Margot Wallstrom (“A Womanly Virtue,” Spring 2010) helpfully calls our attention to the horrific lives of women in much of the underdeveloped world. But her understanding of gender equality in the developed world is problematic.
Wallstrom says that if women constitute half the electorate, “the logical conclusion” is that women should have “half of the elected seats.” But women do not run for office as often as men do. They do not seek to make partner in law firms as often. Nor do they seek to be presidents of large firms as often. There are many reasons for this. But the most important is that women, on average, have different preferences than men do.
Catherine Hakim’s work shows that most married women in the developed world want their husbands to be the principal providers while they take the lead on the home front. A 2007 Pew Foundation study finds that only 21 percent of US women with children under 16 say that full time work is the ideal situation for them while 72 percent of men say so.
Hakim’s scholarship and other research focusing on our best educated youth show the same patterns. Camille Benbow and David Lubinski study our brightest young people and follow them over decades. At age 13, mathematically gifted girls have more social interests than do mathematically gifted boys, and they plan to devote less time to their vocations in the future. When they are in their 30s, the mathematically gifted women, now with advanced degrees in hand, report stronger desires to spend more time with family and significantly weaker desires for long hours at work than their male peers. For example, when asked how many hours a week they would want to spend at work if they had their ideal job, 28 percent of these women say less than a standard 40 hours a week, which is significantly less than the hours required for a demanding job. Only 5 percent of men give this answer. Bright women act on their desires. For example, a 2000 survey of female Harvard MBAs from the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 found that only 38 percent were working full time.
It is not credible to attribute these stark differences to the way we socialize girls. When educated women say that for the next decade or more they want to spend most of their time taking care of their young children, we can assume that they know their own minds. The roots of sex differences in the inclination to tend to children are biological. Testosterone inhibits nurturing both within and between the sexes. Thus, for example, females exposed to high levels of testosterone are less interested in babies, and those born with no testosterone show an exaggerated interest in babies. Oxytocin is the chemical that promotes bonding and nurturing. Women have more of it; they get still more during pregnancy and more still when breast feeding.
Educated homemakers are not being self-indulgent. Daycare studies clearly show emotional risk to children in such settings, and nannies are rarely as loving and attentive to children as mothers are. Moreover, bright women not tied down by draining careers have time for community service while also raising their children.
There are two kinds of women and those who want access to demanding careers should have it. Most women with minor children do not want such careers. They may not want to be represented in legislatures by women who assume that all their sisters want (or should want) demanding careers and who insist on helping women by subsidizing daycare rather than supporting increased tax deductions for dependent children—which help all women with children, whether they work for pay full time, part time, or not at all.
In a healthy democracy, we all get to vote for people who we think will represent us. We are not traitors to our sex when we decide some person among the opposite sex is best suited to the particular office being contested.