Psychologists such as Jordan Peterson argue patriarchal society is the ‘natural order’, but it is a relatively new development.
Sat 2 Nov 2019
Fathers are happier, less stressed and less tired than mothers, finds a study from the American Time Use Survey. Not unrelated, surely, is the regular report that mothers do more housework and childcare than fathers, even when both parents work full time. When the primary breadwinner is the mother versus the father, she also shoulders the mental load of family management, being three times more likely to handle and schedule their activities, appointments, holidays and gatherings, organise the family finances and take care of home maintenance, according to Slate, the US website. (Men, incidentally, are twice as likely as women to think household chores are divided equally.) In spite of their outsized contributions, full-time working mothers also feel more guilt than full-time working fathers about the negative impact on their children of working. One argument that is often used to explain the anxiety that working mothers experience is that it – and many other social ills – is the result of men and women not living “as nature intended”. This school of thought suggests that men are naturally the dominant ones, whereas women are naturally homemakers.
But the patriarchy is not the “natural” human state. It is, though, very real, often a question of life or death. At least 126 million women and girls around the world are “missing” due to sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect, according to United Nations Population Fund figures. Women in some countries have so little power they are essentially infantilised, unable to travel, drive, even show their faces, without male permission. In Britain, with its equality legislation, two women are killed each week by a male partner, and the violence begins in girlhood: it was reported last month that one in 16 US girls was forced into their first experience of sex. The best-paid jobs are mainly held by men; the unpaid labour mainly falls to women. Globally, 82% of ministerial positions are held by men. Whole fields of expertise are predominantly male, such as physical sciences (and women garner less recognition for their contributions – they have received just 2.77% of the Nobel prizes for sciences).
According to a variety of high-profile figures (mainly male, mainly psychologists), bolstered by professorships and no shortage of disciples, there are important biological reasons for why men and women have different roles and status in our society. Steven Pinker, for instance, has argued that men prefer to work with “things”, whereas women prefer to work with “people”. This, he said, explains why more women work in the (low-paid) charity and healthcare sector, rather than getting PhDs in science. According to Pinker, “The occupation that fits best with the ‘people’ end of the continuum is director of a community services organisation. The occupations that fit best with the ‘things’ end are physicist, chemist, mathematician, computer programmer, and biologist.”
Others deny societal sexism even exists, insisting that the gender roles we see are based on cognitive differences – spoiler: men are more intelligent. “The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence,” Jordan Peterson has said, for instance. His reasoning suggests that women would be happier not railing against it but instead observing their traditional gender roles. Such theories have been demolished by a range of scholars, including neuroscientist Gina Rippon and psychologist Cordelia Fine.
There are certainly biological differences between men and women, from their sexual anatomy to hormones. Yet even this isn’t as clear cut as it seems. For instance, around one in 50 people may be “intersex” with some sort of atypical chromosomal or hormonal feature – that’s about the same as the proportion of redheads. Men’s brains are on the whole slightly larger than women’s, and scans reveal some differences in the size and connectedness of specific brain regions, such as the hippocampus, in large samples of men and women.