VIVE LA DIFFERENCE: Gender Differences and Public Policy

Friday, August 27, 2004

When it comes to public policy, is it time to take sex differences seriously? There is no disputing the biological differences between men and women. But how do or should these biological differences influence the roles that men and women play in modern society? Are efforts to create equality in every venue of life—from sports, via programs such as Title IX, to the working world, via the pursuit of subsidized child care and maternity leave—ultimately beneficial for women or harmful? Peter Robinson speaks with Steven Rhoads and Deborah Rhode.

Recorded on Friday, August 27, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: a little sex education...

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: in public policy, should we take the differences between men and women seriously? There is, to state the obvious, no disputing the biological differences between men and women, but how do, or how should these biological differences affect the roles that men and women play in contemporary society? Are efforts to create equality--in sports, for example, by way of Title IX programs or in the workplace by way of subsidized day care and maternity leave--are efforts to create equality reasonable and just, or do they do more harm than good?

Joining us, two guests. Deborah Rhode is a professor of law at Stanford University and the author of Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality. Steven Rhoads is a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia and the author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously.

Title: You Say You Want a Revolution

Peter Robinson: Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield on the sexual revolution of the past few decades: "Believing the sexes are identical, women fail to understand their own greater desire for marriage and avoid it until the opportunity passes or comes too late for having children. Men have a ball because the new conventions favor their inclinations toward an active sex life. They fail to see that marriage is for their happiness." The sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, all this a terrible mistake? Steven?

Steven Rhoads: Well, sexual revolution, certainly a terrible mistake for women. Men are having a good time.

Peter Robinson: Deborah?

Deborah Rhode: Hardly.

Peter Robinson: Hardly? All right. Steven, let me quote you to yourself. In your book Taking Sex Differences Seriously, you focus on three traits: sex, nurturing, and aggression or competitiveness.

Steven Rhoads: Right.

Peter Robinson: Quickly, I'd like to go through each of those, have you explain what you mean, and have Deborah give us a quick gloss. Sex--describe the differences between men and women.

Steven Rhoads: Libido is controlled by testosterone. Men have more interest in sex. They're more interested in casual sex. Women watch Friends and Sex and the City and they think, hey, I can have fun too. The ones who are most experienced, do it the most, end up three years later, according to one study, saying it's not for me. My opinions are there, but I just don't feel right with this.

Peter Robinson: Okay, now we will have lots of time to talk about the implications of any sexual--what I want to establish first of all is the differences that he sees, biologically rooted, and whether you buy them.

Deborah Rhode: You know, teasing out what's nature and nurture is something that experts have disagreed with over centuries and what we do know from looking at a range of cultures and historical periods is while it is true that there is some--a few sex differences that seem constant...

Peter Robinson: That seem enduring, uh-huh.

Deborah Rhode: ...over time, there's a huge variation particularly around sexual activity. And enormous changes just in this country in the last three decades in terms of incidence of female extramarital sexual behavior. If it was all hardwired into the genes, why do you see such enormous differences over time and culture.

Peter Robinson: Nurturing. Differences?

Steven Rhoads: Big differences. Women are much more into nurturing, especially babies. Lots more estrogen, lots more neural receptors for oxytocin, which is a nurturing hormone. And as a result, they are drawn to babies in a way men aren't. If you have more testosterone--a high testosterone woman, less interested in babies. No testosterone woman, great interest in babies. Most women, a whole lot of interest in babies and much more than men have.

Peter Robinson: And we should say, you're giving, for television purposes, you're giving the briefest possible summary of your book, but your argument is that this is all objectively noticeable and you quote studies, and so forth. So it's not rooted in opinion or literature of some...

Steven Rhoads: No.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Nurturing?

Deborah Rhode: You can't see...

Peter Robinson: Same degree of variations or what?

Deborah Rhode: Well, you do see enormous variations in different cultures. Men perform a much higher proportion of child-rearing roles. We know that men are just as good at it when they're forced into those roles, for example, by the death of a spouse. And we also know that from very, very early ages, little girls are socialized into thinking of themselves as nurturers. Walk through a contemporary toy store, you know, what you find on the boys' side are the tanks and what you find on the girls' sides are the dolls. And separating out how much of that is an innate preference and how much of that is socially conditioned by the images and the expectations that children pick up on is a very difficult task.

Peter Robinson: I just want to get through your three large categories. Lay them out on the table.

Steven Rhoads: Sure.

