It is commonplace to describe prevailing attitudes about social issues, including those regarding gender equality and gender roles, as being like a pendulum which swings one way and then another as a liberal society attempts to find an ideal balance. Where it comes to gender issues, those who believe that society remains patriarchal and misogynistic, as it ever has been, tend to reject the metaphor of a social pendulum. For them, the bob is stuck, fixed at a state producing injustices that negatively affect women. Those who use the pendulum metaphor do so to describe a society they see as having once disadvantaged women, but which now overreaches in trying to redress the balance and disadvantages men. Some predict that the pendulum will soon “swing back” and may go as far in the other direction as it has toward feminist activism. While critics are almost surely right that feminist activism is creating an unstable situation that will engender pushback forwarding traditionally conservative gender roles, it’s of utmost importance to realize that — just as two wrongs don’t make right — the pendulum need not swing.
Those who believe that the symbolic pendulum has swung too far point to affirmative action benefitting women and they point to structural inequalities which favor women including custody laws, criminal sentencing, and the right to genital integrity. They also refer to cultural changes and new social norms; how men and women perceive their roles in life and their relationships with each other. This is a complicated matter worth delving into in detail. Although systematic imbalances can produce a great deal of heated debate, the issues of purpose, meaning, identity, role, and relationships are often experienced much more personally, so pushback against new social norms is often expressed in these terms. Contentious questions lie at the center of these concerns and are debated, often furiously. What does it mean to be a man or a woman in today’s society? What is the nature of “man” and of “woman?” Are they identical or do they differ? Are differences biological or socialized? What roles do men and women have in relation to society and to each other?
Whether or not you agree that it is useful to understand cultural evolution as attached to some social “pendulum,” which implies regularly swinging in excess to and fro around some ideal middle, our understanding of gender, gender relations, and gender roles have changed extremely rapidly over the last sixty years, and the dust has not yet settled. Changes in reproductive technology along with women’s rights to access all jobs and professions while being paid the same as men for doing the same work have enabled these changes. Further, support for these developments, which we might rightly call progress, is overwhelming. In the UK, 86% of men and 74% of women support gender equality, and in the US, a conflated figure indicates 85% in support of gender equality. Nevertheless, perceptions of these changes vary wildly.
In the view of feminists, men are still advantaged, and there is still much work to do. Feminists perceive that women still cannot access the same job opportunities as men in the same numbers and earn less overall. To them, this indicates discrimination or, at the least, pervasive cultural conditioning which discourages women from achieving their potential. In the feminist view, men are dangerously violent, especially against women. They infer this by pointing out that men are significantly overrepresented among violent criminals and that although most victims of violence are also men, reported intersexual violence shows men to commit much more against women than women do against men. This imbalance is particularly significant in sexual offenses. Feminists understand these data as indicative of societal norms in which men are socialized to be violent, especially to women, due to the influences of pervasive misogyny and patriarchal assumptions. Feminist beliefs such as these ultimately rely upon what is known as “blank slatism” or “social constructivism.”
Blank slatism is the belief that human psychological traits, cognitive abilities, and behavior are all learned, rather than being even partially dependent upon inherited biological traits. Particularly, under blank slatism there can be no inherent difference in psychological, cognitive, and behavioral traits between men and women. Instead, differences between the sexes are believed to be entirely socialized, meaning they are learned largely from others in the attempt to conform to societal norms — recollecting the famous declaration “gender is a social construct.”
The connections between feminist thought and blank slatism are both deep and complex. The view that humans are psychologically “blank slates” (tabulae rasae) from which the ideology gets its name, has a long history within feminism from the early days of “consciousness raising” but is now heard most commonly in intersectional feminist thought, which relies upon postmodern notions that knowledge and truth are constructed by dominant discourses. As a result, a blank slate ideology is now a central tenet of both radical and liberal feminism and contravening it can carry serious social consequences.
