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The work of Project 3:28 in documenting the gender balance (or imbalance) at major Christian conferences in the UK has caused a great deal of discussion this month.  Many have welcomed it as a necessary step towards rectifying a historic injustice, others have seen it as a reminder that those who officially agree with the principles of equality should work harder to make it a reality, and some have raised questions about whether the conference stage is the best place to evaluate the issue of gender justice or evangelism.

The discussions have covered both theological and practical issues, and the latter reminded me of a passage of Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus where she addresses the claims by Simon Baron-Cohen that the “male brain” and “female brain” are just physically suited to different kinds of function. The former excel at “analysing complex systems” whereas the latter specialise in “empathy and communication”.  Baron-Cohen claims that there are men with “female brains” and women with “male brains” but that, generally speaking, they are the exceptions.  Having identified how these “brains” tend to differ, he then apparently works outwards to identify what sorts of roles and occupations they best suit:

People with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators or personnel staff… People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catalogists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers or even lawyers.

As Cameron points out, there are some surprising groupings here.  Even if Baron-Cohen’s neuroscience is correct (and – as Cordelia Fine points out in Delusions of Gender: the Real Science Behind Sex Differences – there is no strong basis for believing that it is), then the jobs are arranged a little oddly.  She notes:

Baron-Cohen classifies nursing as a female-brain, empathy-based job (though if a caring and empathetic nurse cannot measure dosages accurately and make systematic clinical observations she or he risks doing serious harm) and law as a male-brain, system-analysing job (though a lawyer, however well versed in the law, will not get far without communication and people-reading skills). 

On this basis, Cameron doubts the methodology of Baron-Cohen’s work, suggesting that the lists are not derived from “a dispassionate analysis of the demands made by two jobs” but are instead “based on the everyday common-sense knowledge that most nurses are women and most lawyers are men.”

We might also cast doubt on how capable a musician is going to be of interpreting a complex score without empathetic skills, or what a mess a social worker might cause if they cannot carry complex protocols and legal processes in their head.  In particular we might demand to know why the role of “teacher” is only a “female” one during the primary-school years, and how university tutors, college lecturers and boarding-school housemasters can carry out their duties without developing and nurturing relationships with others.

It is not just the status quo which encourages this kind of taxonomy, Cameron argues.  People are not simply generalising from what they see around them to some deep laws of social science.  After all, Cohen’s two lists do have an obvious difference, even if it is not empathy/systems: “the male jobs are more varied, more creative and better rewarded than their female counterparts.”  All through our society we see a tendency to take similar abilities and roles, and treat them differently when they are attached to men and women.

Patient listening and reassuring skills may be seen as making a woman ideal for lower-paid work as a child-minder, or indeed the unpaid emotional work of mediating between quarrelling brothers-in-law.  Those same skills might make a man eminently suitable for a role as a diplomat or a lawyer dealing with touchy private clients.  The firm yet approachable manner of a women which encourages the children in a Sunday School to listen and follow instructions, as she passes out little tasks to make everyone feel included, might equip a man to lead the church committee brilliantly, particularly his skill at effective delegation.

Activities themselves can become gendered, even beyond the skills that are needed for success: cooking pieces of meat is a pursuit notoriously suitable for men (and only men) in many families, so long as it is happening outside, on a Bank holiday, in full view of the guests.  But when the meat is cut up to be cooked with a series of vegetables, hidden in the oven, night after night, women are suddenly best at it.  The pervasive grease and grime of working on an expensive car is evidence of men’s love of getting their hands dirty and sorting things out.  Though – as VJD Smith has pointed out – mopping up the vomit and excrement of family members too young or too ill to cope with their own fails to count as a sufficiently manly way of “getting your hands dirty”.

These are definitions based on power, not on ability, and there’s a real risk that we allow sloppy thinking to determine our account of what people are suited to.  The cultural contours are laid down in deep ruts, and to succumb to them all we need to do is let ourselves be carried away by what seems obvious, what must be natural, what has always been the case.  One of the most striking, and most depressing, features of the history of ideas is how power imbalances tend to warp and corrupt the best-intentioned reasoning.  The “moral disappointment” we feel when looking back at historical figures we admire, whose minds accepted the most appalling injustices as natural, should warn us about the risk in our own time.

We cannot easily “correct for the contemporary” in our reasoning, steering a set number of degrees to one side of where we instinctively think we should be, and arriving at justice.  But we might aspire to a certain epistemic virtue in recognising the power imbalances in our culture which may have a corrosive effect on our own perspective, and having done so, give a greater weight to the perspectives of those who have been subject to those imbalances.  This will involve hearing from women on the main stage, in more than one sense.