Some interesting scientific research on gender differences was published last week. Two social scientists studied the preferences of 80,000 people in 76 countries to determine whether there’s a link between the attitudes of men and women to risk-taking, patience, altruism, trust and so on, and how advanced a country is in terms of economic development and gender equality.
If gender is a social construct, as many feminists claim, you’d expect men and women’s preferences to be more divergent in places like Pakistan, Malaysia and Nigeria, where gender roles are quite traditional and women have fewer economic opportunities, than in the Nordic countries. However, the opposite is true. The researchers discovered that the more economically developed a country is and the greater the gender equality, the less likely men and women’s attitudes are to converge. This suggests that average psychological differences between men and women are partly biological. How else to account for the fact that when men and women are free to pursue their own interests, gender differences become more pronounced, not less?
This isn’t a novel finding: there have been numerous studies showing much the same thing. Earlier this year, a couple of psychologists looked at the participation of women in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) across the world and discovered that the more gender equality there is in a country, the less likely women are to study Stem subjects or pursue careers in these areas. The phenomenon even has a name: the gender-equality paradox. But it’s only a paradox if you believe gender differences are socially constructed.
Needless to say, plenty of feminists dispute this research and dismiss ‘biological essentialism’ as pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo designed to justify patriarchal oppression. The reason I bring it up is because I’m interested in where it leaves opponents of Britain’s Gender Recognition Act. The consultation over whether self-identification should be made easier has now come to an end, but you can be sure the debate will continue and, on the face of it, these scientific findings give succour to the antis. In my experience, they often appeal to the idea that gender cannot be divorced from biological sex to justify their opposition to reforming the act and believe that if you’re born with two X chromosomes, you’re a woman, just as if you’re born with an X and a Y chromosome, you’re a man.
But how do those feminists worried about gender self–identification reconcile their opposition to the reform with their insistence that gender is a social construct? After all, if gender isn’t an innate characteristic, but something imposed on you by society, why should there be any legal impediments to changing it? It’s not as if these feminists are in favour of the way in which gender is assigned at present.
So why not allow people to self-identify more easily? I’m not an expert on the metaphysics of feminism, but I think the answer has something to do with gender being assigned by society at birth and, because it is bound up with patriarchal power and underpinned by great impersonal forces, it cannot easily be changed. To suggest it is something that can be separated from deep, structural inequalities, or that genders can be switched with the stroke of a pen, is to trivialise the feminist struggle. I daresay there’s also something annoying about men electing to become women, which implies that being born with two X chromosomes isn’t as bad as feminists make out.
As such, weirdly, social constructivism isn’t much help to trans activists either. So where are they to turn? The answer is to take another look at ‘biological essentialism’. The claim that average psychological differences between men and women are partly genetic doesn’t mean that some women don’t exhibit masculine traits and vice versa. For instance, if you plot statistical distributions for men and women with respect to where they fall on the systematising-empathising axis, there will be considerable overlap between the two. Trans activists could look at the research evidence and claim that people with gender dysphoria were, in some meaningful, biological sense, born in the wrong bodies — and many of them do make exactly that claim.
I haven’t made up my mind where I come down in this debate. But as far as I can tell, the science is on the side of trans activists, not gender-critical feminists.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.