing to implement such policies as subsidised day care. The notion that expanded day care would eliminate the glass ceiling is misguided, however. Potential female chief executive officers who leave the workforce to be with their children do not do so because they cannot afford childcare but, rather, because they feel a strong need to be with their children, a singularly unsurprising urge for a mammalian mother.

As long as the motivating force for these women is to be with their children, large numbers are going to continue to leave the workforce no matter how attractive the workplace is made.

Businesses (and consumers) pay for the failure of government regulators to appreciate the reality of sex differences. The retailer Sears, Roebuck, for example, was sued by the US government for sex discrimination in hiring commission salespeople.

The government relied on statistical under-representation of women but could point to no woman who was unfairly denied a job. Sears presented evidence that these jobs entailed fmancial risk and 'cut-throat competition' and that its attempts to hire more women had had only limited success because women tended not to want these positions.

Although Sears ultimately prevailed, its victory came at the cost of 15 years of litigation, a trial involving 20,000 pages of transcripts, 49 witnesses and 2,172 exhibits, not to mention tens of millions of dollars in legal fees. Sears was subjected to this immense burden only because the government found implausible the common-sense proposition that women are, on average, less oriented towards competition and risk-taking.

Many believe that women have failed to achieve parity with men because of a glass ceiling, an impermeable but invisible barrier that is a product of subtle discrimination and discouragement. It is, of course, difficult to disprove the existence of something that cannot be seen, an advantage that proponents of the glass ceiling theory and the archaic theory of combustion have shared.

However, evolutionary biology teaches that significant sex differences in workplace outcomes are predictable consequences of temperamental sex differences.

Since human nature is not going to change soon, a policy goal of full parity between men and women is unrealistic. Such parity could be achieved, if at all, only through huge governmental coercion and at great cost in lost wealth and human freedom.