In my previous essay, Inconvenient Truths on Gender Inequality I argued that the discrimination narrative does not make sense of the facts. I offered, what I hope, is a more compelling and even empowering narrative – the choices women make which are influenced and shaped by sex differences in specific cognitive traits, differences in vocational interests, differences in life style preferences and values. All of these combine in complex ways to produce the disparities in STEM that we see. However, as much as I would like to think that the reason the discrimination narrative is widely accepted is because people are misinformed on certain key facts and truths; I know that there is more to the story than just missing information when it comes to social disagreements. The differences in specific cases are often the result of differences in our fundamental paradigms. There are two core tenets that I have identified as responsible for disagreements in gender inequality in general. Firstly, the idea that the differences observed between men and women; are always the result of a patriarchal socialization process that seeks to maximize the dominance of men at the expense of women; in other words, gender is a social construct. Acceptance of this belief leads then to a number of further implications. One always equates claims about observed differences between the sexes as claims of sexism. Claims about differences originating in our biology are dismissed a priori. This leads to a more progressive view of equality whereby equality includes not only equal opportunities but equal outcomes. Which is precisely why disparities and inequalities in STEM, management and leadership positions are presented as evidence of ongoing institutional sexism. Unequal outcomes is assumed to be the result then of unequal opportunities. The core belief however, is mistaken, gender is not a social construct but a central feature of humans grounded in our nature. The gender construct theory fails to survive close scrutiny when presented with empirical evidence in the form of the gender equality paradox; it is ultimately incoherent denying categories which it presupposes in its criticism.
Gender as a social construct
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman…: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature…which is described as feminine” –
Simone de Beauvoir
The idea that gender is a social construct is a pervasive and widely accepted dogma that lies at the root of many discussions on gender today. Feminist theory, or more precisely second wave feminism beginning with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, takes as a central tenet the idea that gender is a social construct. But what exactly does it mean to say that gender is a social construct? Judith Lorber in her essay, The Social Construction of Gender, puts it this way:
“Gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes. Most people find it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of social life…”
Lorber seems to be making two important claims. Firstly, gender is something entirely distinct from our genes, in other words it has nothing to do with biology or sexual differences. Feminism claims then that society is deeply mistaken in thinking that somehow gender emerges from sex. Sex refers to our physiology and gender refers to the roles and norms that society has linked to those particular sexes. The underlying assumption is that human beings are blank slates which society takes and through a complex set of processes inscribes on that blank slate the norms, roles, values and desires expected from individuals that fall into the two sexes. Masculine and feminine do not flow or emerge from biology but flow from society and presented as if they emerge from biology. The evidence presented to support this claim is the fact that the roles of men and women tend to vary with different cultures as well as with time. If gender was determined by our physiology then there should not be differences in cultures and over time – we should observe relatively stable roles because our biology is stable.
The second important premise which is hidden is that what is a product of our social life, our human interactions is not natural or a product of our biology. Lorber contrasts genes with social life implying they are mutually exclusive. It is difficult to understand in what sense the social and natural are mutually exclusive. Think of language, it exists only within a social context and yet it is a completely natural phenomena. It is a capacity grounded in our unique human nature; no amount of socialization will be able to get a monkey to speak a language. So then language is a social construct in that it requires a social context to be actualised. People are not born speaking a language but are socialised into it through instruction. Yet it is a perfectly natural phenomena requiring a whole host of genes and cells functioning properly. So then there is a sense in which something can both be a social construct and still be “bred in our genes”.
Perhaps what Lorber and other feminists mean by a social construct can best be illustrated by the following analogy. That a particular person is a president is due to the particular political system in that society. Presidency is a purely social category that has no deep connection to biology. It is a convention that could easily be replaced by a monarch or an oligarchy. Which is precisely what has happened historically – we once governed ourselves under chiefs, kings, or queens but have replaced those regimes with democratic ones. Similarly gender in the traditional sense when it refers to the norms, dispositions, behaviors and roles of the two sexes is also a social convention subject to changes historically across time and place. Feminists would argue that a number of illustrations can be given to illustrate how arbitrary and conventional gender is: that pink is for girls and blue is for boys; women wear dresses and men do not; women wear make up; all these facts are in no ways connected to our nature. It could easily have been the other way around. These particular examples illustrate a general phenomena of gender – it is all conventional the feminists would argue.