Peter Robinson: Aggression or competitiveness is the last of the three.

Steven Rhoads: Well, men are more competitive in all arenas. They're more interested in sports, in balls, in rough-and-tumble play before the age of two. They don't even know what the stereotypes are by then. If you ask them what boys are interested in and what are girls interested in, they don't know. But they're interested in the balls and they're interested in rough-and-tumble play, but girls are interested in dolls. And I think this, you know, there's studies that show testosterone might not have a lot to do with it, but there's 28 men who kill another man for every woman who kills another woman worldwide.

Peter Robinson: Men, boys, more aggressive, more competitive?

Deborah Rhode: Sure and there's some evidence that higher levels of testosterone are certainly factors in that. What we don't know again, though, is how much of that is socially determined and how much of it is biologically determined.

Peter Robinson: Now let me ask, what differences do the differences make?

Title: Vive la Difference?

Peter Robinson: Let me quote you now, Deborah, in your book Speaking of Sex: "The biological basis of sex-linked differences is complicated, contested, and confused." You've made this argument already. "It is also," and this is the point that interests me, "It is also increasingly irrelevant." Now what do you mean by that? To the extent that they are grounded in nature, they're increasingly irrelevant.

Deborah Rhode: Because what we know is that there's enormous possibilities for society to shape the kinds of conduct and preferences that each sex have. And I think what's a lot more productive inquiry rather than how much of this is biological, how much of it isn't, which you really can't do adequate controlled experiments about, sort of what sorts of traits do we want to see nurtured and flourish in both men and women. You made the point a little bit earlier about what the costs are of very highly aggressive culture and this country certainly pays a huge social price in that. So, let's talk about how we deal with the unattractive social consequences of certain behaviors and worry less about how much of it's hardwired into our genes.

Peter Robinson: But you would argue that discovering what is hardwired, what is likely to be abiding in the differences between men and women is a very important thing to establish. Right?

Steven Rhoads: Well, it's absolutely true with aggression and sexuality. Men are more predatory sexually, we got to control that, we got to control inappropriate aggression, but we're nurturing. What's the matter with women being more nurturing, which they are in fact. And the biggest argument that I think Deborah would have to come to grips with is the new research showing the difference between high testosterone women and low testosterone women. They're always in the same culture. Their mothers are encouraging dolls and so on. And what we find is, the high testosterone woman fights that. In fact, it has no effect on them at all.

Peter Robinson: Let me try to come at you with Deborah's argument from a--let me try to rephrase it and see what you do with it. We know that many humans have an inbuilt tendency toward violence; you'd argue it's more men. But we erect structures to take care of that--legal systems, we have police forces and so forth. We know some people are physically limited, crippled or handicapped, and we try to overcome that in various ways, so why shouldn't we establish social constructs to correct for or level out the differences between men and women? You want to rephrase the question?

Deborah Rhode: No, I want to pick up for a second on what Steve said. He said, what's wrong with women doing more nurturing?

Peter Robinson: Right.

Deborah Rhode: Because after all nurturing is wonderful. I think I would flip the question and say, then if nurturing is so positive, a point on which I'm sure we agree, why not get more men to do it too. All of the research out there about what makes for healthy child development says that kids do best when they have access to both male and female role models, positive role models. We're paying an enormous price, socially, for having shifted so much of the nurturing responsibility onto women. There are very, very profound social consequences that stem from the fact that after divorce, very few men retain any kind of ties to their biological children.

Steven Rhoads: That's interesting. Why don't they? See, the difference is in desires and feelings. It's a question of what women like to do. If you have men and women doing equal childcare and equal work, you're going to have more unhappiness than if you realize they're different.

Peter Robinson: 1960. The percentages of law degrees and medical degrees respectively awarded to women were 3% and 6%. 2000, it was 46% and 43%. You don't want to roll that back. Or do you?

Steven Rhoads: Well, I don't want to roll it back, but I do want more of my students, my female students who seem to have this home-centered nature to not feel they're letting down the team if they want to cut back on careers and spend more time at home than their husband does.

Peter Robinson: You don't want people to feel pressured...

Steven Rhoads: Exactly. I think they feel pressure more--bright women more to not stay home these days.

Peter Robinson: Hmmm.

Deborah Rhode: What do you think the pressure is on a guy who wants to stay home?

Steven Rhoads: Well, it's enormous and partly because women aren't interested in guys that want to stay home. Believe me, I ask my students, do you want a househusband? No. If they're a hard-charging careerist, they want a man who's even more of a hard-charging careerist.

