I was recently sent an article written by Rosie Boycott, one of the founders of Spare Rib, published in, of all places, The Daily Mail. In it she highlights that in the early days of Spare Rib, she thought it would be only a matter of time before women scaled the ladders of success, broke through the glass ceiling and made it to the boardroom. When women’s opportunities and successes began to dramatically increase, as they did in the 70s and 80s, she believed, like many other feminists, that this was evidence that it was society, not biology, that limited women in society. Now, and this I found quite shocking, she is not so sure. As women have failed to consolidate their successes by achieving the highest level of management, dropping out of the ‘rat race’ for middle management, mothering and running their own businesses, she wonders whether it actually is the fault of society.
After all, Boycott has read a new book by Susan Pinker that suggests that women do not succeed because of hormones. When describing, Pinker’s work, Boycott writes,
Women, she says, care more about intrinsic rewards. They have broader interests, they are more service oriented and are better at gauging the effect they have on others. They are "wired for empathy". Crucially, she explains that these aren't learned traits, forced into them by a sexist society; they're the result of genes and hormones. The trends begin in the uterus when men are exposed to higher levels of testosterone, driving them to be more competitive, assertive, vengeful and daring. Girls, meanwhile, get a regular dose of oestrogen, which helps them read people's emotions. [...]You can see these differences from very early on - and they cannot be "overridden". Nature wins over nurture every time.Boycott thinks in light of these findings that we now need to accept that women are different from men and stop seeing women who step off the career ladder as having failed (the latter part I can agree with).
Now I have a number of problems with this narrative. First, and this is just a small point, women who leave ‘big business’ to set up their own workplaces are not jumping off the career ladder. They often run very successful businesses, with work cultures that are women friendly, and even make similar amounts of money as CEOs in large multi-nationals- it is just their companies are not as large so do not make the FTSE 100.
Second, how can you prove that women who leave work for motherhood do so because of hormones and not because the work environment (and society more generally) is so inhospitable to mothers? This is taking one piece of evidence (women have different hormones in the womb) and equating it with another piece of evidence that may be entirely unrelated.
Third, hormones may mean that the body develops differently in the womb and behaves differently in adulthood, but it is far from a determining factor. Children (male or female), who are brought up by wolves or abandoned in Romanian orphanages, do not have basic communication skills. They cannot read body language. They cannot tell what another person’s emotional state is. They often have very little sense of their own physicality (so they don’t know themselves in a mirror, or even understand that their arm belongs to their body). Girl children certainly don’t have an innate ability to read people’s emotions. In fact, children brought up in such circumstances can be very ‘emotionally promiscuous’, hugging strangers and mis-interpreting basic reactions, or the opposite, unable to make emotional bonds. Amongst Romanian orphans, who were later adopted, boys tend to have more behavioural problems, often related to aggression, than girls. What is less clear is whether such behaviour is learned after adoption (i.e. boys learn that aggression is an acceptable response to emotional or other turmoil in the adopted home) or whether it is driven by hormones. I am not denying that hormones play a part in physical development, but their relationship to the way people behave is far from clear, especially given that children who have no early social development do not grow up to have ‘traditional’ gendered traits. Gendered behaviour is almost entirely learned.
Finally, even if we take a perspective (which I am not sold on) where, because of hormones, women do not tolerate the long hours, exclusive focus and non-emotive nature of work, this does not mean it is ‘natural’ that they do not get promoted. It means that work culture is masculine, exclusionary, and should change, not that women should get out of the race. Why is it that a workplace that benefits behaviours driven by testosterone (if we buy this story) is 'natural', 'normal' and accepted as the standard? If the working world is designed to benefit men over women then it is sexist. Full Stop.