Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?

by Mary Jackson (March 2011)

One of Jane Austen’s characters refers to people who “seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own”. Men make generalisations about women and vice versa; this is not admirable, but it is understandable. But if a man were to declare that all men are bastards, I would suspect his motives. If all men are bastards, why should I believe him? Is he not a bastard too? And a woman who makes sweeping derogatory statements about all women is likewise suspect. Both are trying to ingratiate themselves with the opposite sex.

 Here is journalist India Knight on the subject of female bosses:

In my experience, women are far harder to work with than men. Men don’t give you a crap task because they’re jealous of your shoes or mistrust you for months because you have good highlights or stand about “nursing her wrath to keep it warm”, as Robert Burns put it. Sometimes women don’t get jobs because they’re not very nice.

Unlike Ms. Knight, who is very nice, and has the intelligence to know her place. What more could a man want? Seriously, though, male bosses never irrational or petty or jealous? Perhaps not, if you tell them what they want to hear.

In Pajamas Media several years ago, Mary Grabar criticised what she called the “Oprahization of academia”. Universities, she argued, are becoming a place to share one’s emotions rather than engage in rigorous scholarship:

Repeatedly, in the literature and in instructor orientations, I have been enjoined to encourage students in “group work,” to use the classroom to promote a more equitable society, to refrain from telling a student her answer is “wrong,” and to encourage the exploration of feelings through assignments.

So far, so well-targeted. However, in her wish to distance herself from such silliness, Ms. Grabar is in danger of becoming irrational. It is one thing to condemn the “feminisation” of academia in abstract terms; quite another to blame “women as a group”, which she does, in so many words:

I blame it on women, specifically those women who, instead of working their ways into the club through rules of evidence, common values, and objective scholarship, have pushed in their alternate “ways of knowing.”

The specific is fine, but the general is at best superfluous. Why not just blame “those women who” have done what they did? Why blame “women” as a sex? There’s more:

It makes me wonder if women as a group are simply not as suited to the academic or intellectual life.

Notice that “women as a group” does not include Ms Grabar. She is not like the other women. She is superior. She is clever and rational enough to know that most other women (but not men) are stupid and irrational. Guys, what’s not to like? The next best thing to a woman who knows her place is a woman who knows another woman’s place.

In the comments, Ms Grabar explains why women – apart from her – are no good at rational thought:

When women get together they talk about fashion, relationships, gossip.

Right. Ms. Grabar is privy to the conversations of all groups of “women getting together”. How so? Does she “get together” with them? If so, is she one of the group or not? Does she sit passively by amid this girlish chat and not think to interject a bit of rationality? Can’t she “play the white man” and sort us all out?

Ms. Grabar makes some good points in her article. She is not stupid, and she knows full well what she is doing. Let’s hope it impresses the men. It doesn’t impress this woman, although I can’t speak for the rest of my group.

Ms. Grabar’s strictures are not new. “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” was the question that Rex Harrison, as Henry Higgins, didn't quite sing, and certainly doesn’t answer. Perhaps this is because his character was a phonetician, not a “neuropsychiatrist” and so didn’t know that male and female brains are “hard-wired” differently.

Hard-wiring wasn’t around much in Henry Higgins’s day, but it’s everywhere now. We are hard-wired for God, hard-wired for hierarchy, hard-wired for empathy and hard-wired to care and connect.  (Connect. Only connect. That is another of those vaguely computery phrases that is doing the rounds. ) Above all, we are hard-wired for gender.  Cordelia Fine has her doubts, but what does she know, being only a woman? From Carol Travis’s review, in the Times Literary Supplement, of Fine’s Delusions of Gender.

“We have been here before, so many times”, writes Fine, with a sigh. No one disputes that the sexes differ physiologically, in hormones and anatomy, or that there are sex differences in the brain related to men’s and women’s different reproductive processes. The eternal question is, and has been, so what? What, if anything, do those differences have to do with work, love, success, ambition, talent, love of sports, and who does the housework? Perhaps they do, says Fine, but “when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith – as well as more than one echo of the insalubrious past”. Fine takes us with her along that trail as she looks up studies reported by Brizendine and Baron-Cohen, among other authors, showing us time and again how their claims go far beyond the research they cite.