Deborah Rhode: Wait till they have two kids.

Peter Robinson: Next topic: What would Deborah like to see done?

Title: Compassionate Maternalism

Peter Robinson: I'm quoting you Deborah, "We assume that wives choose to make career sacrifices in order to meet family obligations. We fail to challenge the social conditions that limit the choices available. Our nation's failure to guarantee adequate part-time policies, flexible schedules, and affordable childcare imposes enormous burdens and they fall disproportionately on women." So, your assertion is that the workings of the marketplace do women wrong and it's up to the federal government to step in, or corporations, or who steps in?

Deborah Rhode: Well, I think you want intervention on every level. You want Stanford to do better in terms of its policy. I just chaired our committee on women at Stanford that found enormous unhappiness among the women in the childcare opportunities available. You want corporate employers to do more and you want the government to provide incentives and support for that to happen. Many countries do a far better job in ensuring quality, affordable childcare than this one.

Peter Robinson: And you respond?

Steven Rhoads: Well, some of it I would agree with and I don't want a whole lot of government there, but I would agree more part-time jobs would make women happier. Women work less than men do and they complain more about the amount they work, because they want to spend more time at home. So, more part-time jobs, yes. But more subsidies for day care, no. Because that means the person who wants to be a home-centered woman, wants to spend all her time there or almost all her time there, gets taxed to provide free day care for, which is not as good day care, I think the evidence shows as mother-care or father-care or grandmother-care...

Peter Robinson: Okay, let me ask this question, sort of simple justice. It is already the case in the federal tax code that you can claim a deduction for paying people to take care of your children to permit you to work outside the home. Now, how is that fair to someone who chooses--to a woman who chooses to work at home, and doesn't get the tax deduction.

Deborah Rhode: Yeah. Well, I'm not going to argue for the appropriateness of the current policies. I think we need a lot better range of support for different choices, some of which are to stay home. But I certainly disagree with you that the evidence shows that day care is poorer for kids than the mother staying home. The overwhelming evidence suggests that it depends on the woman's satisfaction with the choice that she's made. And that there's quality day care, which if the mother is comfortable with it, does every bit as well in terms of observable outcomes in children.

Peter Robinson: You really wish to assert that the evidence as regards gender differences is confused and unclear, but that the evidence as regards day care is crystal clear.

Deborah Rhode: Well...

Peter Robinson: Surely, that's at least as contentious a field.

Deborah Rhode: I don't think so. Not the point that I made. I mean sure there's a lot of dispute about some of the evidence, but I think what most people say which is not to say, you know, that there aren't differences now in terms of the quality of what's available, but if you look at quality day care there's absolutely no evidence that the kids do worse in those settings than in...

Peter Robinson: Do you happen to know about that?

Steven Rhoads: Well, I think I do and Deborah does too. I think the evidence is overwhelming they do worse. That maternal care's best. There's really good studies now, after you control for how good the mother is with the kid, after you control for the quality of day care, if you have your kid in day care for under 10 hours versus over 30 hours, the numbers of inappropriately aggressive kids, the first two years we're looking at, and then we look at them when they're in kindergarten...

Peter Robinson: Right...

Steven Rhoads: Much more aggressive. Seventeen percent versus six percent after controlling for how good the mother is. So, I think the evidence is overwhelming there. And at the very least, let's give tax breaks. Why are we only subsidizing the thing that most people--most polls, and I think increasingly the experts, think is the worst kind of day care. Ask people to rank it, they say parent care, then grandmother care, then church care, then a neighbor, then commercial day care. That's the only one you get a tax break for.

Peter Robinson: Now, gender inequity in the workplace.

Title: Through the Glass Darkly

Peter Robinson: The glass ceiling. So we have study after study, this much is I think all three of us can agree, well established, that women over the course of their career receive less pay than men. You can say over the course of their career at similar jobs, there's all kinds of ways of slicing this and dicing it, but women in general receive less pay than men and occupy far fewer executive suites. And you say that's just the way it is because they are making choices to drop out of the workforce for a time to raise children. Is that your argument?

Steven Rhoads: That's part of it, the other part of it is in the mating market, men don't much care whether the woman is a CEO and women do. It's one of the strange things for men. Why do they think if you put the guy in a pizza uniform or you put him in a three-piece suit, he's a business man, women say, not only do I want to marry that guy more, but he's sexier. He's better looking. Men don't do that. Whether she's a waitress or a CEO, they think she's either a good-looking woman or she's not. So, if you think about the mating market, there's more of an incentive for these guys to be hard-chargers than there is for the women to be hard-chargers.

