The Sexual Paradox

The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap

By David Ravensbergen

A review of The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women And The Real Gender Gap by Susan Pinker

Published on May 1, 2008

The Freedom in American Songs, by Kathleen Winter

The Freedom in American Songs
Kathleen Winter

Biblioasis
$19.95
paper
168pp
978-1-927428-73-3

The old adage “the personal is political,” once a rallying cry for second-wave feminism, continues to serve as a reminder that oppression affects public and private lives alike. But at what point does the political become too personal? For both sides of the so-called “mommy wars,” the decision of whether to pursue a career or stay at home to raise children has become so charged with political significance that making the wrong choice is often painted as a matter of betraying your gender. What women want and why they want it is still a question very much in search of an answer, even as writers like Globe and Mail columnist Karen von Hahn declare that “feminism is out of style.”
In The Sexual Paradox, developmental psychologist, journalist, and mother Susan Pinker makes a bold claim sure to raise the ire of committed second-wavers: gender gaps in the workforce persist because men and women are actually different. Drawing on the insights gained from her own clinical practice as well as a thoroughly researched assemblage of studies and statistics, Pinker challenges what she calls the “vanilla gender” assumption, which sees maleness held up as the neutral standard to which everyone should aspire. Pinker’s work treads on controversial turf, confidently asserting that women have their own particular set of innate tendencies and desires, which translate into a unique female approach to the world of work.

The Sexual Paradox uses a two-pronged strategy to destabilize current prejudice about men and women in the workplace. The first tactic is to challenge the idea that men are in any way ‘normal.’ Examining the effects of testosterone as well as a range of largely male developmental disorders such as dyslexia, autism, and ADHD, Pinker reveals that men are far more fragile than we tend to think. The very traits that enable success at work-obsessive attention to detail, risk-taking, and competitive drive-also leave many men struggling to adjust.

The second focus of the book is on gifted women, who exceed men in early school performance as well as later post-secondary enrollment. Despite the fact that women continue to prove themselves as highly competent in school and the workplace, there is a dearth of women in high-level executive, political, and scientific positions. In a society that prizes success and prestige this presents a worrying trend, but Pinker evaluates women’s occupational choices with alternate criteria. Examining what she sees as women’s innate preferences for meaningful work, social interaction, and time for family, the picture that emerges is one of women exercising the full range of choice afforded them by the gains of feminism.

While Pinker’s analysis is based on both extensive scientific research and anecdotal evidence, she has a tendency towards broad generalizations. There is no shortage of men and women who don’t fit the profiles provided. Pinker acknowledges this with a caveat in her chapter on women’s higher capacity for empathy: “Individuals vary, and group averages say little about any single, real person.” Yet in spite of this admission, the majority of her findings are presented in universal language, effacing personal differences. When she speaks about women’s needs for intrinsic rewards in their careers, for example, the implication is that meaning is unimportant to men, who happily toil away single-mindedly in pursuit of a high salary.

In the end, The Sexual Paradox successfully argues that the personal is not only political, but also biological, evolutionary, existential, neurological, and economic. It is only upon clarifying this point that we can create a society with equal footing for both men and women to make choices about their lives. mRb

David Ravensbergen lives in British Columbia.

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