Fast Company

The Theory of the Peahen

How Darwin figures into the battle of the sexes.

When considering the differences between the sexes in Darwinian terms, the news is not good for women. In fact, it is decidedly politically incorrect. Strip away education, ambition, and wishful thinking, says Helena Cronin. Instead, get down to the genes. Genes have always behaved only one way. They create females that blend into their settings, just as they create males that stand out. Don't take it personally. It's just sex.

Do some of your own fieldwork. If you take a look at any coed gathering, men, dressed in their dark suits, tend to blend in, whereas women stand out. But when you examine behavior, Cronin says, it's men who are making the deals and setting the agendas. And women are doing the tending, the fixing, the listening. They provide the "glue."

All is not lost in the quest for equality. But, says Cronin, the key is to realize what's impossible. Darwin's theories predict behavior, which we can't change, but we can reshape our environments.

"A study of the American stock exchange determined that the most successful traders were women," she says. "They weren't making risky trades; they weren't making trades just to appear flamboyant. If I were hiring traders for the stock exchange, I might want a certain number of males - but I would want a majority of females, who would trade less often and with less risk. Firms may want the less-competitive attitudes that females typically bring to the workplace. Females should think of where those opportunities are, even if they turn up in the most unlikely places, such as the stock exchange."

A Darwinian point of view could help open doors for women in male-dominated fields. "Truck drivers are often men," Cronin notes. "But, on the whole, it would be better if there were more female drivers, because they are far safer on the road." At the same time, says Cronin, women tend to predominate the service sectors - such as teaching and nursing - that also tend to be less glamorous. Women may actually feel happier in these jobs and perform them better than men do, in part because these jobs have a stronger element of public service and emphasize raw competitiveness less. The correct Darwinian response, says Cronin, is not to push women into competitive fields but to elevate the status of public-service sectors in which women naturally shine.

It would also help, says Cronin, to clarify two commonly held notions that tend to color the debate between the sexes:

Women are nicer and more nurturing than men.

Women do see life more cooperatively, but to consider them more nurturing is a mistake. "Women aren't necessarily nicer than men," says Cronin. "And we are not more nurturing. There is no empirical evidence for saying that we are. Where we should be nurturing is toward our own offspring. But it would be unevolutionary for us to be nurturing beyond that. We are mammals, and nurturing is a resource. You don't want to give up resources. In that way, women are no more altruistic than men, perhaps even less so."

In herds, Cronin explains, ungulates are up and on the hoof within a few minutes of being born. They're part of big herds, and the babies have to run with the rest. "It would be easy for the babies to get confused with other babies," says Cronin. "But mothers can pick up their babies' cries, their smells, their feel. If another baby comes up and tries to suckle, the mother will kick the other baby away; she'll kick it to death. Natural selection has given mothers an exquisite ability to distinguish between their offspring and another's."

Women are typically not as competitive as men.

Just how competitive are men? Totally, says Cronin. "Men always want to be seen as the best at something, even when there is no woman in sight," she says. "The squabble might be over job title or office space. Neither of those have reproductive benefits, but the competitive disposition can show up in anything a man touches. Men compete. Men even create arenas in which they can compete. "The Guinness Book of World Records" is a testament to this. Women are almost absent, except for the category of crocheting."

In Darwinian terms, it begins with the differences in sexual reproduction. When males compete for a mate, there is an awareness of status and a recognition of where they stand in the pack. Women view competition more as a spectator sport. Women want men who will give them resources, but they don't really engage in the competition themselves.

Of course, the news for males is not all good. "Males mean excess," Cronin says. "That's why you find more males with extreme intelligence who are also extreme criminals."

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