Peter Robinson: So, you look at the pattern of unequal pay and you do not say this is evidence on the face of it of inequity.

Steven Rhoads: No, certainly not. I don't.

Peter Robinson: Deborah?

Deborah Rhode: Well, we just know that--and here there are plenty of studies that suggest that similarly qualified women just over the course of a career advance less quickly and to less well-regarded in terms of economics and status than men do.

Peter Robinson: Surely there must be studies that try to correct for, I don't know how to put it exactly, but women dropping out to raise kids for a period of time.

Deborah Rhode: Well, sure, sure. Well...

Peter Robinson: Okay, what are the findings there?

Deborah Rhode: Well, that women pay an enormous price for that. And that has to do with certain expectations about employers, the sweatshop hours that are often expected of women at high-level professional circumstances. Our unwillingness to provide part-time jobs that aren't second-class jobs in terms of benefits and status. So we just need to make an enormous number of social adjustments to the patterns that we see that have endured. And to suggest that it's just individual choices that account for this I think really is unsupported by the evidence.

Steven Rhoads: Well, but I think we can agree on most of what you said there, that women need these part-time opportunities. They need them in a way men don't, because they're drawn and they're troubled and they feel that knife in their heart and they work in a way that men don't. So, I don't think that what you said really counts against the argument in my book. I'm not saying women would stay home, I think they should have more part-time opportunities. They're not going to be as happy if they work as hard as men do with a one-year-old at home.

Peter Robinson: From the workplace to the playing field: women's athletics.

Title: Virginia Swims

Peter Robinson: Title IX. Steven, let me quote you, "Title IX began with noble intentions, giving interested women access to athletic participation. It became a pernicious form of social engineering only when it became part of an ideological agenda insisting that the way women are socialized, rather than the way they are, keeps them from loving sports as much as men do." Pernicious. Explain that.

Steven Rhoads: Well...

Peter Robinson: Title IX and pernicious.

Steven Rhoads: Well, it's pernicious in a couple of ways. First of all, men are more interested in sports. Before the age of two, little boys--again they don't know the stereotypes, they're doing rough and tumble play, they're playing with balls more than girls are. Girls are dancing before the age of two more than boys are. There's a difference right away. If you look at intramural sports, anybody who wants to can play intramural sports, three to four times as many boys want to play intramural sports. I mean girls who do play, they do play more intramural sports. Now why? I think because they really bond with other men through activities whereas women are more likely to bond with other women through conversation and we have to remember that we want to control aggression and unsupervised peer groups of young males is where you get aggression. Get them fighting each other on the sporting field...

Peter Robinson: So the way Title IX now operates, you have the whole bureaucratic and coercive structure of the United States government trying to, what's your complaint? They're trying to force women to be what they're not or it's depriving resources from men. Or...

Steven Rhoads: Well, I mean, one side of it--look, men have big egos, right? Would you agree men have bigger egos, maybe not. But I think they do. And what's interesting is...

Peter Robinson: You've given her--talk fast because you don't want to give her too long to think about her rejoinder to that one.

Steven Rhoads: Well, I think they have bigger egos and yet they're more willing to sit on the bench. So, the only way you can get as many girls playing sports as boys is if you give them more teams because the boys love it so much. They love the bonding so much, they're willing to sit out there and sit on the bench even though they got big egos. They really need it.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Title IX, as it currently operates.

Deborah Rhode: Pre-Title IX, six percent of girls played in high school and college sports, now it's 40%. So, what's changed is not genetic predispositions. I went to school before Title IX. I had baton twirling while guys got, you know, football and soccer and basketball. When I went to Yale, the first year that they co-educated, the boys didn't want to give up any room on the tennis courts for the girls and there were no field spaces for--the field hockey team played on the parking lot which was a real problem in the day following a big game. That was pre-Title IX. We had no idea what girls' natural interests and desires were. Nor I think did we have any idea what the evidence has shown since Title IX that with changes in coaching, with changes in opportunities, with changes in nutrition you see a lot of what were assumed to be quote, natural differences in height and weight and speed and power have eroded over time. And you've seen those gaps substantially narrow as women have gotten opportunities that never before were available. I mean, we--so...

Peter Robinson: Your argument is a matter of degree. That somehow Title IX as currently...

Steven Rhoads: Went way too far.

