The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 20th, 2005

Freedom is admitting men and women are different

To generalise is to be an idiot, said the poet William Blake. How seductive that sounds. Generally speaking, however, it’s not true. Generalisations can be useful; without them there would be no science and it is quite reasonable to make cautious generalisations. But everyone knows what Blake meant. Generalisations are very often abused in an idiotic way, which makes people understandably angry.

Women, particularly, have been enraged with good reason by centuries of generalisations about them, mostly put forth by men. Sometimes these generalisations have simply been ignorant or wrong. At other times, though reasonable, they have idiotically been applied to individual women as in: “You can’t map-read, because women can’t.”

When I was growing up it was commonly assumed that girls weren’t as clever as boys: girls couldn’t do maths or science, girls couldn’t get firsts when they did somehow squeak into a top university, girls were too interested in babies to do top jobs, and so on. This enraged and discouraged me, especially on the lips of some spotty boy with only half as many O-levels as I had. And at that time (though I didn’t know it until recently) girls actually outperformed boys at 11-plus, so their marks were adjusted down to produce equal results. I had enormous sympathy, therefore, with the rage that inflamed the feminist auto-da-fe of the 1970s.

But it seemed to me even then that feminists were simply exchanging one idiotic generalisation — that women are inferior to men — for another — that women are just the same as men. They claimed that the obvious differences between sexes and individuals were due to nurture, not nature. The idea that people might have differences in inherited tendencies was anathema. Environment was everything; the human mind was a tabula rasa, an empty slate.

Given an equal chance, according to this tragically mistaken view, women would not only do as well as men, they would do the same. And if they weren’t doing just the same, that could only be because of sexist discrimination against them.

Since the 1970s there have been some variations on this unreasonable theme. One is the current view, based on two mutually exclusive assumptions, that women are just the same as men and also better than men — equally able in every way but more caring, co-operative, peaceable and so on.

An alternative has been the accurate observation that women often have different priorities from men and don’t always choose to break through the glass ceiling, even when more than capable of doing so.

Meanwhile, women and girls have been catching up fast, and overtaking, at least in exam results. Last week, for instance, the first results of the national “foundation stage profile” showed that girls outstrip boys in every area before the age of five. They are just better at everything, particularly emotional and interpersonal skills (as most people know). But the gap narrowed very significantly in the area of maths, knowledge of the world, shapes, dimensions and measures.

However, the old underlying assumption has been surprisingly long-lived in many circles, not least at ultra-liberal Harvard University. Last Tuesday Harvard’s president, Larry Summers, was humiliated by a vote of no confidence from his faculty. His offence was that he had dared to suggest that one of the reasons why fewer women get top academic jobs in science and maths might have to do with their “intrinsic aptitude”.

He had thus deviated from the orthodoxy that men and women have equal abilities in all fields, and where they are not equally represented that is proof of sexist discrimination. This despite the well-documented fact that male IQ is over-represented at the highest and lowest extremes of intelligence. Statistically you would expect more male geniuses than female, which is what we get. Female intelligence clusters round the norm.

However, as of last week that persistent orthodoxy has become still more untenable. A major international research team led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge has been mapping the X chromosome — “the most extraordinary in the human genome”, according to its team leader — and on Thursday it published its results in the science magazine Nature.

In headline speak, this huge study reveals the X factor that explains why the sexes are so different. “In essence,” according to one of the authors, Hunt Willard, “there is not one human genome but two: male and female.” This is revolutionary stuff.

The X chromosome study provides coherent explanations for very complex differences between the sexes, including men’s vulnerability to many serious genetic disorders; what it does not provide is any excuse for sexist triumphalism on either side, or for particularising from the general.

The implications seem to me both simple and encouraging. It seems clear that it is wrong to assume all boys and girls should be educated in the same way. What’s needed is choice. Some girls do very well in a competitive, exam-driven atmosphere; some boys might prefer the female conventions of continuous assessment.

It’s often said that girls’ recent successes have to do with female teaching styles that suit them better than boys; perhaps failing boys could be helped with a very different, single-sex approach tailored to their needs. Parents and children should decide what’s best. Schools should be free to offer varying idioms of education; and there should be setting and streaming in all schools — it is ridiculous to imagine that all boys and girls of the same age could possibly thrive in the same classroom.

In employment we should dump the obsession with sex equality, or “equity” as people annoyingly call it. This obsession is based on the assumption that fairness to both sexes is a crude 50-50 split — in the boardroom, the lecture room, the physics lab, in middle management, in nursing. It is now clearly outdated. People vary, both inside and outside their gender, for all kinds of reasons. No employer should be expected to iron out these complexities.

Trying to impose a mistaken idea of fairness is horribly unfair to everyone, counter-productive and extremely expensive. One cannot impose fairness by numbers. All one can do is try harder to promote fairness to individuals, on merit — to protect them from unthinking generalisations about the group to which they belong. This would mean more industrial tribunals, perhaps, but far fewer regulations absolutely certainly.

Imagine the sighs of relief when all the “equity” guidelines and audits and best practice and Investors in People documents could be cast onto a bonfire of red tape. Whole local authority departments could be axed, armies of public sector workers redeployed in real jobs. Imagine the savings of public money.

We’re all supposed to celebrate diversity these days. Perhaps we should actually do so by freely admitting and celebrating the many and varied differences between men and women, wherever they appear, without trying to control and reform them. Vivent les différences.