Leading Article: On sexual equality, we should agree to differ

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The Independent Online
Can you, in all honesty, imagine a society in which the relationship between men and women is equal in all significant respects? First, rephrase the question in the form that it is usually answered: can you imagine a world in which labour is evenly divided, men taking their fair share of domestic responsibilities, women having equivalent access to all kinds of formal employment?

Put like that, well, yes, of course you can. It would obviously be possible to organise society in that way if individual people, organisations, companies, families, and everything else remotely human could be persuaded to ditch aeons of social baggage. It is also perfectly possible (indeed, right) to take the view that we should reimagine our lives and reinvent our institutions in the direction of greater equality. How can anyone seriously doubt that we will be a happier society if people are more able to realise their lives fully, women enjoying the rewards of open access to a broad social life, men deepening their emotional lives by being with children, and so forth?

Thus, when a researcher reports to the British Psychological Society that working fathers do not behave like new men (rare nappy changes, not a lot of cooking, comes home late, doesn't look after the kids when they're ill) you can see all the women in the audience groaning, "Yeah, tell me something I don't know already." But, even though that particular feminist ambition of equality is far from being achieved, it is increasingly clear that it does not represent the whole question - either for men or women. Increasingly we find ourselves concerned with a more fundamental uncertainty. Are men and women profoundly, ineluctably different? Are our circuit boards wired according to completely different plans? And if they are, is it possible that there are ways in which equality is a meaningless notion in the relationship between the sexes?

Instinctively, an awful lot of us think that our brains, our behaviours, our abilities and predispositions, are different in predetermined ways. But we don't actually know. Take the report only a week or two ago about the probability that there is a genetic predisposition in women to be more adept at communicating and co-operating, while there is a converse predisposition among men to drive for lone achievement. Reporting of this research finding attracted considerable comment, partly because (as ever) scientists were irritated that newspapers (including The Independent) should render their findings in terms that enabled lay folk to get a handle on the subject. So, we reported that boys will be boys and girls will be girls because that is what their chromosomes dictate. Actually, of course, the researchers were quite properly more cautious than that. But in some respects the most interesting thing is that no one really thought this was a particularly controversial or necessarily challenging thought. It concurred so precisely with widespread expectation that few people became exercised about it.

Take another example. We reported in some detail this week research into women's newspaper reading habits, and what female newspaper executives think about the material that newspapers carry. Naturally enough, because men mostly dominate news output, and because women mostly say they want to read about things other than conventional news "events", there is an assumption that news is distorted by being male-oriented. Does that necessarily follow? It might, or it might not, depending on whether women actually want news at all - or something else. The idea of laying an even ground may be beside the point.

So here we are, making vast assumptions about our fundamental nature, without really having much evidence to point to the truth. In America, in particular, many research scientists believe that the ancient nature/nurture argument might be far more resolvable than we think. Technology now enables us to scan brains in ways that may identify a wide range of "soft-wired" differences, including intelligence, social and sexual differences. But there is a great reluctance to support such research in the open: it is largely hidden from view, for fear that it will upset our cherished presumptions.

What are we scared of? First, just suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that women do indeed have a genetic predisposition to be more co-operative in their social relations than men, and that men, conversely, are more likely to adopt aggressive postures. Why is the one propensity necessarily "better" than the other? Surely there are obvious situations in which the male propensity to go solo and compete is more useful than the female propensity to compromise, just as the reverse of this is true. Remember, second, that we are, like other species, highly adaptable. We may be able to rewire some parts of ourselves rather quickly, but hopelessly incapable of altering others.

So, if men and women are actually slightly different animals, who fulfil complementary roles, but also rub up against each other (excuse the metaphor) in different ways, isn't that an important and useful way to understand ourselves? The more open-minded we can be about the way in which we interrelate, the better; and that may very well mean that men should no more become women than women should become men.