Gender Puzzle
[related stories: The Connundrum of Men & Women / The Inside Track on Happiness /
Fountain of Youth / Letter to an Imaginary Lady .. ]

@10 January 2002


Get thee to a nunnery! Or a monastery. That is a more rational choice than I would have conceded thirty years ago. Not an ideal, but a solution. In a sense, it is the state I've arrived at by default myself. No, not on a religious pilgrimage, but by way of coming to terms with gender. Gender differences are the great distractor, source of misery, spice and occasional joy, but to make the most of more important human things, not shared by dogs, cats and goldfish, you have to settle for some kind of working compromise on gender relationships. One of the nice things I've found about being fifty-six is that it is at last occasionally possible to talk to a woman without both sides secretly (or not so secretly) sizing up the sexual equation.

Now, from the safe corner of (almost) being out of the game, I can say that women as a species have disappointed me. That disappointment is not on a sexual, but on a distinctively human level. It is, I suppose, a failure of expectations that came out of a particular epoch and subculture. It always seemed abhorrent to me that women should be assumed to have essentially different aptitudes and interests from men. A life partner, I felt, was someone who could genuinely share one's fascinations, and contribute to their pursuit as an equal. The vast majority of cultures, of course, assume that women have different aptitudes and interests from men, and seek to proscribe them to certain roles. I still feel vehemently opposed to any such proscription, but life has taught me again and again that women as a group do indeed have aptitudes and interests which only partly overlap with those of most men.

A boring person is someone who doesn't share your interests. I am fascinated by ideas, by philosophical questions, by innovation and invention, by technology of all kinds, by tinkering. I am perpetually intrigued by the question "how does it work", applied to almost anything. Though it pains me to say so, there are relatively few women who are driven by these kinds of interests. Their intelligence flowers in quite different directions. The handful of genuine exceptions are like a breath of fresh air, but the others, oh how boring they become to a fellow like me; ( a response, naturally, which is soon reciprocated). Saddest of all perhaps are those women who try to fake it, feign interest in "boy's toys", long enough to secure a liaison.

Why could it be that most women and men have rather divergent aptitudes? A lot of folk are inclined to find an answer in their religions : god(s) deemed it so. That is hardly a surprise. As every fortune teller and computer salesman knows, you tell the customers what they want to hear. From my corner, a more persuasive argument seems to come from natural genetic selection. If every woman decided to only breed with men who had large ear lobes, within a very few generations nearly all the surviving males would have large ear lobes. Now it looks as if for a long, long time the majority of males have chosen to favour females who do not compete with their own ecological niche. Traits like "inventiveness" are not as simple as ear lobes. They are bound to arise from a subtle interaction of many genes (working together of course with nurture in each individual case). The cultural forces determining a choice of mate in most human groups are also complex. Nevertheless, over many generations quite distinctive differences seem to have emerged in the distribution of male and female aptitudes.

In our time and cultures, it is often difficult to even extract an admission that the differences just mentioned exist at all. Yet high technology, for example the invention and development of computing, has put the gender gap into stark relief; (and yes, I know that Lady Lovelace invented computer programming in the 19th Century...). When that gender divergence is finally nailed to the wall, the argument often comes down to heated debates about nature or nurture. For the record, I have no doubt at all that social institutions, expectations, and pressure from every direction make it difficult for many women to move into typically male roles. That given nevertheless, I simply do not believe that women as a group have the same disposition for scientific enquiry, invention, engineering etc. that men as a group tend to have.

Where basic talents or dispositions do exist, they have a way of evading (and eventually reshaping) cultural rules and institutions. Sexuality itself is a clear example of that : from time immemorial for example, mainstream cultures have sought ways to outlaw certain sexual behaviours (homosexuality, adultery, prostitution etc.), but have never quite succeeded. There has hardly been such fierce and persistent opposition to female philosophers, mathematicians and inventors, yet the most diligent search in any culture for contributions from women in these areas yields slim pickings [although see*1* below]. What a pity. I would wish it otherwise, but apparently that is the way things are. Maybe after all, folk are happiest in those places where men are unreconstructed men, and ladies get on with their romance novels.

 note *1*

The founders of major religions seem, on the whole, to have been pretty decent human beings with a strong preference for gender equality. Invariably however, that aspect of their message has been undermined. The more general male psychology of rejecting competition in men's chosen sphere of domination always reasserts itself. The quotation below, from a review of "Gender Equality in Buddhism"  neatly illustrates the point. [review by Linda Ghan The Daily Yomiuri, 19 January 2001, of "Gender Equality in Buddhism" by Masatoshi Ueki, Peter Lang Publishing, 202 pp, 4,737 yen]

"Ueki's thesis is that Guatama Buddha (563-483 B.C.) believed in and espoused equality for the sexes. He cites as evidence the fact that Guatama Buddha allowed women to take religious vows in India to became nuns, and that they were learned philosophers. Megasthenes, a Greek philosopher, writes during a trip to the country in 300 B.C.: "I saw a surprising fact in India. Lady philosophers did exist, and they were discussing difficult matters, equally matched with male philosophers in dignity."

However, Buddhism struggled under the dominant culture of Hinduism, in which the killing of women was considered a minor offence and the murder of baby girls was not made illegal until 1802. (In some areas, entire villages were without girl children.) Forcing a widow to commit suicide when her husband died only became a crime in 1882. Both practices continue, along with wife-burning.

It's not surprising then, that Gautama Buddha was forced to compromise. Ueki quotes Hajime Nakamura, founder of the Eastern Institute of the University of Toyko, to explain the situation: "On one occasion he (Guatama Buddha) objected to the idea of discrimination against women directly; on another occasion he made a compromise with it for the time being, but essentially he made it clear that women can attain a supreme state as well as men. It was the idea of 'being reborn as a male' that was the compromise."

Nor is it suprising that within 100 years of Gautama Buddha's death, the monks were enthusiastically undoing his work. Ueki traces the path of discrimination against women in Buddhism through battles between the Hinayana, the first order of monks who became the most conservative, and the Mahayana, a later, more open order of monks. He guides the discussion through to the 12th century, also citing other present-day Buddhist scholars on subjects such as "the male/female principle" and "the illusion of gender.'"

All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"Gender Puzzle" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2000

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