Is There Anything Good About Men?
Roy F. Baumeister
Youíre probably thinking that a talk called ďIs there
anything good about menĒ will be a short talk! Recent writings have not had
much good to say about men. Titles like ďMen Are Not Cost EffectiveĒ speak
for themselves. Maureen Dowdís book was called ďAre Men Necessary?Ē and
although she never gave an explicit answer, anyone reading the book knows
her answer was no. Brizendineís book ďThe Female BrainĒ introduces itself
by saying, ďMen, get ready to experience brain envy.Ē Imagine a book
advertising itself by saying that women will soon be envying the superior male
Nor are these isolated examples. Eaglyís research has
compiled mountains of data on the stereotypes people have about men and
women, which the researchers summarized as ďThe WAW effect.Ē WAW† stands for ďWomen Are Wonderful.Ē Both
men and women hold much more favorable views of women than of men. Almost
everybody likes women better than men. I certainly do.
My purpose in this talk is not to try to balance this
out by praising men, though along the way I will have various positive
things to say about both genders. The question of whether thereís anything
good about men is only my point of departure. The tentative title of the
book Iím writing is ďHow culture exploits men,Ē but even that for me is the
lead-in to grand questions about how culture shapes action. In that
context, whatís good about men means what men are good for, from the
perspective of the system.
Hence this is not about the ďbattle of the sexes,Ē and
in fact I think one unfortunate legacy of feminism has been the idea that
men and women are basically enemies. I shall suggest, instead, that most
often men and women have been partners, supporting each other rather than
exploiting or manipulating each other.
Nor is this about trying to argue that men should be
regarded as victims. I detest the whole idea of competing to be victims.
And Iím certainly not denying that culture has exploited women. But rather
than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to
exploit women, I think itís more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a
country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival
systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways,
to advance its cause.
Also I think itís best to avoid value judgments as much
as possible. They have made discussion of gender politics very difficult
and sensitive, thereby warping the play of ideas. I have no conclusions to
present about whatís good or bad or how the world should change. In fact my
own theory is built around tradeoffs, so that whenever there is something
good it is tied to something else that is bad, and they balance out.
I donít want to be on anybodyís side. Gender warriors
please go home.
When I say I am researching how culture exploits men,
the first reaction is usually ďHow
can you say culture exploits men, when men are in charge of everything?Ē
This is a fair objection and needs to be taken seriously. It invokes the
feminist critique of society. This critique started when some women systematically
looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere: most world rulers,
presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most
CEOs of major corporations, and so forth — these are mostly men.
Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men
dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. It must be great to
be a man.
The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at
the top. If one were to look
downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too.
Whoís in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners?
The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Whoís
homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous
jobs? US Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people
killed on the job are men. Likewise, who gets killed in battle? Even in
todayís American army, which has made much of integrating the sexes and
putting women into combat, the risks arenít equal. This year we passed the
milestone of 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and of those, 2,938 were men, 62 were
One can imagine an ancient battle in which the enemy was
driven off and the city saved, and the returning soldiers are showered with
gold coins. An early feminist might protest that hey, all those men are
getting gold coins, half of those coins should go to women. In principle, I
agree. But remember, while the men you see are getting gold coins, there
are other men you donít see, who are still bleeding to death on the battlefield
from spear wounds.
Thatís an important first clue to how culture uses men.
Culture has plenty of tradeoffs, in which it needs people to do dangerous
or risky things, and so it offers big rewards to motivate people to take
those risks. Most cultures have
tended to use men for these high-risk, high-payoff slots much more than
women. I shall propose there are important pragmatic reasons for this. The
result is that some men reap big rewards while others have their lives
ruined or even cut short. Most cultures shield their women from the risk
and therefore also donít give them the big rewards. Iím not saying this is
what cultures ought to do, morally, but cultures arenít moral beings. They
do what they do for pragmatic reasons driven by competition against other
systems and other groups.