 According to Baron-Cohen, a person high in affective empathy, seeing a woman in pain, will “automatically feel concern, wince, and feel a desire to run across and help alleviate her pain”; and it is women on average who are “predominantly hard-wired” to do that wincing and alleviating. What about men who wince and rush to alleviate the pain of a person trapped in a mine or of their children who have taken a tumble? And which women? Under what circumstances? Empathy towards whom? Are women more empathic toward their enemies, familial or national, than men are? Hardly. (Mirror neurons go to sleep when people are observing members of an out-group.) Over and over, if you watch what people do rather than what they say they would do, and vary the situations in which they do it, gender differences fade to the vanishing point. As Fine puts it, “Pick a gender difference, any difference. Now watch very closely as – poof! – it’s gone”.

It seems that the hard-wiring isn’t so hard after all; at any rate, you wouldn’t want it in your light fitting. And shouldn’t women’s wiring be soft, gentle and low, like the voice of the other Cordelia?

Back to Henry Higgins. In the song to which this piece owes its title, Higgins sounds out the ever-patient Colonel Pickering:

HIGGINS: Would you be slighted if I didn't speak for hours?
PICKERING Of course not!
HIGGINS: Would you be livid if I had a drink or two?
PICKERING: Nonsense.
HIGGINS: Would you be wounded if I never sent you flowers?
HIGGINS: Well, why can't a woman be like you?

There’s a catch, of course. Pickering’s brain in Eliza Doolittle’s head just wouldn’t do because she would then be too much like a man. Mary Grabar again at Pajamas Media again, this time ostensibly writing  about the way “feminists” – which ones is not made clear – have criticised Sarah Palin:

[T]his election season, feminists have engaged in the worst kind as they lobbed personal insults at Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who more than any of their feminist standard-bearers seems to not only have “had it all,” but to have done it all. Conservatives have rightly noted this deterioration of the “sisterhood.”

The histrionic attacks are rooted in something much deeper than simple political disagreement.

What the feminists hate is that, on the job, Palin is one of the boys.

This makes sense. In the UK we had the same with Margaret Thatcher. Because she was a Conservative, feminists on the left could not find it in them to celebrate the fact that the UK had its first woman Prime Minister, and so unsexed her. But the article was not about the election. Mary Grabar continues:

That Palin thinks like a man, or logically, is what has made the left livid.

So, a woman who thinks logically “thinks like a man”. What about a man who doesn't think logically? Yes, you've guessed it:

As appropriate to their modes, they respond emotionally. The men in their movement, who have become one of the girls in terms of thinking, respond with personal insults, even going so far as to mock the looks of her baby, as Bill Maher recently did.

So let's sum up: a woman can't be as good as a man in politics because if she is she's like a man, so it doesn't count.  And a man can't be as bad as a woman in politics, because if he is he's like a woman so it doesn't count. Catch 22 doesn't begin to cover it. Perhaps Higgins should have not-sung: “Why can't a woman be more like a woman who thinks like a man, and less like a woman who thinks like a man who thinks like a woman?”

Now Ms. Grabar gets her teeth into her real subject which is how women have ruined everything. Those awful women with PhDs have taken over academia, laments Grabar, PhD, an academic:

The influx and domination of women in the field has had a devastating impact on intellectual discourse, for not only did men capitulate to women’s demands on affirmative hiring practices, but to their demands to change the tenor and standards of scholarship itself.

The 1980s saw a concomitant change in the popular culture, as women wedged their way into boardrooms and military academies.

There is one mysterious exception to the rule-with-exception that female academics are illogical except the ones that think like men. The exception that proves the exception that proves the rule. Care to guess who it is? The answer is up for Grabs.

Mary Grabar is trying too hard to to be Queen Bee. She should relax. I’m with Cordelia Fine on this:  men and women are different, but so what? Should we then draw such conclusions as often seem to be drawn, namely that women are should be pushed into “feminine” occupations – what is defined as women’s work has varied through time and place, but it is generally of lower status than men’s – or that promiscuous men should be forgiven because their behaviour is, conveniently, “hard-wired”? Had the “Prophet” Mohammed been alive today, he would surely have approved of this hard-wiring, close as it is to the ties that bind the slave of Allah. “Why can’t a woman,” Henry Higgins concludes, “Be like me?” That is a question Mohammed – and the pseudo-scientists who talk of hard-wiring – could not ask.

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