Within this ideology, all differences between men and women are believed to be products of a power imbalance that negatively affects women, which is known as “Patriarchy.” Therefore, feminists who embrace this thinking will see only imbalances in society when they affect women, and they will explain these problems as being solely caused by social injustices rooted in harmful — and malleable — social and cultural norms. The idea that inherent gender differences could exist and, even if only slightly, significantly affect life choices, career paths, interests, perceptions, styles of communication, sexual behavior, criminality, and behavior cannot be countenanced from within a blank-slate perspective.
The consequences of this on gender relations are profound. The perception of a hierarchical society in which men are the oppressors and women the oppressed and the use of concepts like “rape culture,” “toxic masculinity,” “male entitlement” and “mansplaining” have led to the demonization of men as well as a fearfulness and victim mentality in women who subscribe to them. When men are regarded as largely toxic and women present as an unappealing mixture of rage and fragility it is very difficult for them to have relationships of mutual love and respect.
Socially Conservative Perceptions
For the most socially conservative, the change in gender roles and gender relations is perceived very differently. In this view, the natural order has been disrupted. Men’s roles as husband, provider, and protector and women’s as wife, mother, and homemaker are being rejected, leading to confusion, immorality, and general unhappiness. To them, “traditional” gender roles fulfill both men and women’s natures, which are complementary, and which were designed to be so by inexorable forces such as God or Nature (evolution) or both. It is not that men are superior to women, they will tell us, but that men bear much more responsibility for financial provision and overall authority while women bear much more for the care of the family and rule of the home.
From the socially conservative point of view, many women have been pressured, forced, coerced, or convinced into leaving the home and joining the workforce by feminism. Further, this change specifically leads women to be unhappy and unfulfilled because they are “trying to be men,” which they can never be, by taking on these roles socially conservative thought associates with men. Thus, social conservatives often picture women working tedious jobs in dreary cubicles and secretly or subconsciously longing to be at home fulfilling more domestic roles. Social conservatives also often intuit that men, meanwhile, are growing increasingly unhappy by the usurpation of their roles and the absence of their helpmeet and complementary partner. This stance which sees distinct gender roles ordained by God or nature is known as “gender essentialism.”
Gender essentialism is the belief that men and women’s psychological traits, cognitive abilities, and behavior are essentially different. That is, that they are fundamentally different. It is believed that there is a distinctly male nature and a distinctly female nature and that these are fundamentally suited to different roles in life. Usually, these tend to involve the man working and protecting the family and the woman raising children and taking care of the home, though there is, of course, much more complexity and nuance below this first layer. Under gender essentialism, the role of culture in having historically produced rigid gender roles is usually denied and the existence of individual variation ignored.
The connections between gender essentialism and social conservatism are deeply entrenched and related to moral foundations which favor order, hierarchy, and tradition. Often, they are rooted in Abrahamic religious mythology in which God made Adam first and then made Eve as a helper and companion and told them both to go forth and multiply. Christianity has a long history of regarding men and women as essentially different, and relating the masculine to order and reason and the feminine to nature and emotion. However, this belief is also found among the non-religious social conservatives who will argue to capital-N “Nature,” rather like the Deist’s God, insisting that evolutionary psychology proves these essential differences and legitimizes these separate spheres.
Within this belief system, a failure of men and women to live according to these roles is an aberration which will result in much unhappiness for men and women, cause much damage to children, and harm society. Social conservatives who adhere to this thinking tend to see only problems associated with women’s ever-increasing engagement with the public sphere of work and leadership, and they will explain these problems as a breakdown of the social order and denial of male and female nature. The idea that, although men and women differ on average in many traits, both sexes have intellectual/professional/vocational needs and family needs cannot be countenanced.
The consequences of gender essentialism on gender relations and on society more broadly have been profound in Western history and remain so in countries which continue to be dominated by very socially conservative gender norms. The perception of a binary society in which men must be strong both physically and emotionally, govern society, and also be able to support a family single-handedly, while women must be nurturing, supportive, child-bearing, and dedicated to childcare and domestic labor, has led to unrealistic expectations of both sexes, and to resentment and oppression. When men are expected to fill certain roles and women others regardless of their individual abilities, interests, and preferences, it is very difficult for those whose psychological & intellectual needs do not perfectly align with expectations to have the complementary and mutually satisfying relationships promised in the brochure.