I said that today most people hold more favorable
stereotypes of women than men. It was not always thus. Up until about the
1960s, psychology (like society) tended to see men as the norm and women as
the slightly inferior version. During the 1970s, there was a brief period
of saying there were no real differences, just stereotypes. Only since
about 1980 has the dominant view been that women are better and men are the
The surprising thing to me is that it took little more
than a decade to go from one view to its opposite, that is, from thinking
men are better than women to thinking women are better than men. How is
Iím sure youíre expecting me to talk about Larry Summers at some point, so
letís get it over with! You recall, he was the president of Harvard. As
summarized in The Economist, ďMr Summers infuriated the feminist
establishment by wondering out loud whether the prejudice alone could
explain the shortage of women at the top of science.Ē After initially
saying, itís possible that maybe there arenít as many women physics
professors at Harvard because there arenít as many women as men with that
high innate ability, just one possible explanation among others, he had to
apologize, retract, promise huge sums of money, and not long afterward he
What was his crime? Nobody accused him of actually
discriminating against women. His misdeed was to think thoughts that are
not allowed to be thought, namely that there might be more men with high
ability. The only permissible explanation for the lack of top women
scientists is patriarchy — that men are conspiring to keep women
down. It canít be ability. Actually, there is some evidence that men on average
are a little better at math, but letís assume Summers was talking about
general intelligence. People can point to plenty of data that the average
IQ of adult men is about the same as the average for women. So to suggest
that men are smarter than women is wrong. No wonder some women were
But thatís not what he said. He said there were more men
at the top levels of ability. That could still be true despite the average
being the same — if there are also more men at the bottom of the
distribution, more really stupid men than women. During the controversy
about his remarks, I didnít see anybody raise this question, but the data
are there, indeed abundant, and they are indisputable. There are more males
than females with really low IQs. Indeed, the pattern with mental retardation is the same as with genius,
namely that as you go from mild to medium to extreme, the preponderance of
males gets bigger.
All those retarded boys are not the handiwork of
patriarchy. Men are not conspiring together to make each otherís sons
Almost certainly, it is something biological and
genetic. And my guess is that the greater proportion of men at both
extremes of the IQ distribution is part of the same pattern. Nature rolls
the dice with men more than women. Men
go to extremes more than women. Itís true not just with IQ but also
with other things, even height: The male distribution of height is flatter,
with more really tall and really short men.
Again, there is a reason for this, to which I shall
For now, the point is that it explains how we can have
opposite stereotypes. Men go to extremes more than women. Stereotypes are
sustained by confirmation bias. Want to think men are better than women?
Then look at the top, the heroes, the inventors, the philanthropists, and
so on. Want to think women are better than men? Then look at the bottom,
the criminals, the junkies, the losers.
In an important sense, men really are better AND worse
A pattern of more men at both extremes can create all
sorts of misleading conclusions and other statistical mischief. To
illustrate, letís assume that men and women are on average exactly equal in
every relevant respect, but more men at both extremes. If you then measure
things that are bounded at one end, it screws up the data to make men and
women seem significantly different.
Consider grade point average in college. Thanks to grade
inflation, most students now get Aís and Bís, but a few range all the way
down to F. With that kind of low ceiling, the high-achieving males cannot
pull up the male average, but the loser males will pull it down. The result
will be that women will get higher average grades than men — again
despite no difference in average quality of work.
The opposite result comes with salaries. There is a
minimum wage but no maximum. Hence the high-achieving men can pull the male
average up while the low-achieving ones canít pull it down. The result? Men
will get higher average salaries than women, even if there is no average
difference on any relevant input.
Today, sure enough, women get higher college grades but
lower salaries than men. There is much discussion about what all this means
and what should be done about it. But as you see, both facts could be just
a statistical quirk stemming from male extremity.
When you think about it, the idea that one gender is
all-around better than the other is not very plausible. Why would nature
make one gender better than the other? Evolution selects for good,
favorable traits, and if thereís one good way to be, after a few
generations everyone will be that way.
But evolution will preserve differences when there is a
tradeoff: when one trait is good for one thing, while the opposite is good
for something else.
Letís return to the three main theories weíve had about
gender: Men are better, no difference, and women are better. Whatís missing
from that list? Different but equal. Let me propose that as a rival theory
that deserves to be considered. I think itís actually the most plausible
one. Natural selection will preserve innate differences between men and
women as long as the different traits are beneficial in different
circumstances or for different tasks.
Tradeoff example: African-Americans suffer from sickle
cell anemia more than white people. This appears to be due to a genetic
vulnerability. That gene, however, promotes resistance to malaria. Black
people evolved in regions where malaria was a major killer, so it was worth
having this gene despite the increased risk of sickle cell anemia. White
people evolved in colder regions, where there was less malaria, and so the
tradeoff was resolved differently, more avoiding the gene that prevented
malaria while risking sickle cell anemia.
The tradeoff approach yields a radical theory of gender equality. Men and women may be
different, but each advantage may be linked to a disadvantage.
Hence whenever you hear a report that one gender is
better at something, stop and consider why this is likely true — and
what the opposite trait might be good for.
Before we go too far down that path, though, let me
raise another radical idea. Maybe the
differences between the genders are more about motivation than ability.
This is the difference between canít and wonít.
Return for a moment to the Larry Summers issue about why
there arenít more female physics professors at Harvard. Maybe women can do
math and science perfectly well but they just donít like to. After all,
most men donít like math either! Of the small minority of people who do
like math, there are probably more men than women. Research by Eccles has
repeatedly concluded that the shortage of females in math and science
reflects motivation more than ability. And by the same logic, I suspect
most men could learn to change diapers and vacuum under the sofa perfectly
well too, and if men donít do those things, itís because they donít want to
or donít like to, not because they are constitutionally unable (much as
they may occasionally pretend otherwise!).
