Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On Gender Stereotypes

Drake Bennett has written an interesting piece in the Boston Globe, asking whether gender stereotypes are harder to address than racial stereotypes. Bennett quotes a lot of research which suggests that it's harder to get rid of the hidden sexism in the mind than the hidden racism. I don't have the knowledge to tell whether this impression is the correct one. Perhaps there are other studies which suggest something different? Or perhaps not.

But I noticed, once again, the interesting assumption lots of people unconsciously make that research done in the United States or in Canada or in Britain is representative of general human nature and not just of the Anglo-Saxon cultural inheritance or related biases. The context in which I mostly see this error is in the assumption that the American teenage trauma called "the high school experience" is how all humans grow up, but even here it's useful to point out that studies done in different cultures would probably unearth somewhat different types of sexist beliefs, and either more or less of them, and the same would have been true of studies like this done, say, a hundred years ago in this country.

All that is meant to say that when psychologists study something like gender or racial beliefs they can't just study some innate and isolated part of the human mind; they study the totality of the junk we have in our heads, a lot of it brought in from the movies and the popular culture and so on.

Why am I talking about this? Because Bennett also introduces a "biological" explanation for the enduring nature of gender bias: those prehistoric tribes which locked up our brains against any further evolution:

Tooby takes a more biological view. As he argues, in the prehistoric environment in which our brains evolved, race had no meaning -- no one could travel far enough to meet anyone who didn't look like them. Gender, on the other hand, meant a lot. It predicted what someone's status would be, what their priorities were, whether they were a potential rival or a potential partner.

It's not a "more biological" view, given that we don't have any actual biological evidence. It's speculation, and speculation based on some time and place of which we know practically nothing. But Tooby still believes that race then had no meaning, but sex had. And what was the meaning of sex? It told about, say, what someone's status would be.

And what was the status of women in those tribes? We don't know that, either, of course. This is why I'm unhappy with the kinds of "biological" explanations that are advanced by some. They don't provide us any additional evidence but certainly serve to reinforce various pop-evolutionary soundbites.

And for those suffering from primary-season allergies: Warning! The article is based in the context of Clinton vs. Obama.