19 July 2001, 822 words
I lime regularly with a small group of young women in their mid-20s. They are all highly intelligent, articulate, and attractive. A few months ago, I went out with them and their other male friends for the first time. We spent the day at Maracas beach, and the girls let the guys entirely dominate the conversation.
I had never seen them so diffident. When I hang with them by myself, everybody talks. Now even Adaku, known far and wide for her nearly constant chatter, opened her mouth mostly to respond to witticisms made by the men. Indira, whose mind is even more logical than mine and who loves a good argument, spoke only to whisper sweet nothings to her boyfriend. In other words, if I had met the girls for the first time on that day, all I'd have known about them was that they looked fine in their bikinis.
Psychologists call this "the dodgeball effect", after a study done with middle-class African-American girls and Hopi Indian girls. Twelve-year-olds were used because girls are on average physically bigger than boys at that age. The researchers also chose cultures where women are accorded different status: traditional Hopi society is matrilineal, so the females have significant social and economic power. African-American females are - well, you've heard the rap music.
The girls were observed while playing dodgeball. When no boys were present, both groups played competitively. But, as soon as boys joined the game, their whole attitude changed. The Hopi girls' posture, standing with legs crossed and arms folded, was shy and unathletic. The African-American girls, instead of playing hard, chatted with one another and teased the other players.
Fascinatingly, the girls were completely unaware of this change in themselves. When the researchers asked them why they thought the boys always won at dodgeball, the girls said that the boys cheated. In similar fashion, my female friends, when I told them how differently they had acted at the beach, initially denied it. Even after I managed to persuade them that they behave differently among themselves, they still said it was because guys talk so much cacapoopoo. (No, they didn't use that word but I don't want police coming to arrest me.)
Other kinds of research confirm the typical characteristics of males. Questionnaires given to university students in 25 different countries, asking them which adjectives were associated with the two sexes in their culture, found that everywhere the males were "aggressive", "active", "reckless" and "tough", while the females were "affectionate", "cautious", "sensitive" and "emotional".
Psychologists who lack knowledge about behavioural genetics generally hold that boys and girls are taught these differences by their parents or by society. Don't believe it. Many of the characteristics we identify as male or female are innate. Even from two-and-a-half years, male infants show signs of wanting to dominate their peers. And girls who are born with a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia - a hormonal malfunction that can cause partial masculinisation of the brain and genitals of a female foetus - tend to be assertive children even though the hormonal condition is medically rectified after birth.
Judith Rich Harris, author of the The Nurture Assumption, writes, "[Girls] would rather play with other girls because girls listen. Boys always want to do things their way...By forming their own separate groups in childhood, [girls] were able to avoid being dominated by boys. Then their biological clocks strike thirteen and suddenly they find themselves wanting to interact with a bunch of people who have been practising the art of domination ever since they let go of Mommy's hand."
This is the basic reason why, in every known culture, it is men who generally hold the highest positions of power and who wield the greatest influence. Biologist Helena Cronin points out another fundamental reason for this state of affairs: "Males are far more variable than females. They are over-represented both at the top of the heap and at the bottom of the barrel...Fewer women are likely to be dunces, but also fewer will be geniuses...Being competitive, status-conscious, dedicated, single-minded, persevering - it can make all the difference to success. And these are qualities that a lot of men are far more likely to possess, often in alarming abundance."
So what the biology tells us is that, in any meritocratic system, males will nearly always beat out females for top positions. This, however, is no justification for sexism: rather, it means we should try even harder to establish meritocracies. The ethical principle, which bigots can never understand, is that it is wrong to judge an individual according to the stereotype, or even the statistical truths, of their group. Men may rule, but there will always be those women who are as qualified and as committed as men: and sexist bias should not be allowed to shaft their ambitions.
Copyright ©2001 Kevin Baldeosingh