Monday, June 28, 2010

The Answer in the Question

Elaine McArdle in her Boston Globe article ("The freedom to say 'no'") - May 2008 - writes about research in economics and the social sciences which shows that smart and highly educated (in math and science) women choose jobs other than those in IT, physics, and engineering. They self-select jobs in which they deal more with organic substances and language, and less with tools and inorganic substances.

These data apparently surprise researchers who sought the reasons for such choices in physiology, education, or at the door or glass ceiling of the workplace. But they found that it’s not about brains, aptitude, ability, or out-and-out barriers; it’s mostly about choice, they say. Women choose freely.

Yet, McArdle reports that researchers don’t know why women choose as they do. They don’t know how experience and socialization work in shaping women and their choices.

But doesn’t the answer about selecting jobs lie exactly there, in the answer to the question of how culture shapes women and their choices from infancy?

We have a willful and collective blindness, in certain quarters at least, about the role of ideology in shaping people’s choices, especially when it has to do with the role and place of women in our society.

We are not so blind when it comes to subcultures, though. It’s interesting that a couple of years ago in Texas, with the FLDS cult, we had no such trouble understanding how constant exposure to certain ideas from infancy shapes women’s beliefs and makes them accept behavior that is harmful to themselves and to their children.

I am frankly pessimistic that researchers will even look to see the results of exposure to beliefs about what it means to be a woman in a dominant culture. If they did, they might have to admit that women actually have less choice than they “find” in the research McArdle reports.

Researchers will continue to look everywhere but where the truth lies. The real answer to the Freudian question about what women want is that it’s only a rhetorical question.

Elaine McArdle is a writer in Cambridge, Mass. She has co-authored a book with Dr. Carolyn Bernstein called The Migraine Brain.


Judie said...

Here!Here! I am glad to see this post. I have had many a long conversation on this subject, and I agree that the view of women in society will be hard to change, especially in cultures where fundamentalism is the core.

My husband's family are evangelicals, but he and I are not. They defer to the male members of the family, despite the fact that they just may be bad leaders for one reason or another.

I once got kicked out of a church because I was so outspoken, and "women were not allowed to speak out in the assembly" according to the bible.

Interestingly, I have found that in homes where religion is not actively practiced, the wives are on equal ground with their husbands.

Now if we could just do away with organized religion, we mught have a chance!

Janice said...

But surely there is a huge body of sociological and psychological work out there showing the influence of culture on women's self-perception and consequent choices? Probably not what the media want to report though.

ChrisJ said...


Organized religion definitely creates problems throughout the world.

ChrisJ said...


I think you're right - reporting all the facts might take away from the story.

cooper said...

Having been an anthropology major as an undergrad it's hard to understand how people do not get the significance of culture.

One of The Guys said...

Interesting stuff. Something every guy should read, especially fathers.

We all contribute to shaping a girl's view of herself and the world. It's not just society, but the messages that are being conveyed at a young age at home. And maybe to some degree that's society too, because the adults in a girl's life have been shaped themselves.

Thought provoking post!

ChrisJ said...


"Nature" is very popular these days - essentialism masquerading as science.

ChrisJ said...


I have 2 female cats and 1 male cat, and I catch myself talking to them differently - we're trained to this every day from birth - scary!

Pearl said...

does the book suggest migraines are an outcome of the female body intelligence reacting against sexist social constraints?

you talk differently to your male and female cats? fascinating, bizarre monkey brains we have.

ChrisJ said...


I included the book only because it's McArdle's work (with someone else) - a kind of professional nod.

Yes, sadly, I do sometimes talk diferently to the cats, and it's straight out of the gender stereotyping that we all encounter. I've also noticed how important it is to many people that we get the gender of a pet correct - call a male dog "she" and some people get really upset.