Of course, the vast majority of men and women are neither blank slatists nor gender essentialists, and go on loving, liking, and respecting each other. Most people are able to recognize “men” and “women” as groups with differences on average and each man and woman as an individual with their own unique blend of traits. Even those who identify as feminists often accept that some innate differences exist and those who consider themselves socially conservative usually accept that rigid gender roles have been influenced by culture and are not right for everyone.
In reality, there is an interplay of social factors and biological traits and tendencies that create gender roles. By analogy, this is a bit like working out whether the dictionary is descriptive or prescriptive—that is, does the dictionary describe what words mean in common use or does it tell us what words mean and how we should use them? The obvious answer is both, and the reflexive interplay matters. We record words as they are used into the dictionary, but then the dictionary becomes a reference by which we determine if we are using our words correctly to convey the meanings we intend.
Similarly, cultures have evolved gender roles partly in service to the underlying biological realities about men and women, and yet the cultures themselves become a kind of reference by which its members understand socially normative ways to manifest those gender roles—and the reflexivity here matters. The interesting, difficult, and unanswered questions about gender are how strongly each of these inputs (often called “nature” and “nurture”) matter, how they interact, and what varying social contexts can tell us about the variability in those features. Blank slatism and gender essentialism are both factually incorrect and, indeed, extremist views that mostly deny one aspect or the other. Despite very few people committing themselves to either of them, the influences of blank slatism and gender essentialism are making themselves felt even within the moderate and reasonable mainstream of the discussion about gender.
We humans have a depressing tendency to respond to extremism from one side with a similar or greater application of extremism on the other side, as though these can balance each other out and restore equilibrium. The opposite is true. In our “Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity,” we argued that this tendency can sometimes produce an “existential polarization” in which two opposing extremes feed into each other’s frenzies, becoming increasingly apocalyptic and insane. This dynamic is centrifugal: more moderate representatives of those sides, alarmed at the well-advertised excesses of the other, begin to feel an existential threat that slowly radicalizes them toward the extreme of their own side. As they radicalize, they take on the usual traits of parochial partisanship and begin to minimize, rationalize, and form apologetics for the excesses of their own side while judging the opposing side by its worst examples. This tendency is exacerbated by social media platforms like Twitter, where some lunatic view goes viral and becomes allegedly representative of what the other side thinks, even if it represents an extremely fringe view held by very few people.
This centrifugal polarization, which can begin to feel existential, also occurs within the gender wars. Despite the best research we have indicating that issues of gender seem to be partially innate and partially the result of social learning, with serious and informed debates negotiating how much role each plays, the culture war over gender consumes all of this reasonable middle ground and hopelessly polarizes the discussion. As a result, rather than nuanced discussions about the real interactions of biological and social influences on gender, we get pressured to take a side to oppose what we see as the greater threat. When asked specifically if they are pushing 100% constructionism or 100% biological essentialism, most people not only say “no,” they falsely indicate that no one is so extreme. Those tending towards cultural constructivism, if pushed, will say that gender differences probably exist, but that we still have a long way to go to overcome socialization and focusing on biology impedes that. Those tending towards gender essentialism, if pushed, will say that individuals might often differ from typical gender roles but that blank slatism is rife, and the pressing need is to get them to accept that gender differences exist. Nevertheless, the battle lines get drawn and people are motivated to push one narrative or another.
Blank slatism has been winning within the realm of culturally acceptable ideas, with identity-based scholarship and feminist activism working on cultural constructivist assumptions almost exclusively. Companies are under great pressure to achieve equal representation of women in all (status-laden) fields, and an underrepresentation of women in any (high-status) field and the “wage gap” are frequently held up as evidence of a problem. This evidence may be posited as confirming outright discrimination, which ignores different interests and choices on average, or, more mildly though at a greater cost to women’s individual agency, as indicative of cultural conditioning that skews women’s interests and choices in a particular “patriarchal” way. Sealing its power is a weaponization of misplaced morality: disagree and you’re not merely wrong; you’re a sexist.