Peter Robinson: Way too far, I see.

Steven Rhoads: And another thing...

Peter Robinson: And none of what Deborah just said you would take issue with?

Steven Rhoads: No, in the '50s women didn't get enough chances to play sports.

Peter Robinson: Okay, can you grant any of this, that there's an ideological edge to Title IX now? That it's gone too far? You don't grant any of that?

Deborah Rhode: Well, I don't grant that it's gone too far. I'd say it hasn't gone nearly far enough. You still see enormous differences in the opportunities that are available.

Peter Robinson: Let me try one final suggestion on both of our guests.

Title: That's Doctor Spock to You

Peter Robinson: Let me try a suggestion on both of you from the late and famous pediatrician, Dr. Spock, who once argued, "It doesn't make sense to let mothers go to work making dresses in factories or tapping typewriters in offices--" some large portion of our audience won't remember what a typewriter is, of course, menial work--"to have them pay other people to do a poorer job of raising children. The government should therefore pay a comfortable allowance to all mothers of young children who would otherwise be compelled to work." Would that much government intervention please you?

Steven Rhoads: Well, it's kind of like a tax deduction. It's not a whole lot different than what I said would be much fairer than subsidized day care and it would also enable--women would take advantage of it. They'd stay home much more often. I think that would be far superior to subsidizing day care.

Peter Robinson: Now what about this notion of workfare. Workfare's a mistake? Forcing mothers of young children to enter the workforce?

Steven Rhoads: Now that's a really tough--really tough...

Peter Robinson: Oh, that's tough?

Steven Rhoads: And here's why it's tough. It's tough because we know that fatherless families are a disaster and you can't subsidize single mothers to stay home with their kids without encouraging fatherless families. So, you've got two things that are really...

Peter Robinson: You do want mom home with the kids, but there's a second-order effect that you have to worry about.

Steven Rhoads: There's a second-order effect you got to worry about.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Deborah, what do you make about...

Deborah Rhode: So, you're going to force them to get married?

Peter Robinson: You want them to think more carefully before bearing children out of wedlock. That's the argument, right?

Steven Rhoads: Yep. I mean 29% of 40-year-old women are not married now. Thirteen percent were unmarried in 1960. I don't think that's women's doing, I think that's men having too much fun with unmarried sex until they get to an age...who knows!

Peter Robinson: What do you think about Dr. Spock's...?

Deborah Rhode: I don't see why it should just be women who are supported to stay home. And I'm certainly in favor of the policies in a lot of countries, for example, Sweden has it. With extended paid parental leave that either partner in the family can provide. And one of the things that Sweden discovered when they made provisions for generous support gender neutral and gave financial incentives for men to actually take advantage of the leave opportunities that were available is the number of men who devoted significant amounts of time to child-rearing increased enormously.

Steven Rhoads: Well, it did increase enormously because you paid them not to work for a month. But you also find out that they somehow take a lot of those childcare days on World Cup days when Sweden's involved. And they also take childcare days when their whole family's gone on vacation. The important thing to see is what they do with the kids when they're there. And there's studies, for example of a Swedish man, there are some of these who say I'm going to take leave and I want to be the principle childcare person for my kid. You go into the home and see what they do, they don't hold them as much. They don't talk to them as much. And these are men who say this is what they want to do.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask you, Steven, let me ask you now, we're running out of time, let me ask you what one reform would you like to see made?

Steven Rhoads: Change the textbooks so that you can once again have a loving mother and a baby in them. You can't get them through the state boards of education because now pressures--they got to have the briefcases. If anybody's in the kitchen, it's got to be a man these days. And I think it's terrible, it's very unfair to the bulk of women who remain home-centered.

Peter Robinson: So, your argument is there's a kind of creep in the culture, creeping hostility toward...

Steven Rhoads: What women are naturally best at.

Peter Robinson: And you would like to see that...

Steven Rhoads: And it's wonderful stuff.

Peter Robinson: Give me your one reform that you would most like to see made.

Deborah Rhode: I'd like to see society equally value the tasks that they've allocated to women. Leaving aside for the moment the question of how much of it's innate and desired, but just let's figure out what socially makes sense and figure out a way to reward both men and women for doing that kind of nurturing work and a way to discourage both men and women from the kind of hyper-aggressiveness that has such enormous social costs.

Peter Robinson: Deborah Rhode, Steven Rhoads, thank you very much.

Steven Rhoads: Thank you, Peter.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.