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Female heads of government probably do bring something different

I published this column in the Times recently. Since then it has become clear that Britain will probably have a female prime minister soon (Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom are the bookies’ favourites), and a female leader of the opposition (Angela Eagle ditto), as well as a female monarch. In Scotland all three main party leaders are women. America may have a female president next year. It seems timely to discuss whether women bring different skills to the top jobs in politics. I think they do, and for the better:

After an American political party at last picked a woman candidate for president, and after watching a television debate on Europe last week in which one male was surrounded by six females, including the presenter, the idea of women in power has just about ceased to be unusual. The number of women elected as president or prime minister in the world was three in the 1960s, then 5, 8, 24 and 25 in each succeeding decade – and it has already reached 30 in this half-finished decade. Slow, but steady progress.

So, a question: are women sufficiently different from men for this to make a difference? Yet another brain-imaging study, at Stanford University, has found neural differences between men and women. When two men co-operate on a task, one particular part of the brain lights up in each; when two women co-operate, a different part of the brain lights up in each. When a man and a woman co-operate, both brains light up less – but they still co-operate fine. Different, but not unequal, in other words.

That men and women are – on average — different is surely not controversial. When people deny it, as they occasionally do, I point out that men generally grow beards and women breasts. No, comes the reply, I meant mentally different.

All right, that is less easy to demonstrate. But it would surely be odd if Homo sapiens was almost the only mammal with no consistent behavioural differences between males and females. Males are more aggressive and females more nurturing in elephants and mice, in monkeys and dolphins. The difference is most noticeable in species where males are bigger and stronger than females, as is true of human beings.

Sure, the sex difference in size is not great in people, compared with, say, gorillas or seals, and we seem to have at least a passing instinct for pair-bonded monogamy in which males participate in child rearing more than in many mammals. This would imply less of a difference than in some other species.

Never the less, as I recount in my book The Evolution of Everything (now out in paperback), throughout history and geography, from thirteenth century England to modern Canada, Kenya to Mexico, studies consistently find that men are more than 90 times more likely to kill men as women are to kill women, even though overall murder rates vary hugely between cultures. Attempts in the 1970s to explain this pattern as a result of cultural conditioning – for example, one sociologist argued that it was caused by women being punished more severely for murder than men, though there was no evidence for this – were unpersuasive.

Parents buy toy trucks for their sons and dolls for their daughters, not mainly because they are slaves to cultural hegemony, but because experience tells them that is what their children want. Experiment after experiment has shown that given a choice, girls will play more with dolls and boys with toy trucks. Amazingly, it turns out that the same is true of monkeys: offered a choice, young male monkeys play more with toy trucks, females with the dolls. As I put it in The Evolution of Everything, most parents are happy to reinforce sex differences, but have little interest in starting them from scratch. 

That is not to say that we should not challenge stereotypes, rather the reverse. The fact that people have generally reinforced differences and prejudices about sex gives us all the more reason to push back and see which differences would vanish or shrink if we stopped insisting on them. You only have to look at the number of women serving in the military to realise just how wrong we once were to assume that differences were greater than they are.

Over and above the normal mammalian differences between the sexes, human beings may have an extra reason to behave differently according to sex. In all hunter-gatherer societies ever studied, from the Inuit to the Yanomamo (though possibly not in Neanderthals), there is a sexual division of labour: men hunt and women gather, but both then share. Hunting and gathering take lots of different forms, for sure, but even the exceptions seem to prove the rule. Where wild honey is an important part of the diet, men generally “hunt” it down; where rodents feature in the diet, women often “gather” them by digging.

This sexual division of labour has unique advantages, since it pairs two different foraging strategies, reducing the risk of each. The habit seems to have arisen in the African ancestors of all modern people about 300,000 years ago and it has probably left an evolutionary mark that may explain some different preferences. Golf is a bit like hunting – an expedition involving weapons and calculated trajectories. Shopping is a bit like gathering – a search for valuable rewards. Male golfers outnumber female ones by five to one in Britain (Europe’s most enthusiastic golfing country). Women make about 80% of consumer purchases in most countries. 

Which brings me back to women in power. You cannot argue a priori that a history of hunting and fighting better suits a human being for getting elected and chairing a cabinet than a history of gathering and nurturing. A modern political (or business) career is a million miles away from whatever it was that any of us were doing in the Pleistocene. But what you can argue is that sex differences, whether inherited from recent human ancestors or from early mammals, might cause men to do the top job – on average — slightly differently from women. Having mostly let men run governments for centuries, with mixed results, we should at least see if women’s brains run governments differently and perhaps better.

The omens are good. Female presidents, prime ministers and rulers have pretty impressive track records: Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, not to mention our magnificent monarch, just passing 90 years of age, and her earlier namesake. Mrs Thatcher had little patience with the idea that women needed special treatment to compete, but she did think her sex gave her a different approach: “I’ve got a woman’s ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it.” Interestingly, that’s exactly the reason the anthropologist Louis Leakey gave for choosing women to do long-term studies of ape behavior: he picked Jane Goodall for chimpanzees, Diane Fossey for gorillas and Birute Galdikas for orang-utans. They all stuck at it for decades.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times