Several recent works have questioned the whole idea of
gender differences in abilities: Even when average differences are found,
they tend to be extremely small. In contrast, when you look at what men and
women want, what they like, there are genuine differences. Look at research
on the sex drive: Men and women may have about equal ďabilityĒ in sex,
whatever that means, but there are big differences as to motivation: which
gender thinks about sex all the time, wants it more often, wants more
different partners, risks more for sex, masturbates more, leaps at every
opportunity, and so on. Our survey of published research found that pretty
much every measure and every study showed higher sex drive in men. Itís official: men are hornier than
women. This is a difference in motivation.
Likewise, I mentioned the salary difference, but it may
have less to do with ability than motivation. High salaries come from
working super-long hours. Workaholics
are mostly men. (There are some women, just not as many as men.) One
study counted that over 80% of the people who work 50-hour weeks are men.
That means that if we want to achieve our ideal of equal
salaries for men and women, we may need to legislate the principle of equal
pay for less work. Personally, I support that principle. But I recognize
itís a hard sell.
Creativity may be another example of gender difference
in motivation rather than ability. The evidence presents a seeming paradox,
because the tests of creativity generally show men and women scoring about
the same, yet through history some men have been much more creative than
women. An explanation that fits this pattern is that men and women have the
same creative ability but different motivations.
I am a musician, and Iíve long wondered about this
difference. We know from the classical music scene that women can play
instruments beautifully, superbly, proficiently — essentially just as
well as men. They can and many do. Yet in jazz, where the performer has to
be creative while playing, there is a stunning imbalance: hardly any women improvise. Why?
The ability is there but perhaps the motivation is less. They donít feel
driven to do it.
I suppose the stock explanation for any such difference
is that women were not encouraged, or were not appreciated, or were discouraged
from being creative. But I donít think this stock explanation fits the
facts very well. In the 19th century in America, middle-class
girls and women played piano far more than men. Yet all that piano playing
failed to result in any creative output. There were no great women
composers, no new directions in style of music or how to play, or anything
like that. All those female pianists entertained their families and their
dinner guests but did not seem motivated to create anything new.
Meanwhile, at about the same time, black men in America
created blues and then jazz, both of which changed the way the world
experiences music. By any measure, those black men, mostly just emerging
from slavery, were far more disadvantaged than the middle-class white
women. Even getting their hands on a musical instrument must have been
considerably harder. And remember, Iím saying that the creative abilities
are probably about equal. But somehow the men were driven to create
something new, more than the women.
test of whatís meaningfully real is the marketplace. Itís hard to find
anybody making money out of gender differences in abilities. But in
motivation, there are plenty. Look at the magazine industry: menís
magazines cover different stuff from womenís magazines, because men and
women like and enjoy and are interested in different things. Look at the
difference in films between the menís and womenís cable channels. Look at
the difference in commercials for men or for women.
This brings us to an important part of the argument. Iím
suggesting the important differences between men and women are to be found
in motivation rather than ability. What, then, are these differences? I
want to emphasize two.
The Most Underappreciated
The first big, basic difference has to do with what I
consider to be the most underappreciated fact about gender. Consider this
question: What percent of our ancestors were women?
Itís not a trick question, and itís not 50%. True, about
half the people who ever lived were women, but thatís not the question.
Weíre asking about all the people who ever lived who have a descendant
living today. Or, put another way, yes, every baby has both a mother and a
father, but some of those parents had multiple children.
Recent research using DNA analysis answered this
question about two years ago. Todayís
human population is descended from twice as many women as men.
I think this difference is the single most
underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had
to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race,
maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.
Right now our field is having a lively debate about how
much behavior can be explained by evolutionary theory. But if evolution
explains anything at all, it explains things related to reproduction,
because reproduction is at the heart of natural selection. Basically, the
traits that were most effective for reproduction would be at the center of
evolutionary psychology. It would be shocking if these vastly different
reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality
For women throughout history (and prehistory), the odds
of reproducing have been pretty good. Later in this talk we will ponder
things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and
build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have
fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be
stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce.
They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the
optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The
odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and youíll be able to
have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. Weíre descended
from women who played it safe.
For men, the outlook was radically different. If you go
along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you wonít have
children. Most men who ever lived
did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends.
Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative,
explore other possibilities. Sailing off into the unknown may be risky, and
you might drown or be killed or whatever, but then again if you stay home
you wonít reproduce anyway. Weíre most descended from the type of men who
made the risky voyage and managed to come back rich. In that case he would finally get a good chance to pass
on his genes. Weíre descended from men who took chances (and were lucky).