This version of the argument seems a bit more persuasive but ultimately fails as well in showing that because something is a social convention it is therefore not rooted in any underlying deeper reality. We can agree that particular political systems such as presidents, democracies, monarchs are conventional arising out of historical events. However, what is not conventional is that human groups will organize themselves politically – we are by nature social animals and in general where there are humans living together there will always be some form of political organization. Which particular political and social system manifests; is contingent and conventional even though the general phenomena of a political system is not. The capacity to build social institutions; from simple to complex ones is rooted in our unique human nature – hence monkeys have never had presidents, voting systems or kings. Similarly that there are conventional gender differences in particular things such as dress, colours and jobs does not necessarily mean they do not emerge from general differences between the sexes which can manifest in varying ways historically and across cultures. A case in point is research by Su and Robin who found that women in general have vocational interests that are more people-orientated while men tend to have interests that are more thing-orientated. This manifests in STEM fields by distributing more women to the STEM fields which measure higher on their people-orientation; and more men to those that are higher on being thing-orientated.
The feminists might respond by arguing that women are people-orientated precisely because society has socialised them into adopting those interests – in the absence of extensive socialization there would be no differences. This claim although a difficult one to test owing to the fact that social phenomena cannot be tested like a lab experiments; has actually been shown to be untenable by what social scientists call the gender equality paradox. If feminism is true, that patriarchal and traditional cultural norms keep reproducing differences in roles, interests, values and other psychological traits then as a culture shifts away from those traditional norms to more egalitarian norms then differences between the genders should become smaller. However researchers have found that the more egalitarian and economically developed a country becomes – the larger the differences across a number of psychological traits such as personality, values, interest in STEM and other occupations. The exact opposite of what you would expect if traditional patriarchal norms were driving gender differences. Some commentators such as Bellotti argued that the greater economic and legal equality led to individuals being “freer to express the gender differences that have been created in them by social pressures”. This response is problematic. It directly contradicts what feminists have always thought. Gender outcomes according to feminists is always the direct result of social pressures – therefore if a country becomes more equal in certain gender outcomes then it means social pressures are declining. It is a contradiction of social construct theory to say that gender outcomes are actually not the result of social pressures. It also leaves feminism without a goal and way to measure gender equality progress if outcomes no longer reflect patriarchal social pressures. So then the gender equality paradox presents a strong refutation of social construct theory.
There is another important claim behind the feminists insistence that gender is a social construct because even if we conceded that is it a social construct, in the feminist sense, it does not necessarily mean that it is bad and should be eradicated. Money is a social construct but we would not want to get rid of it because it is such a beneficial institution. Feminists argue that the reasons and motives for the creation of gender as a social institution is to sustain patriarchy. Judith Butler in a book she edited, Paradoxes of Gender, states that the purpose of gender as a social institution is precisely this; “…the continuing purpose of gender as a modern social institution is to construct women as a group to be the subordinates of men as a group.” The primary purpose of gender as a social institution is for men to dominate and subjugate women. Patriarchy according to Butler creates social statuses and privileges which are shared unequally amongst the genders and it is this unequal rank which sustains it. The evidence for this we are told, is obvious, just look at the low representation of women in positions of authority, prestige and high social and economic status. In the absence of patriarchy there would be equal representations of women in positions of power. But this begs the question in assuming that without discrimination there would be equal outcomes in all these areas. There are non-discriminatory reasons that can explain disparities in leadership positions.
