Helena Cronin on Extinction [1]

HELENA CRONIN: Hello, everybody. It’s a great pleasure to be here. A strange thing happened on the way to a better world in pursuit of an admirable quest, that is, a world free of sex discrimination where you’re judged on your own qualities and not your sex. Truth and falsity went topsy-turvy. The truth—the silence of sex differences—became dangerous, unmentionable, and in its place the conventional wisdom, which is a ragbag of ideas that have long been extinct but are kept ghoulishly alive by popularity, became the entrenched orthodoxy influencing public thinking, agendas and policy-making, and completely crowding out science and sense.

My aim is to show you why the current orthodoxy should be abandoned and why, if you really care about a fairer world, the science does matter. It matters profoundly. I’m going to take two examples, both about the professions, because they very well epitomize the orthodox litany: how society systematically discriminates against women, and how at work they are victims of pervasive sexism.

Here are the conventional wisdoms. Women in ghettos: Why in medicine are men from surgery, women from pediatrics? In law, men from corporate, women from family? In science, men from physics, women from sociology? It’s because women are ghettoized into stereotypically female professions and specialties where prestige and pay are the lowest. Why is it always men at the top? The highest positions and prizes, whether influence or income, heads of state, CEOs, professors, Nobel laureates. Why? Because for women there’s a glass ceiling; for men, there’s a glass elevator. "Well," you might be thinking, "isn’t that conventional wisdom true? Isn’t the evidence compelling?" No. Nonsense.

Thank you. It’s wholly misconceived. It’s both ignorant of modern science, and it’s fighting battles that have already been won. Before I explain to you about that, I’ve got two caveats. One is about averages. We’ll be comparing averages, not differences, between individuals. Try not to think in individuals, but about differences between groups. Specifically, how characteristics are distributed differently in the two groups—males and females. Second, let me stress that I’m emphatically not denying that discrimination exists. I’m not denying that. Rather, it can’t be the whole story and it certainly isn’t the story in the way that it’s generally told.

Let’s get straight to some science of sex differences, and I’ll start with tastes, that is, with interests. There’s an experiment in which sex stereotyped toys—trucks and dolls—were given to mixed sex groups. I’m sure that all of you would guess correctly which sex preferred which, but these males and females were vervet monkeys. Now consider newborn babies. Even at one day old girls prefer a human face and boys prefer mechanical mobile.

Neither those monkeys nor babies had been brainwashed, socialized, stereotyped, ghettoized, or any of these other things, and they hadn’t even encountered toys or mobiles previously. Rather, what these results of these little experiments captured is an evolved sex difference in interests. Women are far more interested in people, and men are far more interested in things. This difference is one of the largest of all psychological differences between the sexes, and also it’s by far the largest when measured in career interests. That difference in career interests, by the way, hasn’t changed over the past century since records were first kept even though there have been massive social changes. That still stands out as the largest difference in career interests. What’s more, it’s been found that a person’s interests are the most powerful predictor of what their entire career will be like, even more so, surprisingly, than talent.

Look at females in the UK professions. From over eighty percent in the people-oriented down to six percent in things-oriented, well, ghettoization? Really? It might not be choice. By the way, even those six percent female engineers are overwhelmingly in bioengineering, that is, working with people or other living things. Even women in the top one percent of mathematical ability—one percent; that’s very, very high—choose instead, unlike their male counterparts, careers working with people. Again, people and living things, biosciences, doctors and so on. Yet the conventional wisdom stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that women’s own interests might be a cause of what career’s they're in.

Now to temperaments and men at the top. Men are vastly more competitive than women. I’ll tell you why very quickly, a quick evolutionary sketch. Give a man fifty wives and he’d have children galore, but a woman with fifty husbands? No advantage whatsoever. Natural selection favored men who competed strenuously for mates, and all men now are descendents of those victorious competitors. From this, much follows.

Men are far more ambitious, status-seeking, hierarchical, single-minded, opportunistic, persevering, risk-taking. Their entire life strategy is a far higher risk, higher stakes game and far more dedicated to winning. They notoriously find any area to be first, most, biggest, best. I got from the Guinness Book of Records: beer mat flipping, haggis hurling, or extreme ironing. There are worse ones than that I can tell you. And they even appropriate all the summits. This was recently held in Paris: the Global Summit of Women.

Meanwhile, what are women like? Well, they’re far less of all the above, that’s the best way to think of it. Obviously, greater male competitiveness alone pushes men to the top powerfully, but science also reveals another such sex difference. It’s to do with the tails of these statistical distributions, that is, the ends of the curves. For all sex differences in all species—this is not just humans—there’s a difference in the shape of the tails. Among males, the variance—that’s the difference between the best and the worst, the most and the least, or whatever it is, tallest and shortest—is far greater than among females. Females tend to cluster around the mean—that curve there in the middle. The tails are far less far apart, but among males the variance can be great, huge. Males are almost bound to be overrepresented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this, I hasten to say, metaphorically as more dumbbells but more Nobels.

An extreme example of the right-hand tail, which even these scientists who found it said in the paper is staggering for the ability in mechanical reasoning, in the top nought point one percent, that’s admittedly a very rarified atmosphere. Try and guess what the male female ratio is. It’s 236:1. That’s how far the Nobels-dumbbells effect can push the difference between males and females. Greater male variance, as you can see in that extreme example, can profoundly influence male-female differences, particularly those that most enrage conventional wisdom, that is, the predominance of men at the top, always looking to the top, never at the dumbbells. Nevertheless, greater male variance has become what in the states is called a third rail issue, that is, touch it and you die, and that precludes any investigation of what is a very potent cause.

Sex differences stem ultimately from different reproductive strategies, but they pervade our entire psychology, and their distribution differs, giving rise to differences between the two groups. The life priorities of men and women are not identical, I repeat, not identical, because the orthodoxy conflates equality and sameness. Constantly when people are concerned about equality, what they immediately jump into instead is sameness, but you can’t expect sameness in males and females. On average there are these differences.

Conventional wisdom began with an injustice, with women being denied choice just because they were women, but that’s morphed into a deeply misguided quest: sameness of outcome for males and females in all fields, 50/50, fifty percent. Well, that’s not good enough. Conventional wisdom is a science-free zone with factoids where facts should be, and a dreadful jargon generator where theories should reign. It’s outrageous that it should be taken seriously at all, that it occupies a position where science and evidence should prevail, and that it dominates policy even though its precepts have long been rendered utterly extinct, first, by a scientific understanding of sex differences, and second, through political progress against sex discrimination.

Now, science doesn’t dictate goals. I’m not saying it’s only science, but it can help us to achieve our goals. As Marx didn’t ever quite say: If we want to change the world, we first need to understand it. And how can we forge a fairer world if we allow beliefs that are long extinct to stand in the way of what is indispensable—the Darwinian science of sex differences.

Thank you.