The huge difference in reproductive success very likely
contributed to some personality differences, because different traits
pointed the way to success. Women did best by minimizing risks, whereas the
successful men were the ones who took chances. Ambition and competitive
striving probably mattered more to male success (measured in offspring)
than female. Creativity was probably more necessary, to help the individual
man stand out in some way. Even the sex drive difference was relevant: For
many men, there would be few chances to reproduce and so they had to be
ready for every sexual opportunity. If a man said ďnot today, I have a
headache,Ē he might miss his only chance.
Another crucial point. The danger of having no children
is only one side of the male coin. Every child has a biological mother and
father, and so if there were only half as many fathers as mothers among our
ancestors, then some of those fathers had lots of children.
Look at it this way. Most women have only a few
children, and hardly any have more than a dozen — but many† fathers have had more than a few, and
some men have actually had several dozen, even hundreds of kids.
In terms of the biological competition to produce
offspring, then, men outnumbered women both among the losers and among the
To put this in more subjective terms: When I walk around
and try to look at men and women as if seeing them for the first time, itís
hard to escape the impression (sorry, guys!) that women are simply more
likeable and lovable than men. (This I think explains the ďWAW† effectĒ mentioned earlier.) Men might
wish to be lovable, and men can and do manage to get women to love them (so
the ability is there), but men have other priorities, other motivations.
For women, being lovable was the key to attracting the best mate. For men,
however, it was more a matter of beating out lots of other men even to have
a chance for a mate.
Tradeoffs again: perhaps nature designed women to seek
to be lovable, whereas men were designed to strive, mostly unsuccessfully,
And it was worth it, even despite the ďmostly
unsuccessfullyĒ part. Experts estimate Genghis Khan had several hundred and
perhaps more than a thousand children. He took big risks and eventually
conquered most of the known world. For him, the big risks led to huge
payoffs in offspring. My point is that no woman, even if she conquered
twice as much territory as Genghis Khan, could have had a thousand
children. Striving for greatness in that sense offered the human female no
such biological payoff. For the man, the possibility was there, and so the
blood of Genghis Khan runs through a large segment of todayís human
population. By definition, only a few men can achieve greatness, but for
the few men who do, the gains have been real. And we are descended from
those great men much more than from other men. Remember, most of the
mediocre men left no descendants at all.
Let me turn now to the second big motivational
difference. This has its roots in an exchange in the Psychological Bulletin
about ten years ago, but the issue is still fresh and relevant today. It
concerns the question of whether women are more social than men.
The idea that women are more social was raised by Cross
and Madsen in a manuscript submitted to that journal. I was sent it to
review, and although I disagreed with their conclusion, I felt they had
made their case well, so I advocated publishing their paper. They provided
plenty of evidence. They said things like, look, men are more aggressive
than women. Aggression could damage a relationship because if you hurt
someone then that person might not want to be with you. Women refrain from
aggression because they want relationships, but men donít care about
relationships and so are willing to be aggressive. Thus, the difference in
aggression shows that women are more social than men.
But I had just published my early work on ďthe need to
belong,Ē which concluded that both men and women had that need, and so I
was worried to hear that men donít care about social connection. I wrote a
reply that said there was another way to look at all the evidence Cross and
The gist of our view was that there are two different ways of being social. In social
psychology we tend to emphasize close, intimate relationships, and yes,
perhaps women specialize in those and are better at them than men. But one
can also look at being social in terms of having larger networks of
shallower relationships, and on these, perhaps, men are more social than
Itís like the common question, whatís more important to
you, having a few close friendships or having lots of people who know you?
Most people say the former is more important. But the large network of
shallow relationships might be important too. We shouldnít automatically
see men as second-class human beings simply because they specialize in the
less important, less satisfying kind of relationship. Men are social too — just in a different way.
So we reexamined the evidence Cross and Madsen had
provided. Consider aggression. True, women are less aggressive than men, no
argument there. But is it really because women donít want to jeopardize a
close relationship? It turns out that in close relationships, women are
plenty aggressive. Women are if anything more likely than men to
perpetrate domestic violence against romantic partners, everything from a
slap in the face to assault with a deadly weapon. Women also do more child
abuse than men, though thatís hard to untangle from the higher amount of
time they spend with children. Still, you canít say that women avoid
violence toward intimate partners.
Instead, the difference is found in the broader social
sphere. Women donít hit strangers. The chances that a woman will, say, go
to the mall and end up in a knife fight with another woman are vanishingly
small, but there is more such risk for men. The gender difference in
aggression is mainly found there, in the broader network of relationships.
Because men care more about that network.
