The default gender

December 20, 2013

Andrew Gelman wrote something really smart over at the Monkey Cage the other day regarding Ross Douthat’s column on how having daughters makes you more conservative (emphasis mine):

But here’s my question: Why is it all about “the effect of daughters”? Why not “Does having sons make you support the Democrats?” It looks to me like having sons is considered the default … Lots of discussion of how having a girl might affect your attitudes on abortion, not so much discussion about how having a boy might affect your attitudes on issues such as gun control or war, which disproportionately affect young men. This is a real problem, when issues of girls and boys, men and women, are treated asymmetrically.

The same day, there was this in the Atlantic, “The Real Reason the Humanities Are ‘in Crisis’”:

Women’s choices have changed the face of higher education over the past 35 years. A relentless focus on gender won’t resolve funding cuts. But examining the historical reasons why women turned away from the humanities might turn the purported crisis into an opportunity.

This piece is all about how women turned their back on the humanities. It’s written by a woman, and pro-women going into STEM fields. I don’t think it’s deliberately sexist, or even that there is anything necessarily wrong with it as it is.

Still, I do think Gelman is right that it’s important to think about the framing of questions — and the answers to those questions — when talking about gender inequality. What does focusing on one gender, and ignoring the other, say about our underlying assumptions of the “natural” state of society?

To me, the question of why women have abandoned the humanities is less interesting than why men have not moved in to fill those spaces. I assume that it’s for the same reasons women are flocking to the social sciences, pre-professional majors and, to a lesser extent, STEM fields: practicality.

Inequality in traditionally female fields is related to inequality in traditionally male ones. Why have more men not stepped in to become public school teachers or nurses as women have moved to become professors and doctors? The healthcare sector is booming, and isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon. Will men step up to meet demand for nurses and home health aids?

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