The increasing hegemony and moral bullying of blank-slate ideology have provoked a backlash. Extreme social conservatives who prescribe rigid gender roles have always existed, but now we are seeing people who previously accepted a broadly liberal ethic of equal opportunities, meritocracy, and individualism becoming inclined to take a more essentialist stance to gender. They do so in response to the way imbalances get addressed within the realms of employment but even more in response to accompanying narratives, which place men and women in opposition to one another. Further, these narratives increasingly caricature men as bullies, boors, misogynists, and abusers and women as fragile, intimidated victims. Counterintuitively, the newfound appeal of “traditional gender roles” is often less about wanting to deny women any rights, freedoms, and opportunities and more about wanting to set out a way for men and women to love, need, and connect with each other again.
Nevertheless, this is a mistake. Gender essentialism is factually incorrect and unethical, and having the pendulum swing back in that direction is unjustifiable.
Gender Essentialism is Factually Incorrect
The idea that men and women are essentially different psychologically and cognitively is too coarse to be factually correct. In reality, all the evidence points at us being strongly overlapping populations with (usually slightly) different averages. Studies which look at gender differences consistently find differences on average, with women having higher verbal ability and men higher visual-spatial ability, but many men have better verbal skills than most women and many women have better visual-spatial skills than most men. A greater number of men are found to have an interest in working with things and physical systems while a greater number of women find working with people more satisfying, and these differences are more manifest where women have more freedom of choice. Nevertheless, many female engineers and male nurses exist, enjoy their jobs, and are good at them. These seemingly paradoxical results are not mysterious in the least. The average of a population is only one small piece of information about it and, without more information, tell us rather little, especially about any particular individual with in the population. (In statistics, at a minimum, one doesn’t know very much about a population without knowing an average, a parameter describing spread or variation, and the overall shape of the distribution.)
Differences in sexuality are more profound with men tending to be more open to casual sex than women on average. They also tend to be more visual in their preferences for erotica while women tend toward the verbal and emotional. Similarly, men are often more prone to sexual jealousy while women are more prone to emotional jealousy. Nevertheless, men who aren’t interested in casual sex and men who don’t suffer from sexual jealousy exist as do women who are and do. Men seem to have greater variability in traits generally while women stay closer to average. (This last point clarifies why in addition to an average, one needs to know how variable the population is to understand it. Two populations might have the same average but different levels of variance and the average alone cannot account for why the population with more variance will have more representatives in the “tails.”)
These differences, which have been replicated over and over, discredit the blank-slate hypothesis that all cognitive and psychological differences between men and women are socialized, but they also disprove gender essentialism. Studies repeatedly show that men and women are more alike than different and that it is rare for men and women to have all the traits more commonly associated with their sex. The reality is: that the sexes are much more alike cognitively and psychologically than different and that differences are significant enough to have an impact on life choices and that individual variation means that we cannot rely on these trends to tell us anything about any individual. This seems to be counterintuitive to many people who argue for gender essentialism. It is likely that this is because we humans form our conclusions largely on observation and experience, and we are much more likely to notice differences than similarities.
A very easily observable example of a sex difference on average with much individual variation is height, and this can help show how all these things can be true at once. Men and women are close in height, with the average woman being approximately 5 inches shorter than the average man. In the UK, this difference is between 64 inches tall and 69 inches tall; less than 10%. Although small, this difference is significant enough to have effects. Most trousers with a 34-inch leg will be bought by men, while most with a 30-inch leg will be bought by women. The market for trousers with a 32-inch leg will be more even. There will be a very small market for men’s trousers with a 28-inch leg and for women’s with a 36-inch leg. More men will be able to reach things on the top shelves of supermarkets. More women will be comfortable in economy seats on flights.
