21 August 2008

Gender: Sex Differences and Employment Discrimination

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 14, 2008

An interesting issue is how society should respond to the fact that men and women are different. There is good reason to believe that on average men and women differ in the way they view the world and this difference is in part genetic. Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University, argues that in general, women are probably more empathetic than men. On Baron-Cohen’s account, men are in general more likely than women to pursue systems of objects and information. I should mention the obvious, namely that these are general patterns, plenty of counterexamples exist.

Others, such as M.I.T. psychology professor Steven Pinker, note other differences that are probably in part genetic. He notes that in general, men are more violent, more interested in no-strings-attached sex, and more likely to compete for status using occupational achievement, whereas women are more likely to have more intimate social relations, feel more empathy toward friends, and are more concerned with their children. Baron-Cohen also points out that girls play more at parenting and trying on social roles, whereas boys play more at fighting, chasing, and manipulating objects. It is an interesting question as to how these differences are related to the empathy-systematizing differences.

Baron-Cohen notes that the observed differences in empathy begin early. He points out that girls as young as one year respond more empathically to the distress in others. He also points out that girls’ speech is more cooperative, reciprocal, and collaborative than boys. He observes that later in life this pattern continues. For example, women score higher than men on empathy tests and are better at judging emotion.

The evidence that these differences are in part genetic comes from several sources. First, Baron-Cohen notes, similar differences are observed in our closest relatives, the apes. For example, in apes both juvenile and adult females are more interested in babies of their own species than are juvenile and adult males. The background idea here is that any pattern that is widely found across human cultures and also found in our genetic relatives, stands a good chance of resulting in part from genetic factors.

Second, he points out that hormonal differences tend to track the above differences. Because hormonal differences are significantly influenced by genes, this is evidence of genetic differences. For example, lower levels of male hormones (specifically, testosterone) correlate with an increase in indications of sociability and empathy and this is true within each sex. Also, adding testosterone to men increases their systematizing abilities.

Third, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum, Pinker, Baron-Cohen, and others point out that in human beings, males’ and females’ brains differ. They differ in hemispheric development and laterality (how specialized the hemispheres are), and the strength of connections between the hemispheres. A brain hemisphere is the left or right side of it. They also differ in the areas of the brain related to empathy and systematizing. These differences are what one would expect if the two sexes differ on these dimensions.

These differences probably in part produce sex differences in commitment to jobs. Warren Farrell notes that men work more years in their occupation, work more years with their employer, work more weeks per year, work more hours per week, and are absent less often. In addition, they are more likely to relocate, commute to jobs that are farther away, travel more when on the job, and more likely to work at hazardous jobs. These differences are likely due at least in part to the different family roles that men and women occupy and these roles are probably influenced by genetics.

One area in which these differences come up is whether an employer may discount women’s job applications because of on average their lower level of commitment to their jobs. Many people don’t think employers may discount women’s applications, but it is a little hard to see why. If we have two applicants and given what we know about them one is likely to be more productive, it is hard to see why an employer shouldn’t be able to take this into account. The main reason that firms hire workers is so that they can make the firm profits. This concern for profits explains why firms prefer employees who are brighter, harder working, and have better employment histories. Because many firms don’t have the resources to do an in-depth investigation of every applicant, they have to rely on statistical patterns. In some contexts, sex is one of these patterns. It should be noted that federal law prohibits such discounting.

A second area that these differences have an impact is in expectations. In discussing areas of study, careers, and other professional matters, advisors oftentimes discuss these matters in a gender-neutral manner, suggesting that men and women face the same considerations. The idea is to let the individual decide what is important to her. But if women are likely to be more interested in family matters and less in their careers than men, and this difference is a strong one, it is not clear why this fact should be ignored. This is not to say that women should be steered toward “family friendly” fields or men away from them, but it is to say that pretending sex differences don’t exist and are irrelevant to career choices is a case of willful blindness.

A third area in which this comes up has to do with child-custody battles. Here the situation is murkier. This is because one might think that each parent has an equal right to have parental rights over the child. So even if women are on average more empathetic and even if empathy is related to parenting ability, and I don’t know whether this is true, it is still not clear whether fathers should more often lose most of their parental rights as usually happens. Other rights are not curtailed on the basis of people’s ability to exercise them and so it is not clear why this should be done here.

The notion that women and men are different and that the difference is in part genetic probably strikes most readers as so obvious that it is not worth discussing. The notion that these differences affect people’s job performance is more controversial, although it is a little hard to see why once we realize that these differences affect people’s preferences, which in turn affects performance. That these differences are relevant to hiring and advice is more controversial, but not obviously false.


The Objectivist said...

Note that the standard feminist notion that women should be able to choose whether to be stay at home moms or in the workplace tells us nothing about how employers should rationally proceed.

The notion that employers rationally should discriminate against women, at least in some cases, is analogous to a football team discriminating against an often injured running back (e.g., Priest Holmes) as compared to a less injured but somewhat less effective back (e.g., Tiki Barber).

The Objectivist said...

It is worth considering whether the traditional division of labor isn't explained at least in part by genetic differences. This probably in part explains why this traditional division is universal in human cultures.

Ed Student said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Student said...

You make some good points here. As you've written, there's a lot to account for the differences in employment between men and women besides "discrimination", but that has become the battle cry and it's just accepted without question. So you've done a good job to shed some light on the reality, and dared to question the PC version. I'll be checking out your posts regularly in the future.