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The social conditioning that is holding back women

The social conditioning that is holding back women

by Douwe MIEDEMA 2 min. 08.03.2022 From our online archive
Some testosterone-infused narratives of why women lag behind refuse to die - but science does not support them
Women's Day protestors in Zurich in 2019
Women's Day protestors in Zurich in 2019
Photo credit: Shutterstock

There is nothing in the bodies or the mind of women that stops them from playing exactly the same role as men in business, science or the family. That is the point Cordelia Fine, a British psychologist, persistently makes in her work. 

Women can carry babies and breastfeed them. Men lift greater weights and run faster. And that’s about it. Fine is an avowed opponent of the view that men are from Mars, women are from Venus. There is no gender blueprint in our genes, our hormones, or the folds of our brains that dictates a different role in society. If it is true that the global financial crisis would not have happened if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, it is because of social conditioning. Biology does not make women better money managers than men.

(This comment first appeared in the February edition of the Luxembourg Times magazine, still widely available in shops throughout the country).

Yet the narrative that men are born to drive around in a Maserati because in the stone age they had to kill mammoths (or something) is addictive. In her book “Testosterone Rex”, Fine quotes a 1948 study into fruit flies that found the facts for a belief everybody had always held anyway: males have more success procreating the more sexual partners they have, but females do not. 

The study became gospel and stayed so for half a century. It wasn’t until 2007 that two biologists – one a woman – pointed at some obvious flaws with the experiment. And with better technology, such as DNA sequencing, the pair showed female fruit flies gained from having more partners too. 

But clearly, establishing a law that - throughout the animal kingdom - men are playboys and women are sexually passive beings had long been too welcome a result for science to question it. 

The position of women lags behind on a vast scale around the world: genital mutilation (which affects hundreds of millions in Africa and Asia), the way Afghanistan treats women and the rape epidemic in India are all examples. Less crude ones, such as the pay gap and the glass ceiling in western society are too. 

Fine’s work is a real eye-opener in arguing that biology cannot explain these differences. We somehow keep them in place through the deep beliefs we have about our societies. It would pay off to find out what those beliefs exactly are, why we hold them and why such social conditioning has been so successful, geographically as well as through time. 

If anything, such questions underscore the massive task that lies ahead for feminists – and for any other group that no longer wants to play a supporting role in society but is told that is just the way things are.

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