We are all aware of this height difference on average, and we are all aware that very many individuals do not match it. Applying this same honesty in interpretation is the evidence-based way to think of cognitive and psychological differences with a similarly small gendered difference. In the realm of the facts about gender differences, there is no justification for claiming men’s place to be in the workforce and women’s in the home. As Steven Pinker writes in his book, The Blank Slate,
[W]hat we do know about the sexes does not call for any action that would penalize or constrain one sex or the other. Many psychological traits relevant to the public sphere, such as general intelligence, are the same on average for men and women, and virtually all psychological traits may be found in varying degrees among the members of each sex. No sex difference yet discovered applies to every last man compared with every last woman, so generalizations about a sex will always be untrue of many individuals. And notions like “proper role” and “natural place” are scientifically meaningless and give no grounds for restricting freedom
Gender Essentialism is Unethical
Nobody moralizes about men and women straying from their full adult heights because variation so clearly exists naturally. Some do, however, moralize considerably about men and women straying from their “natural” gender roles, even though the evidence points to great variation in natural abilities and interests too. This, therefore, is likely to be less about the known facts – what is – and more about the ethics – what “should” be. Gender roles are being posited as a moral good for individuals, families, and society and denial of the overlapping of traits and individual variance takes place to support this. Again, in this, gender essentialism mirrors blank slatism where the motivation to deny the reality of gender difference is rooted in a moral desire for gender equality.
Defenders of the moral goodness of gender roles would be likely to point out that height lacks any moral component and so is not a fitting analogy. Could they be right to make moral arguments for gender essentialism? Are individuals, families and societies happier when men and women have separate roles? It is unclear that they are. Although women report less happiness now than they did when the gendered division of labor was a norm, we do not know whether individual women were more fulfilled in the past or whether expectations of fulfillment have increased. We do know, however, that many individuals were not happy with gendered restrictions because they said so, explicitly and insistently. Are children better off if their mother stays at home? While some studies show that small children who spend long days in childcare facilities do less well psychologically on average, others strongly suggest this tells us something about the quality of childcare facilities and not about whether women, specifically, should stay at home with their children. Do societies function better when men and women have different roles? Again, it is hard to show that they do, given that by most measures – crime, poverty, health – Western society continues to improve. The current examples we have of societies with strong gendered divisions and traditional gender roles are very religious – frequently Muslim – ones, and this raises a whole set of different variables when considering societal health.
Nevertheless, gender roles do speak to our ways of being in the world and this is, ultimately, a moral issue. It speaks to aspects of life which are most important to us – how we form relationships, how we build families, how we connect, and how we love. It is also almost certainly correct that gender roles, treated as a part of the approximations for optimizing human flourishing that we call “cultures,” exist because they are reflective of something in the underlying biological realities. They must be recognized as an acceptable topic of conversation.
We would suggest moralizing about essentialist gender roles to have one key point and two potentially ethical applications, both of which are heavily qualified. The key point to pay attention to is that even accepting gender differences and with them, that human flourishing can be optimized through recognition and certain degrees of encouragement of gendered roles, freedom at the level of the individual level seems to be a supervening liberal ethical imperative. That is, at best, moralizing about gendered roles runs afoul of a more primary ethical principle when it fails to allow for any individual, regardless of gender, to express their individuality and pursue their own happiness in the ways they deem best.
First, such moralizing can be ethically made in general so long as all such advice is quite vague and profoundly disclaimed as unlikely to apply to all or most individuals of a given gender. People can appreciate both sharing & hearing beliefs, values, advice & experience about how to be a man or how to be a woman. This is of interest to nearly all of us as we draw on biological realities, whether we accept this or not, to inform and shape the cultural guesses we make about how men and women “should” be. These cultural mores then take on a life of their own and the moral evaluation of them continues. In this sense, the ongoing conversation about what it is to be a man or a woman represent broadly but not specifically instructive fables rather than true accounts. This may seem problematic to those who want to eradicate gender or make it entirely subjective but, for more of us, there is something integral to who we are about our gender and there is an ethical case within liberalism to be made for engaging it in this way.
