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Sunday, April 13, 2008

THE SEXUAL PARADOX

Men, Women, and the Real Gender Gap

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By Susan Pinker

Scribner. 340 pp. $26

A contemporary woman, as the expression goes, is supposed to act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog. The joke gives us a sense of the confusion about women's roles that has plagued our culture for well over a century. As the length of women's lives has doubled from 40 to 80 years -- leaving them with half a century to fill after their main childbearing decade passes -- and as the number of births per woman has fallen from seven to two, women's lives have had to be radically reconfigured. But how?

Susan Pinker, in her lively, well-written The Sexual Paradox, takes on this perennially loaded question. A psychologist and the latest incarnation of a "difference feminist," she argues that women's and men's brains are not identical and that society should acknowledge and accommodate their differences. She walks us through the brain research on gender, concluding that women's and men's talents mostly overlap but that males predominate at the extremes of certain traits -- for better and for worse.

The "fragile" male brain has "a heightened appetite for competition and risk, paired with poor impulse control, [which] results in a much higher rate of accidents, behavioral problems, school failure, violence, and imprisonment in men." But Pinker then goes on to celebrate what appear to be male disabilities, suggesting that they can make certain men more imaginative, driven and productive. The studies she marshals on the female brain, by contrast, paint a fairly familiar and sedate picture: Women are more empathic, less competitive and better disciplined.

Given these different proclivities, Pinker wonders why we expect women to embrace what she calls "the vanilla male model of success." Women need to be treated as equal, not identical, to men, she argues.

Unfortunately, Pinker then makes the treacherous leap to the status quo, claiming that the current gender gap in pay, prestige and position is biologically driven and not due to discrimination. The "sexual paradox" of the book's title is that many women, given the same career opportunities as men, choose not to aim for the most challenging or high status jobs. Women, according to Pinker, are just intrinsically less ambitious than men.

But the discrimination that women currently face is not from a lack of opportunities. It's from a workplace designed for the life cycle of men with a wife at home -- a model that describes only 6 percent of American households. When women are offered the opportunity to do two full-time jobs (career plus family) to their male colleagues' one, many will opt to make one of those jobs less demanding. To say that women are less career-oriented than men on the basis of their decisions in our current workplace is suspect. Pinker has fallen into the old and hoary tradition of assuming that what is is "natural."

Nonetheless, the main conclusion of The Sexual Paradox is important and timely: Our society must adapt to the different needs, talents and life cycles of women.

-- Anna Fels is a psychiatrist and the author of "Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives."


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