Feminism: my beef

Being against feminism is like being against the Atlantic Ocean. It is too big to fight: a broad, deep transformation of all of society. So, some disclaimers: I don’t want to go back to the 1950s of Mad Men, or the 1870s when the angels of the house wore crinolines. I have no soft spot for Russia, where domestic violence has been decriminalized and 20 women are killed every day. I’m not a fan of the Royal-hob-nobbing, racehorse-owning, Rapunzel-reenacting Josef Fritzl of Dubai.

Still, feminism has reached the point where it is accepted by almost everyone in public life, and that is often a point when an idea’s cracks start showing. Put another way: I try to never agree with Nick Clegg. On that note, here is a list of disagreements.

The double bind

Feminists want men and women to be paid equally. Seems fair. But from my all-too-long experience in the dating market, women do not feel this way when they look for a partner. Rather, they prefer to date people who earn more than them. It does not take a mathematician to see the problem with satisfying both these wishes.

Do women really prefer higher earners? I think that fits most people’s experience. Of the married couples I know, the men almost always earn more. Maybe it’s chance, and the men just earn more because of sexism? Mmm. Maybe. I am lucky to have some high-achieving women in my friendship group. One is a civil servant with an OBE. Her husband, though, is a merchant banker. Another went to INSEAD and started a business. Her husband runs a hedge fund. You see the pattern. Conversely, my best mate runs a small charity, not typically the route to big bucks. His wife still earns less than him. I do know two couples where the woman earned more. Did you spot the tense of the verb? One pair is getting divorced. The other already has.

Anyway, who needs anecdotes when you have research? This paper found that women (more than men) preferred spouses with “good earning capacity” who were “ambitious and career-oriented”. If that comes as a shock, then congratulations on your long and stable relationship: you’ve forgotten dating.

Or, heck, do your own research. Go on a dating app. Count the men posing by their cars or houses. Now change genders, and count the number of, oh… food bloggers.

At its most brutal, this difference leads to a Darwinian logic. When male earnings falls, so does marriage (ungated link). The picture below shows the number of children born in Appalachian counties (compared to a control group) during a coal boom, which boosted male earnings and employment, and the subsequent bust, which did the opposite. Men who don’t make money, don’t have children.

This leads me to think that men earn more than women for the same reason that women wear more lipstick: the other sex prefers it.

I make no claim about the deep, Pleistocene-era roots of these different preferences. Maybe it’s society. Maybe one day they will change. People who think they’ll change easily have, I suspect, never raised children in a small flat and wished for a bigger one. Anyway, call me when it happens.

Men face a double bind. Collectively, if they earn more than women, feminists publish reports about that. Individually, if they don’t, they stay single. Which motive do you think will win?

The double standard

Reporting of sex differences follows a simple rule. If women do better than men, it is men’s fault, because men are idiots. If men do better than women, it’s men’s fault, because of sexism.

As someone who is unsurprised by sex differences, I have no difficulty with the first explanation. Men are overwhelmingly over-represented as criminals. I doubt that this is because of gender bias in the courts. I think it’s because men are idiots. They are more likely to get fat, smoke, drink too much, and crash their cars, because they’re idiots. Krystof Azninski cut his own head off with a chainsaw for a dare. Maybe he was an idiot?

Having acknowledged that my sex do spectacularly stupid things, I wonder if it’s possible that they sometimes do spectacular things. The next century should test this hypothesis, as feminism gives women a greater chance to be spectacular than they have ever had before. I look forward to it! But today, even asking the question whether any sex differences that favour men is pretty much out of bounds. I don’t think I am being a snowflake here. Important people have been sacked for as much. Personally, I’m a combative person with a strong belief in academic free speech, but if I wanted to be head of department, obviously I’d keep my mouth shut. I must be an idiot.

Nope, it’s sexism. And there’s research to prove it! Sure. But research that doesn’t prove it gets buried. And would you apply for a grant to do research that doesn’t prove it? Not even male academics are that stupid.

This theory of scientific discovery is sometimes called “looking for your keys under the streetlight”.

The invisible patriarchy

Old men have ruled for most of history. In much of the world they still do. This makes patriarchy a good candidate explanation for men earning more than women, winning more Nobel prizes, and so on. In the 1970s, patriarchy was literally a bunch of guys you could point at. In some places today, it is a little harder to believe. There is still no shortage of powerful men. But they are wearing t-shirts about feminism. Of course, that’s lip service. But if the whole of society pays that lip service, and talks that lip service, and has sexual equality statements in its recruitment adverts paying that lip service, then patriarchy must have changed a little bit. In fact, modern patriarchy is a kind of invisible resistance movement, like the squads the Nazis planned to leave behind. You see, all these men are saying things about gender equality. But when they chat at the male-only urinals, that’s when the men tip each other the wink and cut the female job candidate out.

Sidebar. This is surely a great myth of the gender wars. Do women talk in the toilets? I guess they must. They certainly seem to think men do. I speak only for myself: if you chat to me while I’m pissing, it’ll be awkward, bro. I’ll feel awkward. Maybe I’m just not urinal-conspiracy material.

Without being too dogmatic, this concept is… more credible in some places than others. We recently had a Zoom talk on a theory of sexism in hiring. Apparently, people don’t want to be sexist themselves, but they think other people are sexist, and so they act sexist to conform. The speaker came from UC Berkeley. To be clear, according to his story — and accompanying mathematical model — he’s not sexist himself, but he feels he has to be sexist, so as to fit in when he goes up for a promotion. At Berkeley. I mean, come on.

I am exaggerating for satire. The professor’s story is actually subtler than that. The patriarchy isn’t just underground, it’s unconscious. Even if we sincerely believe we’re egalitarian, we can be sexist without knowing it. Sexism is hidden deep within ourselves as unconscious bias. I was shouting “down with big sister” in my sleep!

This line of thinking bears a resemblance to the hunt for saboteurs in the 1930s Soviet Union. Persistent failure, which does not fit the only legitimate theory, is explained by invoking invisible bad guys.

Of course, if men are still at the top of many professions and power structures, then they must be the patriarchy. So then the logic is: why do men get promoted? Patriarchy. How do we know there’s a patriarchy? Because men get promoted.

Middle ground

Thinking this way, I’m a bystander to contemporary feminism, and when it does serious harm — for example, by supporting deliberate, open sexual discrimation — I’m happy to be hostile. Then again, if the alternatives to feminism are called Putin, ISIS or Weinstein, count me out.

I feel there is room for middle ground here. But today’s public discourse knows no middle ground. So the first task is not to make nice and compromise, but to clearly, honestly and persistently state an alternative point of view, until that space opens up.

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