Second, such moralizing can be ethically made in specific advice to a specific individual, when there are extremely strong reasons to believe that doing so might increase that person’s overall flourishing by enabling them to actualize traits they might otherwise be ignoring. As mentioned above, gender is a highly salient social variable that carries a great deal of weight to identity — as the blank slatists’ gesticulations around gender identity readily prove. In such, it can be a way to connect a person to a suite of socially desirable and personally worthwhile traits that can increase their flourishing. Again, such moralizing has to be provided gently, through knowledge of the individual and so should be provided only when there exists sufficient closeness to recognize that it would, in that specific case, be potentially beneficial to that individual.
On a broader, universalizing scale, however, moralizing about gender roles — much like the way blank slatism attempts to bulldoze them — tends to run afoul of liberal ethics quite quickly and is almost guaranteed not to optimize human flourishing. Although such moralizing seeks to maintain the benefits that come with the attempted optimization, it typically overreaches by making the error of treating populations according to their averages — or in this case, given how small those average differences tend to be and how broad the spread is across both men and women, exaggerations and caricatures of those averages. This is the first problem inherent to overreliance upon gender essentialism that renders it unlikely to achieve ethical success. The problem with moralizing excessively about gender roles is that it is usually immediately and unfairly suppressive of individualism, which makes it unethical from a liberal perspective. The liberal perspective, seated upon Enlightenment values including universality and individuality, indicates, at best, that all “moralizing” about gender roles must be taken as merely suggestive, not expected, and never forced.
Ultimately, typical and overreaching moralizing about gender roles as seen from gender essentialists runs directly contrary to a liberal ethic that prizes individuality, equal opportunity, and the minimization of unjust barriers within society. Moralizing in this way limits people who would use their talents or follow their interests otherwise than oversimplified caricatures want to allow, which renders them an ethical failure. If, as social conservatives often claim, women are currently being culturally pressured by feminism to act against their natural preferences and abilities, simply encouraging people to make their own choices and to pursue their own happiness regardless of ideological prescriptions would take care of that. Moralizing need play no more significant role than gentle and heavily disclaimed suggestions — ideally delivered about specific traits without having to appeal specifically to gender — and, indeed, it cannot be more and retain its ethical integrity.
The liberal approach has been a resoundingly successful overarching strategy to improving human flourishing, and thus it would be unethical to go back to morally enforced essentializations of gender, even if we could. The fact is that having been freed from the expectations laid upon their genders, few people would go back to a state where they are told how to be, even if they end up conforming strongly to what those roles would prescribe. At this point, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle, taking away equal opportunities, contraception, and all the rest and returning to an expectation that one’s genitals must define how one live one’s life and what one is interested in.
It is essential, when considering gender relations, to recognize that we are still adapting to changes in rights, freedoms and expectations which have happened astoundingly fast in the last sixty years. Men and women are still working on optimizing the balance between work and family responsibilities since women have joined the workforce in vast numbers. We are also still working on our relations with each other since ideas of sexual morality have changed from expectations of chastity (particularly for women) and monogamy to expectations of consideration and clear consent.
The dust still needs to settle on these changes and getting apocalyptic and advocating radical solutions will not help. It does not help to blame men for being different to women or to assume only cultural conditioning could prevent women from making the exact same choices as men. It does not help to prescribe entirely different roles for men and women in defiance of how similar we are and how illiberal this is. We need to hold on to the fact that despite the irrational and illiberal extremes, men and women still overwhelmingly love and like each other and recognize each other as individuals, and they continue to negotiate and compromise in their relationships to make them work.
The only thing which will help our current culture wars is to accept the reality that men and women are different on average but have the same psychological and cognitive traits in overlapping degrees, that individuals could fit anywhere along the spectrum of more typically male and more typically female traits, and that very few will conform to all averages for their sex. The most productive and ethical thing we can do to reduce social pressure one way or the other and enable individuals to realize their individual potential in both interests and abilities it to prioritize treating people as individuals.
The pendulum which so many see as swinging wildly disadvantaging one sex and then another need not do so if we make our stance on this evidence-based and liberal in the broadest sense. If we can accept that we are overlapping populations with much variation but significant differences on aggregate; if we can respect people’s rights to find gender roles meaningful and fulfilling to them and their right not to; if we can treat each other as individuals with the same right to every opportunity, dignity and respect, the pendulum can rest.