Friday, May 15, 2015

How Evolutionary Biology Dooms Lean In

Amy Alkon has a fine review at the Observer of Joyce Benenson's book, Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes, framed as a rejoinder to the much better known Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Her basic premise is that women in the workplace are unlikely to bond in ways that men do with each other (and even other women) for reasons rooted in evolutionary biology. (As always, all emboldening in passages below are due to me.)
Ms. Benenson explains that “throughout most of human history, men and women have specialized in different behaviors necessary to ensure the survival of their children to adulthood.” These are evolved sex differences she’s talking about—evolved over millions of years and still affecting us biologically and psychologically today, sometimes in ways that are a mismatch with our modern world.

And no, contrary to feminists’ contentions, these sex differences don’t come out of Playboy, video games, or television. Benenson told me, “No study has ever shown that the environment causes sex differences, and sex differences existed long before any of these modern inventions.
She goes on to show female chimpanzees playing with rocks and sticks in a manner similar to how human girls play with dolls, but as with the attempts to find analogs of human sexuality among the bonobos, the comparison is only of limited use. Alkon uses this arguably inborn nurturing behavior to transition to her case against Sandberg's principle thesis in Lean In, namely, that women should band together in corporate settings in mutual aid:
Research finds that women are not only physically weaker than men but more fearful—from infancy on—and rarely engage in physical fighting. This makes sense, Benenson notes, as a serious injury could jeopardize a woman’s ability to have children or to live to protect the ones she already has. Women did evolve to compete—with one another, for male partners and for resources for their children. But they compete differently from men.

Ms. Benenson explains that there’s an “inherent conflict in unrelated females’ relations with one another.” They very much want one another’s support—as coalition partners and for help with childcare—but “they must invest first and foremost in their families.” In fact, because we are driven to pass on our own genes or at least those of people closely related to us, it really doesn’t make evolutionary sense for a woman to invest in an unrelated woman, except as a form of self-protection.
And thus the dagger in the heart of feminist sisterhood, and a great deal else. "A woman might tear down the external barriers so she can get in," Alkon continues, "and then throw them right back up so other women can’t." Interestingly, this exact dynamic seems to be in play if one reads the numerous reactions to Sandberg's book, either contemporaneously or after the "lean in" locution gained currency thereafter. For instance, Melissa Gira Grant in Jacobin and Salon sneered at it as
trickle-down feminism that centers the concerns of an elite minority of women, and it repeats losing tactics in the history of feminist movements. Sandberg is far from the only prominent feminist who supports these tactics, which – despite their intentions – have been insufficient in addressing inequalities among women.
 Doug Barry's Jezebel review of Working with Bitches: Identify the Eight Types of Office Mean Girls and Rise Above the Workplace Nastiness is positively open about this process, writing that "Women in the workplace, by Fuller's estimation, are effectively gaslighting each other, waging a shadow war against each other when they should be helping one another succeed." The ironic sniping caused by Kate Losse's review in Dissent magazine could almost not be more illustrative of these dynamics.

 I'm not as confident as Alkon that Benenson's book represents sound science — that would require actually reading it, which I haven't done, and familiarity with the sources. It should also be obvious that Benenson describes populations, which can have a great deal of variance. But simultaneously, the form and virulence of the criticism of Sandberg's famous opus leads one to think Alkon just might be on to something.

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