Now consider helping. Most research finds that men help
more than women. Cross and Madsen struggled with that and eventually just
fell back on the tired clichť that maybe women donít help because they
arenít brought up to help or arenít socialized to help. But I think the
pattern is the same as with aggression. Most research looks at helping
between strangers, in the larger social sphere, and so it finds men helping
more. Inside the family, though, women are plenty helpful, if anything more
Aggression and helping are in some ways opposites, so
the converging pattern is quite meaningful. Women both help and aggress in
the intimate sphere of close relationships, because thatís what they care
about. In contrast, men care (also) about the broader network of shallower
relationships, and so they are plenty helpful and aggressive there.
The same two-spheres conclusion is supported in plenty
of other places. Playground observation studies find that girls pair off
and play one-on-one with the same playmate for the full hour. Boys will
either play one-on-one with a series of different playmates or with a
larger group. Girls want the one-to-one relationship, whereas boys are
drawn to bigger groups or networks.
When two girls are playing together and the researchers
bring in a third one, the two girls resist letting her join. But two boys
will let a third boy join their game. My point is that girls want the
one-on-one connection, so adding a third person spoils the time for them,
but it doesnít spoil it for the boys.
The conclusion is that men and women are both social but
in different ways. Women specialize
in the narrow sphere of intimate relationships. Men specialize in the
larger group. If you make a list of activities that are done in large
groups, you are likely to have a list of things that men do and enjoy more
than women: team sports, politics, large corporations, economic networks,
and so forth.
Again, important personality differences probably follow
from the basic motivational difference in the kind of social relationship
that interests men and women.
Consider the common finding that women are more
emotionally expressive than men. For an intimate relationship, good
communication is helpful. It enables the two people to understand each
other, appreciate each otherís feelings, and so forth. The more the two
intimate partners know about each other, the better they can care for and
support each other. But in a large group, where you have rivals and maybe
enemies, itís risky to let all your feelings show. The same goes for
economic transactions. When you are negotiating the price of something,
itís best to keep your feelings a bit to yourself. And so men hold back more.
Fairness is another example. Research by Major and
others back in the 1970s used procedures like this. A group of subjects
would perform a task, and the experimenter would then say that the group
had earned a certain amount of money, and it was up to one member to divide
it up however he or she wanted. The person could keep all the money, but
that wasnít usually what happened. Women would divide the money equally,
with an equal share for everybody. Men, in contrast, would divide it
unequally, giving the biggest share of reward to whoever had done the most
Which is better? Neither. Both equality and equity are
valid versions of fairness. But they show the different social sphere
orientation. Equality is better for close relationships, when people take
care of each other and reciprocate things and divide resources and
opportunities equally. In contrast, equity — giving bigger rewards
for bigger contributions — is more effective in large groups. I
havenít actually checked, but Iím willing to bet that if you surveyed the
Fortune 500 large and successful corporations in America, you wouldnít find
a single one out of 500 that pays every employee the same salary. The more
valuable workers who contribute more generally get paid more. It simply is
a more effective system in large groups. The male pattern is suited for the large groups, the female pattern
is best suited to intimate pairs.
Ditto for the communal-exchange difference Women have
more communal orientation, men more exchange. In psychology we tend to
think of communal as a more advanced form of relationship than exchange.
For example, weíd be suspicious of a couple who after ten years of marriage
are still saying, ďI paid the electric bill last month, now itís your
turn.Ē But the supposed superiority of communal relationships applies
mainly to intimate relationships. At the level of large social systems,
itís the other way around. Communal (including communist) countries remain
primitive and poor, whereas the rich, advanced nations have gotten where
they are by means of economic exchange.
Thereís also the point about men being more competitive,
women more cooperative. Again, though, cooperation is much more useful than
competition for close relationships. What use is there in competing against
your spouse? But in large groups, getting to the top can be crucial. The
male preference for dominance hierarchies, and the ambitious striving to
get to the top, likewise reflect an orientation toward the large group, not
a dislike of intimacy. And remember, most men didnít reproduce, and weíre
mainly descended from the men who did fight their way to the top. Not so
One more thing. Cross and Madsen covered plenty of
research showing that men think of themselves based on their unusual traits
that set them apart from others, while womenís self-concepts feature things
that connect them to others. Cross and Madsen thought that this was because
men wanted to be apart from others. But in fact being different is vital
strategy for belonging to a large group. If youíre the only group member
who can kill an antelope or find water or talk to the gods or kick a field
goal, the group canít afford to get rid of you.
Itís different in a one-to-one relationship. A womanís
husband, and her baby, will love her even if she doesnít play the trombone.
So cultivating a unique skill isnít essential for her. But playing the
trombone is a way to get into some groups, especially brass bands. This is
another reason that men go to extremes more than women. Large groups foster
the need to establish something different and special about yourself.
