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Tag Archives: gender inequalities

Gender inequality in triplewart seadevils : Females are more typical in appearance to other fish, whereas the males are tiny rudimentary creatures with stunted digestive systems. A male must find a female and fuse with her: he then lives parasitically, becoming little more than a sperm-producing body

A series of recent studies has shown that, on average, a woman is likely to score significantly higher than a man on several different tests of general intelligence. These studies all controlled for factors such as age, level of education, and socioeconomic background. Although men proved to be consistently better than women in very specific areas, such as tests of spatial reasoning, women’s average scores across a variety of tests were higher. This result is probably related to…

Gotcha!

No, seriously, I made all that up. As far as I know, there is no evidence that women are generally smarter than men; or that men are generally smarter than women. However, the premise I outlined above did strike me as a very interesting “What-if?” scenario. To spell it out, What would happen if it became clear that women were generally more intelligent than men? In particular, I am interested in whether such a finding would in any way counter prevailing gender inequalities. (I should, of course, state at the outset that I believe that gender equality is something worth pursuing regardless of differences between men and women in characteristics such as general intelligence)

CATEGORIES OF INEQUALITY

In much of the world, there are significant differences in basic well-being between women and men. These differences can be broadly divided into the following categories: survival inequality, unequal facilities, ownership inequality, and unequal sharing of household benefits and chores.

I think gender inequalities in all of the above categories might start to decrease rapidly if societies came to recognize women as being more intelligent than men. To begin with, take the fact that women are often denied access to facilities such as basic or higher education, or to the opportunity to work in certain occupations. They are also often not seriously considered for promotion to the highest levels of management in private and government organizations. All of that might change if people, including women themselves, came to really believe that women should be able to do as well as – if not much better than – men in all of those contexts.

The reduction in inequality in access to facilities should, in turn, result in a decrease in the survival inequality that results from the fact that women and girls’ health and nutrition are often considered to be of less importance, because of the belief that they are not as productive as the male members of the family. Similarly, there would also probably be a reduction of the inequality in sharing of household work, and in ownership of assets.

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN WELL-BEING AND AGENCY

Apart from thinking about general well-being, I think it might be a good idea to focus on the difference between “well-being” and “agency”. [1] “Agency” refers to an individual’s ability to pursue goals that he/she has reason to value, regardless of whether or not they contribute to his/her personal well-being (which relates to access to basic necessities, such as adequate nutrition, healthcare, education and employment). In many parts of the world, women’s rights movements began by concentrating on the general well-being of women, but have now moved towards focusing on women’s ability to exercise their agency.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the “what-if” scenario in which the world comes to see women as significantly more intelligent than men concern the effects that this would have upon women’s agency in “conservative” societies such as that of Saudi Arabia. [2] Surely laws such as the one that prohibits women from driving cars would be repealed almost immediately? But what else? Would they begin to refuse to assent to the arranged marriages that their families set up for them? Would women claim a right not to wear a burka in public, just as men don’t? Going in a different direction, but sticking with the theme of religion, would a woman one day become the Pope?

THE MALE PERSPECTIVE

I think it’s very interesting that many men react with a certain amount of discomfort to the idea that women might, in general, be smarter than men. I wonder why this should be so. Most men would be quite willing to accept that there must be at least a few women who are much more intelligent than they are – but I suppose they see them as exceptions, rather than the norm. But then again, many individuals are even willing to accept that whole classes of people (e.g. “the Chinese”, or “the Indians”) are, in general, smarter than they are. So what’s wrong with accepting that women, in general, might be smarter than men?

The most obvious candidate for an answer to that would, I suppose, be that the average (heterosexual, non-Indian and non-Chinese) man doesn’t expect – or particularly wish for – a great deal of interaction with Chinese or Indian people (or any other similar group), but would probably one day want to win the heart of some woman. And the assumption is probably that this would be harder if the woman proved to be smarter than him.

Somehow, I can’t get very excited about that perspective. I’m quite happy with how intelligent I am, and I don’t think that would change if I found out that the average woman is smarter than me. In general, I don’t like adversarial conceptions of human identity (male vs female, believer vs non-believer, Western vs non-Western, etc), and I don’t think  my sense of self depends on seeing men as superior to women in any particular way.

NOTES

[1] For more on this perspective, see Amartya Sen’s essay Women and Men (published as part of a collection in The Argumentative Indian)

[2] Somehow, I think “conservative” may not be the right word to describe these societies, because all societies are conservative about some of their traditions. It is the particular traditions that a society chooses to “conserve” that should be used to define it, rather than the simple fact that it wishes to conserve certain values/traditions.

Therefore, rather than using the word “conservative” to describe the societies that are understood as being “not liberal”, I suggest the word “premodern”. The reason for this is that the values associated with the societies currently labelled as “liberal” – values such as gender equality, egalitarianism, religious tolerance, pluralism, etc were mostly seriously argued for only after the onset of the Modern Age.