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Book of the week: 'Biology at Work'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Sept. 25, 2002 at 2:38 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- Book Review: "Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality" by Kingsley R. Browne, Rutgers U. Press, 288 pp., $28.00

Kingsley R. Browne's "Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality" is a short but thorough critique of feminist arguments on job-related sex discrimination that will have readers crying "Ouch" at times and "Just so" at others.

Browne subjects the conventional wisdom to a sustained critical assault. And in doing so, he often provides quantified empirical validation of a different kind of knowledge -- the wry wisdom of humorists from James Thurber to Dave Barry writing on the battle of the sexes.

Browne, a Wayne State law professor, brings the latest research to bear on a wide variety of gender issues. This makes "Biology at Work" resemble a sober, scholarly complement to earlier, less formal explorations of sex differences such as "Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys."

Are women, for example, held back in the business world because their husbands unfairly shirk doing their share of the housework? Or, as humorist Barry argues, do wives tend to have higher standards of cleanliness; and thus to equally divide the labor would be to ask the guys to do chores that if they lived alone they'd never even conceive of doing?

When I was a bachelor, my philosophy was that scrubbing and scouring was something I did only when there were no sports on TV. Fortunately, I had ESPN.

Now, however, there's no need for anecdotal evidence because Browne has this issue scientifically quantified. He tracked down an analysis by sociologists Scott South and Glenna Spitze showing that bachelorettes do indeed perform one-third more housework than bachelors.

Furthermore, husbands shun housework because, as Barry points out, "A lot of us have developed a powerful laundry phobia, and we will continue to suffer from it as long as women roll their eyes and shove us away from the washing machine when we're about to, for example, wash our delicate silks in the same load as our boat cover. This is also true ... of cleaning and cooking and remembering where, exactly, we left the children."

Now, though, I don't need to quote Dave Barry as my sole authority for this argument any longer, because Browne has located a study by Myra Marx Ferree. This University of Wisconsin sociologist discovered that "husbands who expect their housework to be criticized do less housework, and the more the wife cares about having a clean house, the fewer conventionally female chores her husband does."

The professor also shows some wit himself. For instance, Browne observes, "Although sexual harassment surveys typically ask whether respondents have ever been subjected to unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace, they seldom ask whether they have been subject to welcome ones."

I might add: And how is a man supposed to tell the difference if he lacks a crystal ball to see the future? I take this issue rather personally because a "workplace advance" describes how my father and mother met back in pre-Anita Hill times.

Strikingly, "Biology at Work" is being published not as a law book, but as part of the "Rutgers Series in Human Evolution," which is edited by famed sociobiologist Robert Trivers. Browne's legal reasoning draws heavily upon evolutionary psychologists' many studies of sex distinctions. Those tempted to jump on the Darwin-bashing bandwagon should keep in mind just how often evolutionary scientists fortify the case for the wisdom of the ages.

Browne's familiarity with Darwinian logic about natural differences between males and females leaves him dubious that sexist resistance by the old boys is the main cause of why there are still so few young women mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. "The sociological explanation raises the initial question of just why science is more subject to sexist resistance than other fields," he writes.

The medical and legal professions of a generation ago, the author notes, were notoriously chauvinistic, "but these citadels crumbled quickly before the onslaught of the female hordes. Over 40 percent of new doctors and lawyers are women. Who, then," Browne sarcastically asks, "Can stand before the onrushing tide of female power? The surprising answer turns out to be the mathematics and engineering geeks, fighting to keep pocket protectors out of the hands of the fair sex."

Instead, Browne argues that many of the current sex differences in job choice and pay stem from biological differences between the sexes in cerebral skills, personality, and physical strength. For instance, he reports, "In the top 10 percent of mechanical reasoning ability, males outnumber females by approximately 8 to 1."

In contrast, women generally outperform men in some important verbal skills. Yet, men still outnumber women among the very best talkers and writers, or in just about any other capability, Browne contends. He claims that this is due to greater variability among males. As any woman could tell you, there are more stupid men than stupid women; but there are also more male than female geniuses.

Moreover, males, it appears, are more likely to obsess over mastering subjects that are irrelevant to their personal lives. For example, "The ratio of males to females among those scoring over 700 on the European History College Board test has ranged, over the years, from 4 to 1 to 6 to 1." Thus, Browne suggests, men are likely to hold most of the most specialized and demanding jobs in just about any field.

Browne also examines the famous battle cry, "Women earn only 59 cents for every dollar men earn," which is widely considered proof of discrimination. Actually, Browne reports, the ratio rose to 76 cents, before dropping back to 74 cents recently as welfare reform brought lots of unskilled women into the job market.

President Clinton declaimed, "Seventy-five cents on the dollar is only three-quarters of the way there, and Americans can't be satisfied until we're all the way there."

Browne questions Clinton's underlying assumption that it would be natural for women on average to makes as much money as men. Overall, women devote much more of the their energies toward child raising than men do. This can't help but cost women in the job market.

Indeed, it would be strange if profit-seeking firms are self-destructively paying men more than the market requires, presumably just to spite women at great expense to their bottom-lines.

Yet, that is indeed what most American companies did until about three decades ago. So, it's not completely implausible that some of that profit-hurting discrimination by employers continues.

On the other hand, Browne doesn't go fare enough in his analysis of Clinton's complaint. The author forgets to ask, "If women only earn six bits on the dollar, how much more do they spend? And where do they get the difference?"

It's hardly a secret among advertisers that women make the majority of consumer purchases. Marketing research studies, such as a recent one by Yankelovich, suggest that women spend as much as $2 for $1 spent by men. If accurate, then American men transfer somewhere around a trillion or so dollars of their earnings each year to women.

Of course, research on this question isn't terribly exact because defining who actually did the spending is methodologically challenging, to say the least.

For example, my wife just spent about 30 hours researching what patio furniture to buy. At the end, she asked me to accompany her to Sears to make the final choice. There, she got bogged down trying to choose between two sets she very much liked. So, using my masculine powers of leadership and logic, I took command and ordered her to buy both. We went home happy.

Obviously, a vast proportion of spending by women is not self-indulgence, but hard work on behalf of their loved ones, slightly more than half of whom on average will be males.

Indeed, this illustrates a profound principle with which Browne ends his book: "The issues in this book are not 'women's issues,' but 'human issues.' Every woman is some man's daughter, and most are some man's sister, wife, or mother; every man is some woman's son, and most are some woman's brother, husband, or father."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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