Benefits of Cultural
Letís turn now to culture. Culture is relatively new in
evolution. It continues the line of evolution that made animals social. I
understand culture as a kind of system that enables the human group to work
together effectively, using information. Culture is a new, improved way of
Feminism has taught us to see culture as men against
women. Instead, I think the evidence indicates that culture emerged mainly
with men and women working together, but working against other groups of
men and women. Often the most intense and productive competitions were
groups of men against other groups of men, though both groups depended on
support from women.
Culture enables the group to be more than the sum of its
parts (its members). Culture can be
seen as a biological strategy. Twenty people who work together, in a
cultural system, sharing information and dividing up tasks and so forth,
will all live better — survive and reproduce better — than if
those same twenty people lived in the same forest but did everything
Culture thus provides some benefit from having a system.
Letís call this ďsystem gain,Ē which means how much better the group does
because of the system. Think of two soccer teams. Both sets of players know
the rules and have the same individual skills. One group has only that, and
they go out to play as individuals trying to do their best. The other works
as a team, complementing each other, playing with a system. The system will
likely enable them to do better than the group playing as separate
individuals. Thatís system gain.
And one vital fact is that the scope of system gain
increases with the size of the system. This is essentially whatís happening
in the world right now, globalization in the world economy. Bigger systems
provide more benefits, so as we expand and merge more units into bigger
systems, overall there is more gain.
There is one crucial implication from all this. Culture
depends on system gain, and bigger systems provide more of this. Therefore,
youíll get more of the benefit of culture from large groups than from small
ones. A one-on-one close relationship can do a little in terms of division
of labor and sharing information, but a 20-person group can do much more.
As a result,
culture mainly arose in the types of social relationships favored by men.
Women favor close, intimate relationships. These are if anything more
important for the survival of the species. Thatís why human women evolved
first. We need those close relationships to survive. The large networks of
shallower relationships arenít as vital for survival — but they are
good for something else, namely the development of larger social systems
and ultimately for culture.
This provides a new basis for understanding gender
politics and inequality.
The generally accepted view is that back in early human
society, men and women were close to equal. Men and women had separate
spheres and did different things, but both were respected. Often, women
were gatherers and men were hunters. The total contribution to the groupís
food was about the same, even though there were some complementary
differences. For example, the gatherersí food was reliably there most days,
while the hunters brought home great food once in a while but nothing on
Gender inequality seems to have increased with early
civilization, including agriculture. Why? The feminist explanation has been
that the men banded together to create patriarchy. This is essentially a
conspiracy theory, and there is little or no evidence that it is true. Some
argue that the men erased it from the history books in order to safeguard
their newly won power. Still, the lack of evidence should be worrisome,
especially since this same kind of conspiracy would have had to happen over
and over, in group after group, all over the world.
Let me offer a different explanation. Itís not that the
men pushed the women down. Rather, itís just that the womenís sphere
remained about where it was, while the menís sphere, with its big and
shallow social networks, slowly benefited from the progress of culture. By
accumulating knowledge and improving the gains from division of labor, the
menís sphere gradually made progress.
Hence religion, literature, art, science, technology,
military action, trade and economic marketplaces, political organization,
medicine — these all mainly emerged from the menís sphere. The
womenís sphere did not produce such things, though it did other valuable
things, like take care of the next generation so the species would continue
Why? It has nothing to do with men having better
abilities or talents or anything like that. It comes mainly from the
different kinds of social relationships. The womenís sphere consisted of
women and therefore was organized on the basis of the kind of close,
intimate, supportive one-on-one relationships that women favor. These are
vital, satisfying relationships that contribute vitally to health and
survival. Meanwhile the men favored
the larger networks of shallower relationships. These are less satisfying
and nurturing and so forth, but they do form a more fertile basis for the
emergence of culture.
Note that all those things I listed — literature,
art, science, etc — are optional. Women were doing what was vital for
the survival of the species. Without intimate care and nurturance, children
wonít survive, and the group will die out. Women contributed the
necessities of life. Menís contributions were more optional, luxuries
perhaps. But culture is a powerful engine of making life better. Across
many generations, culture can create large amounts of wealth, knowledge, and
power. Culture did this — but mainly in the menís sphere.
Thus, the reason for the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with
men pushing women down in some dubious patriarchal conspiracy. Rather, it came from the fact that wealth, knowledge,
and power were created in the menís sphere. This is what pushed the
menís sphere ahead. Not oppression.
