Gender Differences: A Modern Heresy

If it has become a modern article of faith that all differences between men and women are socially constructed, then this new book is heresy.

This secularist creed of the church of political correctness brooks no dissent or disagreement. So Professor Steven Rhoads' book Taking Sex Differences Seriously amounts to 97 theses tacked on the door of a modern cathedral.

The first dogma Rhoads tackles is the one that says mothers and fathers are interchangeable. “Maternal instinct” is a fiction. Distinct roles for mothers and fathers are relics of a superstitious age. There is only generic “parenting,” which either parent of either sex can do equally well. A close corollary to this belief is that any self-respecting modern woman is entitled to nag at her husband until he contributes equally to all child-care chores.

Rhoads committed the sin of actually gathering data on this question. He chose a sample of new parents most likely to support the ideal of androgynous parenting: university professors having their first baby. Virtually all the men and women professors assented to the dogma of androgynous parenting. Many of their universities offered generic parental-leave policies, equally open to mothers and fathers. Guess what? Mothers took the parental leave far more often than did fathers. And those few fathers who took the leave used it differently than did the mothers. The women used the parental leave to take care of their new babies; the men used it as a sabbatical. They got more articles written; they advanced their careers while their wives took care of the babies. So much for equality.

Rhoads found another astonishing fact. The mothers enjoyed taking care of the babies far more than did the fathers. For virtually every child-care activity, from changing diapers to feeding to playing with the baby, the mothers enjoyed these tasks noticeably more than did fathers. The mothers' attitudes toward most aspects of child care ranged from indifference to great enjoyment. The one task men liked to do more than women was “managing the division of labor of parenting tasks.” Except for getting up at night to care for the child, this was the task women liked least. Rhoads speculates that women might dislike managing the division of labor because taking on this duty led to arguments with their husbands.

One possible reason women enjoy child care more than their husbands is that babies respond more favorably to their mothers. Rhoads asked the academic couples whether their babies seemed to have any preference for mothers or fathers. The parents reported that the infants had an overwhelming preference for being comforted by their mothers. It is easy to imagine that parents respond to their baby's feelings. Even the most egalitarian father would eventually be reduced to saying, “Here honey, you take the baby; he wants you.”

Not only are men and women different — wonder of wonders — so are boys and girls. From a very early age, girls and boys show different preferences for types of toys and styles of play. In fact, Rhoads quotes one expert on child sex differences who coined a term to describe people who think society alone molds children into sex roles. He calls them “childless.” Yet public policies from education to school sports to affirmative action are built around the goal of eliminating all gender differences.

Women are setting themselves up for failure and disappointment if they accept the cultural expectation that their husbands ought to share all household responsibilities equally. Men and women have different perceptions about what needs to be done. Men and women do not equally enjoy various household tasks, from child care to roof repair. Defining equality as a tit-for-tat symmetry of chores requires men and women alike to suppress their natural inclinations, ignore their natural strengths and overlook their partner's contributions.

A more sensible approach to equality would acknowledge the natural gender differences in preferences, abilities and sensibilities. A more humane understanding of equality would be that each partner is equally committed to making the marriage work. Instead of asking, “What's in it for me?” they could ask, “How can I help?” Instead of keeping score and aiming for a 50-50 division of labor, they could aim for giving 100% of themselves.

Equality could mean, “I do all I can for him, and he does all he can for me,” knowing full well that we aren't each going to do the exact same things for each other. Nor will we expect the exact same performance from each other at all times during our lives. I need my husband in a different way during menopause than I needed him when I was nursing. And he realizes I have something different to offer him at some times in my life than at others.

There is even a study that demonstrates the basic fact that gratitude pays off. In families with traditional, gender-based division of labor, the happiest couples were those in which the husband acknowledged that his wife did more of the household chores. Instead of being weighed down by doing more, the woman feels uplifted by his recognition and appreciation of her contribution.

The modern feminist movement drew its appeal from the ingrained American sense of fair play and sympathy with the underdog. But that movement always had wide streaks of irrationality. The feminist mainstream treats every debatable proposition, every testable hypothesis as if they were assumptions. Now someone has debated those propositions and tested those hypotheses. The facts are in. Men and women are different in socially important ways. It takes a lot of faith to believe that all differences between men and women are socially constructed. It is time for our laws and culture to take sex differences seriously, without apology.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work (Spence, 2001).