On the BBC recently there was a two-part programme entitled “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” (Still available on the iPlayer at the time of writing). I watched both parts, and the programme was both intriguing and annoying in about equal measure.
The basic premise of the programme is not a new one: we have long debated the most important factor in children’s development – nature or nurture. It’s not clear what is nature (i.e. inbuilt, genetic) and what is nurture (i.e. down to the way that you were brought up, environment etc.) Everyone agrees that both are factors, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on exactly how important they are.
This programme took a fairly strong line on ‘nurture’: basically it took the view that men and women were essentially the same, except for a few basic biological differences. In particular, it claimed that male and female brains were the same. The only difference which exists between boys and girls is because they are socialised that way – i.e. they are brought up in different ways. For example, boys don’t have superior spatial skills because of genetics (nature) – they are just given Lego to play with (nurture) and it develops those skills.
The programme tested the hypothesis by trying to make a ‘gender neutral’ classroom, where boys and girls were treated in exactly the same way.
I don’t know where to start with all of this, to be honest.
The biggest question to my mind was simply this: what rationale was given for the whole experiment?
The surface reason was, of course, equality: boys and girls, men and women, should have equality. But no justification of this was given, except for a brief discussion with neuroscientist Gina Rippon about the difference (or lack thereof) between male and female brains. It just seemed to be assumed that girls doing stereotypically ‘girly’ things and boys doing stereotypical ‘boyish’ things was not good enough. If you believed the programme, both boys and girls should be doing the same things – biological sex should simply not count for anything. There was no discussion about equality and how that might work out in this situation.
We are now living in an age where ‘equality’ is paramount. Everything has to be equal – so much so that when same-sex marriage was described as ‘equal marriage’ I suspect it won many supporters. Who wants to be anti-equality, after all? But when the drive for equality overrides even the ability to process fairly common sense observations, it’s all got a bit silly.
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of August, James Damore – senior software engineer at Google – was fired for writing an “anti-equality” memo (you can read it online here). James Damore is a smart guy – he has a PhD in biology – and although the memo was not perfect, the science was basically right (see the response of four scientists here, and a comprehensive review of the science here).
One of the best articles I read in response to the firing was by Ross Douthat. Douthat is a commentator who is often insightful and well worth reading, and this is no exception. He says this:
This growing difference seems to be a striking aspect of modern Western life. In societies where both sexes have greater freedom — and women have more educational and professional opportunities relative to men than in the past — the sexes’ academic interests tend to diverge relative to more traditional societies. And not only their interests but their personalities as well: The more officially egalitarian a society, a credible body of research suggests, the stronger the differences in stereotypically male and female personality traits.
Take a second to think about that: the more officially egalitarian a society, the stronger the differences between male and female interests and personality traits. The harder a society tries to be egalitarian, the less egalitarian it becomes. I find this fascinating, because it goes against pretty much everything that we instinctively believe about equality. I wonder if the problem is that the more ‘gender-neutral’ a society becomes, the more confused men and women are going to be and the more men and women are going to go to the extremes in order to feel secure (or, perhaps, the more people are going to identify as transgender. But that’s another story). When you eliminate traditional male and female roles, how are men and women going to express their identity as men and women?
Douthat goes on:
But since the usual way to reintegrate the sexes is to have them marry one another and raise kids, what Silicon Valley probably needs right now more than either workplace anti-microaggression training or an alt-right underground is a basic friendliness to family, pregnancy and child rearing.
I think he’s hit the nail on the head here. The elephant in the room when it comes to the difference between the sexes is reproduction – and it’s notable how often it is left out of these discussions. Many of those young boys and girls in the BBC show will go on to become fathers and mothers at some point in their lives. Is that of no significance? Is the traditional role of a mother – caring for and nurturing children – valueless now?
During one of our recent general elections (we’ve had so many…) my wife – currently a stay-at-home mum – said that she didn’t feel valued: there was so much focus on everyone who is able going out to work, where was the commendation for mums (or dads, for that matter) who stay at home to look after the children? Where did any of the political parties come out and say “we value those who raise the next generation”?
One of the privileges of my job is being able to talk to a lot of different people about their lives. As it turns out I’ve spent quite a bit of time chatting to young mums – either through our toddler group or baptism preparation. What I find interesting is that there is a common theme: the mums, by and large, although they may have to work, generally do not want to – most of those I’ve spoken to say they would prefer to be with the children. I have yet to meet a dad who has told me that they would love to be with the kids all day except they have to be out at work.
Equality is a good thing, for sure. I think everyone should have the opportunity to do what they want to do. But, for that same reason, isn’t it wrong to basically be telling children that traditional male and female roles are not just unequal but wrong? Should we be telling them that the only value that society sets on them is as a worker, and the only achievements to be celebrated are academic ones?
I wonder whether creating a ‘gender-neutral’ classroom is actually going to hinder rather than help things. Personally I have found it very helpful in my own life to actually acknowledge differences between the sexes and to recognise the ways that men and women complement and relate to each other. It feels like I am now working with the grain of the universe, rather than against it.
As a Christian, I don’t think this is surprising: being created male and female is there at the beginning, it’s one of the most fundamental things you can say about us as embodied creatures. If you make a classroom ‘gender neutral’, you will not eliminate gender; and, in fact, I believe it will create far more problems as children struggle to work out their identity. This doesn’t mean that equality is not a laudable goal to have, rather that equality of opportunity needs to recognise that boys and girls, men and women might want slightly different things and that is OK. It’s not just OK, it’s good.