Giving birth is a revealing example. What could be more
feminine than giving birth? Throughout most of history and prehistory,
giving birth was at the center of the womenís sphere, and men were totally
excluded. Men were rarely or never present at childbirth, nor was the
knowledge about birthing even shared with them. But not very long ago, men
were finally allowed to get involved, and the men were able to figure out
ways to make childbirth safer for both mother and baby. Think of it: the
most quintessentially female activity, and yet the men were able to improve
on it in ways the women had not discovered for thousands and thousands of
Letís not overstate. The women had after all managed
childbirth pretty well for all those centuries. The species had survived,
which is the bottom line. The women had managed to get the essential job
done. What the men added was, from the perspective of the group or species
at least, optional, a bonus: some mothers and babies survived who would
otherwise have died. Still, the improvements show some value coming from
the male way of being social. Large networks can collect and accumulate
information better than small ones, and so in a relatively short time the
men were able to discover improvements that the women hadnít been able to
find. Again, itís not that the men were smarter or more capable. Itís just
that the women shared their knowledge individually, from mother to
daughter, or from one midwife to another, and in the long run this could
not accumulate and progress as effectively as in the larger groups of
shallower relationships favored by men.
With that, we can now return to the question of what men
are good for, from the perspective of a cultural system. The context is
these systems competing against other systems, group against group. The
group systems that used their men and women most effectively would enable
their groups to outperform their rivals and enemies.
I want to emphasize three main answers for how culture
relies on men to create the large social structures that comprise it. Our
society is made up of institutions such as universities, governments,
corporations. Most of these were founded and built up by men. Again, this
probably had less to do with women being oppressed or whatever and more to
do with men being motivated to form large networks of shallow
relationships. Men are much more interested than women in forming large
groups and working in them and rising to the top in them.
This still seems to be true today. Several recent news
articles have called attention to the fact that women now start more small
businesses then men. This is usually covered in the media as a positive
sign about women, which it is. But women predominate only if you count all
businesses. If you restrict the criteria to businesses that employ more than
one person, or ones that make enough money to live off of, then men create
more. I suspect that the bigger the group you look at, the more they are
Certainly today anybody of any gender can start a
business, and if anything there are some set-asides and advantages to help
women do so. There are no hidden obstacles or blocks, and thatís shown by
the fact that women start more businesses than men. But the women are
content to stay small, such as operating a part-time business out of the spare
bedroom, making a little extra money for the family. They donít seem driven
to build these up into giant corporations. There are some exceptions, of
course, but there is a big difference on average.
Hence both men and women rely on men to create the giant
social structures that offer opportunities to both. And it is clear men and
women can both perform quite well in these organizations. But culture still
relies mainly on men to make them in the first place.
A second thing that makes men useful to culture is what
I call male expendability. This goes back to what I said at the outset,
that cultures tend to use men for the high-risk, high-payoff undertakings,
where a significant portion of those will suffer bad outcomes ranging from
having their time wasted, all the way to being killed.
Any man who reads the newspapers will encounter the
phrase ďeven women and childrenĒ a couple times a month, usually about
being killed. The literal meaning of this phrase is that menís lives have less
value than other peopleís lives. The idea is usually ďItís bad if people
are killed, but itís especially bad if women and children are killed.Ē And
I think most men know that in an emergency, if there are women and children
present, he will be expected to lay down his life without argument or
complaint so that the others can survive. On the Titanic, the richest men had a lower survival rate (34%)
than the poorest women (46%) (though thatís not how it looked in the
movie). That in itself is remarkable. The rich, powerful, and successful
men, the movers and shakers, supposedly the ones that the culture is all
set up to favor — in a pinch, their lives were valued less than those
of women with hardly any money or power or status. The too-few seats in the
lifeboats went to the women who werenít even ladies, instead of to those
Most cultures have had the same attitude. Why? There are
pragmatic reasons. When a cultural group competes against other groups, in
general, the larger group tends to win out in the long run. Hence most
cultures have promoted population growth. And that depends on women. To maximize reproduction, a culture
needs all the wombs it can get, but a few penises can do the job. There
is usually a penile surplus. If a group loses half its men, the next
generation can still be full-sized. But if it loses half its women, the
size of the next generation will be severely curtailed. Hence most cultures
keep their women out of harmís way while using men for risky jobs.
These risky jobs extend beyond the battlefield. Many
lines of endeavor require some lives to be wasted. Exploration, for
example: a culture may send out dozens of parties, and some will get lost
or be killed, while others bring back riches and opportunities. Research is
somewhat the same way: There may be a dozen possible theories about some
problem, only one of which is correct, so the people testing the eleven
wrong theories will end up wasting their time and ruining their careers, in
contrast to the lucky one who gets the Nobel prize. And of course the
dangerous jobs. When the scandals broke about the dangers of the mining
industry in Britain, Parliament passed the mining laws that prohibited
children under the age of 10 and women of all ages from being sent into the
mines. Women and children were too precious to be exposed to death in the
mines: so only men. As I said earlier, the gender gap in dangerous work
persists today, with men accounting for the vast majority of deaths on the
Another basis of male expendability is built into the
different ways of being social. Expendability comes with the large groups
that male sociality creates. In an intimate, one-to-one relationship,
neither person can really be replaced. You can remarry if your spouse dies,
but it isnít really the same marriage or relationship. And of course nobody
can ever really replace a childís mother or father.
