Over the past few weeks, inContext has looked at “dangerous questions” about possible differences between male and female brains, then mommy guilt and identity and motherhood. Last week, we took up the mantle of women in positions of power in government and business. Considering these related topics, I did some research on what information might shed further light into these issues.
Cordelia Fine attempts to debunk a lot of what gets passed off as solid science where male and female brains are concerned in her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference. Fine contends that much of what we read in books and magazine articles about differences in female and male brains is actually more culturally and socially based than biologically “wired.” The author proposes two arguments to support her theory that there is very little difference between the actual brains of men and women and that the difference stems from culture. She also states that where gender and the brain are concerned, there have not been a great number of studies. Fine believes the psychological differences that we read about or hear about, which are expressed as hard science, are actually expressed in the ways they are because the researchers themselves are cultured to think of men and women in a particular way already.
This relates to Slaughter’s “having it all” article significantly, as Slaughter claimed women were not in positions of power because the jobs required extraordinary hours and time away from family that she and other women colleagues did not wish to take. The problem was characterized as that facing families, and men should not be away as much as they are, either. I claimed this was wishful thinking on the part of the author. I don’t mean to be cynical or a black cloud over the desired utopia wherein women and men are treated completely equally and that family time is valued by business. It is not the nature of business to value family, since family does not make businesses money, which is what they are in the business of doing in a capitalist society and economy.
Yes, there are employers who value individual employees, and that have generous leave time that allows employees to structure time away from work in a way that allows honesty and relationships to be fostered between managers and employees. For the most part, this is not the case. Across the job spectrum, from minimum-wage positions to those in the highest brackets, all things are not equal in this area either. Hourly wage earners with lower incomes can’t typically take time off, not only because their employers are inflexible, but also because they can’t afford to lose the pay that time off would inevitably cause.
In light of Fine’s book, the “dangerous question” of whether the majority of female brains are different from men’s brains still looms. Even asking the question begs neurosexism as when we ask, we typically do not see it as differences between two types of brains, but rather how one is different from the other. This is a subtle nuance, and the main point of what Fine discusses in the first part of her book. How we ask the question is shaped by how we are cultured. Since Slaughter’s article, James Joyner, managing editor at The Atlantic Council, stood up for the male side of this issue and stated exactly what I did: men never have “had it all” and that a job needs your full attention and so do your children. (His response, from the male viewpoint, is extremely compelling since he is the father of two young children, and after the death of his wife, has turned down career opportunities to spend more time with his children.)
As more women enter the workforce, and remain there after having children, we’ve seen the great divide between men’s and women’s experience of this cultural and societal change. In some instances, we’ve seen families suffer due to the demanding career or work of one or both parents—at all ends of the income spectrum. Where “mommy guilt” comes in is for those in the upper income brackets who look at it like they choose to work when they could easily live off of one salary. Kids of wealthy parents who work a lot sometimes fall through the cracks or get into trouble or do poorly in school. However, the statistics about poverty tell the same sad tale of kids and their potential being cut short due to parental work schedules.
While we should not stop reaching for ideals, or dreaming about an actual balance between the requirements of work and raising children, we cannot think there are any easy solutions or once-size-fits-all fixes. I’m not sure that even legislation that extends or builds upon that which is in place presently can solve the situation, either. Certainly, legislation helps extend equality to employees across the income spectrum. However, as most of us have experienced ourselves or seen others deal with in their respective jobs, a piece of legislation does not help when the culture of a workplace casts a negative eye on it. As Joyner says, we cannot view childcare issues or work/family balance as women’s issues. We must include men’s voices and experiences when we think about parents, not just mothers, being active parts of their children’s lives. And, I suppose for now, we can also put aside questions of whether there are or are not differences in the actual brains of women and men, and focus on the ways in which culture and socialization ask different things of each sex. Maybe asking the question about differences between female and male brains is not so much a question for neuroscience to answer, especially until we unravel the culture and society that are the context for such a question. Thus, when Slaughter claims she felt more compelled to be home with her struggling son than did her husband, this may not be biology or neurology after all, but rather social and cultural conditioning.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.