Biological Sex Differences in the Workplace: Reports of the "End of Men" Are Greatly Exaggerated (as Are Claims of Women's Continued Inequality)

By Browne, Kingsley R. | Boston University Law Review, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Biological Sex Differences in the Workplace: Reports of the "End of Men" Are Greatly Exaggerated (as Are Claims of Women's Continued Inequality)


Browne, Kingsley R., Boston University Law Review


Common examples of perceived workplace inequality - the "glass ceiling," the "gender gap" in compensation, and occupational segregation, among others - cannot be well understood if the explanation proffered for their existence is limited exclusively to social causes such as discrimination and sexist socialization. Males and females have, on average, different sets of talents, tastes, and interests, which cause them to select somewhat different occupations and exhibit somewhat different workplace behaviors. Some of these sex differences have biological roots. Temperamental sex differences are found in competitiveness, dominance seeking, risk taking, and nurturance, with females tending to be more "person oriented" and males more "thing oriented." The sexes also differ in a variety of cognitive traits, including various spatial, verbal, mathematical, and mechanical abilities. Although social influences can be important, these social influences operate on (and were in fact created by) sexually dimorphic minds.

Substantial changes in the environment of a complex organism will often result in changes in its behavior. Therefore, we should not be surprised when changes in the economy or changes in the nature of work are followed by changes in workforce behavior and, hence, changes in workplace outcomes. For those keeping track of "the numbers, " these changes may be characterized as either increasing or decreasing equality, depending upon the particular definition of equality selected. Moreover, whether one views a particular outcome as a harbinger of the "end of men" or a reflection of continued sexual inequality of women may be a consequence of whether the focus is on group averages or the tail end of distributions. It may turn out, for example, that even if women may do better as a group on some measures, men may still dominate at the top.

Introduction

In recent years, a spate of publications have chronicled or predicted the so- called decline of males and ascendancy of females. Most recently, Hanna Rosin has suggested it is the "end of men";1 but at the end of the last century, Lionel Tiger was lamenting the "decline of males"2 and Helen Fisher was celebrating the "first sex."3 These earlier assertions were based largely on the same types of trends that Rosin describes today: changes in the workplace, in education, and in other forces, such as increasing female control over reproduction and increasing societal subsidization of child raising. A decade ago I acknowledged these trends but suggested that reports of the demise of males were greatly exaggerated:

Nonetheless, men will continue to dominate the scarce positions at the top of hierarchies as long as it is necessary to devote decades of intense labor- market activity to obtain them, even if women come to predominate in middle-management positions and even if men also disproportionately occupy the bottom of hierarchies. Men will similarly continue to dominate math-intensive fields, as well as fields that expose workers to substantial physical risks.4

These residual areas of perceived inequality are commonly invoked to prove the continued existence of sex discrimination against women. It is seldom explained, however, why it is necessary to invoke discrimination to explain areas of continued male dominance while areas of female ascendancy are casually attributed to social forces or, indeed, to inherent female superiority.

The complex nature of sex differences in the evolving workplace cannot be appreciated without an understanding of inherent differences between men and women. It is certainly fair to suggest that in some - or even many - respects changes in the contemporary workplace favor women. It is probably not correct, however, to characterize these trends as a sea change that will so overwhelmingly swamp men that any areas of remaining male advantage must be laid at the doorstep of discriminating employers or residual patriarchy. The fact is that the sexes differ somewhat - on average - in a number of talents, tastes, and interests, and these distinctions cause them to select somewhat different occupations and exhibit somewhat different workplace behaviors. …

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