In contrast, large groups can and do replace just about
everybody. Take any large organization — the Ford Motor Company, the
U.S. Army, the Green Bay Packers — and youíll find that the
organization goes on despite having replaced every single person in it.
Moreover, every member off those groups knows he or she can be replaced and
probably will be replaced some day.
Thus, men create
the kind of social networks where individuals are replaceable and
expendable. Women favor the kind of relationships in which each person
is precious and cannot truly be replaced.
The phrase ďBe a
manĒ is not as common as it once was, but there is still some sense
that manhood must be earned. Every adult female is a woman and is entitled
to respect as such, but many cultures withhold respect from the males until
and unless the lads prove themselves. This is of course tremendously useful
for the culture, because it can set the terms by which males earn respect
as men, and in that way it can motivate the men to do things that the
culture finds productive.
Some sociological writings about the male role have
emphasized that to be a man, you
have to produce more than you consume. That is, men are expected,
first, to provide for themselves: If somebody else provides for you, youíre
less than a man. Second, the man should create some additional wealth or
surplus value so that it can provide for others in addition to himself.
These can be his wife and children, or others who depend on him, or his
subordinates, or even perhaps just paying taxes that the government can
use. Regardless, youíre not a man unless you produce at that level.
Again, Iím not saying men have it worse than women.
There are plenty of problems and disadvantages that cultures put on women.
My point is just that cultures find men useful in these very specific ways.
Requiring the man to earn respect by producing wealth and value that can
support himself and others is one of these. Women do not face this
particular challenge or requirement.
These demands also contribute to various male behavior
patterns. The ambition, competition, and striving for greatness may well be
linked to this requirement to fight for respect. All-male groups tend to be
marked by putdowns and other practices that remind everybody that there is
NOT enough respect to go around, because this awareness motivates each man
to try harder to earn respect. This, incidentally, has probably been a
major source of friction as women have moved into the workplace, and
organizations have had to shift toward policies that everyone is entitled
to respect. The men hadnít originally built them to respect everybody.
One of the basic, most widely accepted gender
differences is agency versus communion. Male agency may be partly an
adaptation to this kind of social life based on larger groups, where people
arenít necessarily valued and one has to strive for respect. To succeed in
the male social sphere of large groups, you need an active, agentic self to
fight for your place, because it isnít given to you and only a few will be
successful. Even the male ego,
with its concern with proving oneself and competing against others, seems
likely to be designed to cope with
systems where there is a shortage of respect and you have to work hard
to get some — or else youíll be exposed to humiliation.
I have not exhausted all the ways that culture exploits
men. Certainly there are others. The male sex drive can be harnessed to
motivate all sorts of behaviors and put to work in a kind of economic
marketplace in which men give women other resources (love, money,
commitment) in exchange for sex.
Cultures also use individual men for symbolic purposes
more than women. This can be in a positive way, such as the fact that
cultures give elaborate funerals and other memorials to men who seem to
embody its favorite values. It can also be negative, such as when cultures
ruin a manís career, shame him publicly, or even execute him for a single
act that violates one of its values. From Martin Luther King to Don Imus,
our culture uses men as symbols for expressing its values. (Note neither of
those two came out the better for it.)
To summarize my main points: A few lucky men are at the
top of society and enjoy the cultureís best rewards. Others, less
fortunate, have their lives chewed up by it. Culture uses both men and
women, but most cultures use them in somewhat different ways. Most cultures
see individual men as more expendable than individual women, and this
difference is probably based on nature, in whose reproductive competition
some men are the big losers and other men are the biggest winners. Hence it
uses men for the many risky jobs it has.
Men go to extremes more than women, and this fits in
well with culture using them to try out lots of different things, rewarding
the winners and crushing the losers.
Culture is not about men against women. By and large,
cultural progress emerged from groups of men working with and against other
men. While women concentrated on the close relationships that enabled the
species to survive, men created the bigger networks of shallow
relationships, less necessary for survival but eventually enabling culture
to flourish. The gradual creation of wealth, knowledge, and power in the
menís sphere was the source of gender inequality. Men created the big
social structures that comprise society, and men still are mainly
responsible for this, even though we now see that women can perform
perfectly well in these large systems.
What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play
off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards
that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by
producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and
enemies in cultural competitions, which is probably why they arenít as
lovable as women.
The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic
social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and
biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough
to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do
well enough to create offspring.
The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for
the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil
or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful
and productive for the culture, the system.
Again, Iím not saying itís right, or fair, or proper.
But it has worked. The cultures that have succeeded have used this formula,
and that is one reason that they have succeeded instead of their rivals.