The feminist theory that gender categories are social constructs created to perpetuate patriarchy is incoherent. It cannot explain the origins of patriarchy without facing a dilemma. Feminists claim that sex differences do not lead to gender differences. All psychological and social differences between the sexes arise due to patriarchy which is males seeking to dominate females to enjoy social privileges at the expense of women. The logical question is then how is it that males who were psychologically identical to females came to have the desire to exploit females? If the genders are intrinsically identical – how is that males rather than females were the ones who decided to exploit and subordinate the other sex if both are identical? Any answer given faces a dilemma. The origin of the psychological and social differences cannot be explained by referring to social differences themselves because that is what precisely needs explaining and therefore becomes circular. The only logical explanation for the origin of patriarchy would be that males had an innate desire to dominate females which resulted in them producing a patriarchal society to sustain it. However, if this true then it means that males and females differ in atleast one fundamental psychological and social trait – the desire and motivation to subjugate the other sex. But then this means that a core tenet of gender social construct theory is violated; namely that there are no intrinsic differences between men and women because they all arise as a result of the patriarchal system socializing them into those roles. Gender social construct theory is logically inconsistent. This is not simply a logical but trivial point because the origins of patriarchy reveals how patriarchy can ultimately be dismantled. If it is rooted in differences in the sexes then ultimately some bio-engineering of men would have to take place to altar this natural innate disposition. Changing the environment through messages about the harmful effects of toxic masculinity for instance, would merely be treating the symptoms and not the underlying root cause. The root cause would not be toxic masculinity but simply being male which produces it.
A further basic incoherence with the gender social construct theory is that it rejects the real existence of the categories that it presupposes in its criticism of patriarchy. On one hand feminism claims that the basic categories of sex and gender are fictions created to oppress; as the author of the Feminist Philosophy Reader puts it: “The very idea of a sex/gender schema—the idea there are two“natural” sexes that predictably give rise to two corresponding genders—is therefore a cultural invention, crafted through social sanctions and taboos, in the service of reproductive interests”. The problem rises as soon as we ask – who is doing the oppressing and who is the victim? If the gender categories of man and woman are fictions created to oppress, they refer to nothing real and tangible outside of the patriarchal social conventions – therefore in reality there is no “man” oppressing “woman”. It is similar to saying that fairies and dwarves do not exist; they are fictitious characters created by dwarves to oppress fairies.
At this point to stave off the basic incoherence, feminist thinkers have to admit that at the very least the category of biological sex is real. A point made by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, when she says: “The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history”. The feminist narrative then is that it is the biologically real category of males who oppress females by creating the fictitious category of gender. This solution faces the problem yet again of being unable to explain how patriarchy could arise if the different sexes have intrinsically identical genders.
However, admitting to the real existence of the two biological sexes opens the door to another set of problems for feminist theory – a door that the more radical feminists have tried to close by insisting that the biological categories of sex is itself a social construction as much as gender. If we accept that indeed there are two sexes with different biological and physiological traits; is it really nefarious and patriarchal to think that there might be some differences in psychological and behavioural traits that emerge from the physiological differences? If our general psychological dispositions are not grounded in our human nature – what are they grounded in then? From where do they emerge? Society ofcourse – answers the feminists. Judith Butler puts it this way, “There is no core or bedrock human nature below these endlessly looping processes of the social production of sex and gender”; anthropologist and public intellectual Ashley Montagu also in agreement says, “the human being is entirely instinctless. Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become, he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings”.
This view is partially true but ultimately inconsistent by denying the existence of human nature. As I said before, it is patently obvious to anyone that no amount of socializing an ape will ever get them to speak and understand languages, or to vote for their favorite candidate – their nature simply does not give them that capacity. our capacity to create culture, rules and norms, or what Judith Butler refers to as the “endlessly looping processes of the social production”; is itself a product of our unique human nature. Society itself is natural for human beings.
Humans on the other hand are able to speak languages because their nature has that capacity; however the actualization of that capacity requires society. Society is the context in which our intrinsic capacity for language can manifest. Furthermore, our capacity to create culture, rules and norms, or what Judith Butler refers to as the “endlessly looping processes of the social production”; is itself a product of our unique human nature. Society itself is natural for human beings. Otherwise, how else do explain the fact that apes do not hold conferences without simply pointing out that they possess different natures to humans. Therefore, similarly our psychological and behavioral traits are grounded in our individual human nature, our essence, even though they require society and culture to be actualized.
Now, why would feminist thinkers deny such an obvious fact? If you admit that humans have a nature that manifests in culture; then it logically follows gender is simply the manifestation of the different sexes within cultural contexts. Human beings are by nature sexual, they consist of two sexes; and therefore these differences will manifest in various complex ways in cultures as well. Admitting to the existence of human nature means that the severing of gender from sex becomes problematic. Furthermore, decoupling gender from sex leads to all sorts of logical and mental contortions. Gender becomes this free floating ephemeral thing which continuously escapes any attempts to be precisely defined and quickly descends into a meaningless abyss.
Secondly, if humans have a nature then it provides the basis for norms and values which society discovers and proscribes. If there is no human nature; then society is free to construct whatever norms and values it desires uninhibited by human nature, that dreaded essentialism, that restricts individual will. Without human nature, it becomes possible to shape and mould society into the image you want. Feminist thought abhors the idea of human nature because it has always been a morally thick idea. It has always been a teleological idea, providing a functional view of humanity with intrinsic ends and purposes which reason, which much difficulty it must be admitted, can discover and know.
The irony is that it is precisely the idea of a universal human nature possessed by each individual that gave birth to the modern concept of inalienable rights in our political systems. One’s race, sex, social class, skills, education does nothing to diminish your human nature which is the locus of your natural rights. If the concept of rights is also another social construct; meaning that is a fictitious concept created by those in power to impose their will on others then feminists and anyone else cannot criticize any social system as being unjust or violating rights if those categories are not real to begin with. One cannot simultaneously argue that rights grounded in our shared universal human nature do not exist and that their rights are being violated. Perhaps feminists can find some other justification for rights. Since the feminist rejects natural teleology, divine law from God, and hierarchical authority and tradition the only locus left for rights in general, and woman rights in particular, seems to be individual will and desire. The individual is absolutely autonomous, a moral sovereignty unto themselves. Hence feminists have primarily defended abortion on the basis of the absolute autonomy of woman. That a pregnant woman is in fact a mother with obligations towards her child; becomes secondary to the individual will and autonomy of the individual. Justifying rights in individual will is self defeating precisely because the very idea of inalienable “natural” rights was to circumvent any single will; such as a king, an oligarchy, even a democracy from treating any human being as a means to an end. By justifying rights on grounds that transcended any individual will it secured them from being arbitrarily amended to suit any particular individual’s will and agenda. The second paradox is then that feminist has no higher ground to criticize what she sees as patriarchy. If views of rights and justice are at their root expressions of individual or group will then the patriarchal expression of rights and justice is no more better or worse than the feminist expression of rights and justice. Why should the feminist’s will be accepted over the patriarch’s will if there is no rational standard beyond individual wills that one can appeal to in evaluating whether a system is just? Which moral view becomes accepted in society is not a function of some rational criteria of justice but which individual will can effectively use their power to dominate the other. Feminism’s criticism is too strong then because it ends up sawing the branch that it sits on.
It is obvious then that the basic assumption that equal opportunities for the genders must produce equal outcomes in every area is rooted in the feminist belief that men and women are intrinsically identical and any differences are due to socialization -the theory that gender is a social construct. An incoherent and unsustainable theory that fails to explain the logical origins of patriarchy without resorting to differences in gender – the very thing it denies. We have seen also that in what is probably the closest we can get to social experiments that countries with greater gender equality in certain outcomes and norms actually have greater differences in gender interests, values, personality and preferences. The exact opposite that would be expected if patriarchy was responsible for all social differences between the sexes. Feminist is ultimately not an empowering narrative for women – it reduces the choices, values and interests of women to be the products of men’s domination. A careful analysis of the reasons behind gender inequality in STEM as a case study reveals precisely the fact that the women make different choices to men because of differences in particular cognitive skills, interests and values. You would think that a narrative showing that women are not victims and are actually agents of their outcomes would be celebrated; instead people that try to present an argument of this sort are shut down and fired in some cases. Feminist thinking has permeated much deeper into culture than we care to realize. A worrying state of affairs considering that the major tenets of feminism, particularly the idea that gender is a social construct, is incoherent. For as long as these ideas are assumed to be true; then gender inequality in outcomes will continue to be assumed to be the result of discrimination and women will perpetually be casted as victims of men rather than as agents of their own choosing.