Friday, May 19, 2006

The Language of Gender Difference

I. Wherein Patrick Explains That He's Not Sexist

Of all the points of Catholic theology that I've been challenged to explain, the one that I feel least able to articulate an answer to is "Why is the ordination of women impossible?" To that question, there's a sense in which the answer is not difficult, but the words for discussing it have been removed from educated conversation.

Why should that be? The answer is quite sensible. In ages past, many things were said about gender differences that were overgeneralizations, or just simply false (i.e. the notion that it's unfeminine to be intellectually curious), and set up false ideals to which men and women tried diligently to conform. Then, worse, there were many forms that the ensuing gender roles took (in barbarian and civilized cultures) that effectively became power relations of the husband over the wife, or man over woman, and these denigrated the full dignity of women. It is good indeed that we have made progress at quitting those notions, but one effect of that is that we have labeled all gender differences as tools of patriarchal oppression. I fear that we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

For the notion "men and women are different, and not just anatomically" is a truth obvious to every six-year-old on the playground. In this day and age, I find it hard to imagine that many parents would tell their children to seek out primarily their own sex, let alone to play at different things*. And yet the first-graders, without any external guidance, do precisely that (with some healthy exceptions, of course, and then there are the weird kids who go off by themselves, or the boy who runs around trying to smooch the first-grade girls. But enough about my playground history.)

Ironically, the more artificial learned behavior seems to be not gender difference, but the refusal to talk about gender difference in refined contexts. The "correct" response is to blame any differences in the actions or predilections of men and women on latent male sexism in the higher echelons of any male-dominated endeavor.

*OK, TV commercials for boys' and girls' toys might implicitly tell them that, but I don't think that's enough to cause this phenomenon.

II. Wherein Patrick Does Some Research

Sometimes there is cause for such an explanation, sometimes not. Over the weekend, I became curious about gender ratios in certain fields of study over time. I mean, people have been striving to correct gender imbalance in the sciences since the 1960s. The changes might take a while to magnify, as for example a feedback effect from having female professors in one field encourages more young women to pursue that field. But I wondered about a field like mathematics, which for some reason young women still don't choose to pursue in the numbers that young men do.

Maddeningly, no study I could find over the Internet just gave me the straight numbers over time. So, with little better to do, I sloughed through the files myself to find the numbers of bachelors' degrees at UC Berkeley in each of several fields, split into men and women, from 1965 to 2004**. (IAED was invaluable for finding this data, as was the much more efficient IPEDS system at the NCES, but which only covered 1984 to the present.) I chose UC Berkeley in advance, because hey, it's here, and also because it's been at the forefront of encouraging women in science for these forty-five years, and because its large student body makes enough data for statistical significance.

The sciences I looked at were Mathematics and Chemistry (I also looked up numbers for English, Economics, History and Philosophy), and they told two very different stories. Without further ado:

Mathematics Gender Ratio

Chemistry Gender Ratio

It really amazed me how different the trends were. Over time, with the stereotype "Science is for men" challenged, the number of women in chemistry expanded dramatically until it reached near-equality in recent years. Women may even come to surpass men there. But for some reason, despite the Department's diligent efforts to change the situation, still not half as many women as men choose to study Mathematics, and no real trend is discernable.

Of course, this doesn't signify at all that Mathematics is a "man's field", or that women aren't as capable of mathematical thought, or that there's anything lacking in the femininity of female mathematicians. I've known far too many brilliant women in math for me to claim those things (as for the third notion, yes, most female mathematicians are kind of odd, but no weirder than we their male counterparts!). It just means, in my opinion, a difference in interest in the main. I have no explanation for why this should be so, but the fact that it has remained so dramatic an imbalance at Berkeley is highly suggestive.

**There were four years whose data I couldn't find: 1969-70, 1984-85, 1990-91, and 1998-99. Also, because of large yearly fluctuations, I decided to assign to each year the average value for the four years prior, to emphasize trends rather than statistical anomalies. I made this decision before graphing the data.

III. Wherein Patrick Speculates Speculatively

So where does this lead us? Are perhaps many of the differences between men and women statistical rather than direct? Or instead, are there perhaps many different standpoints from which math is interesting, and some of them are common to men and women, and some of them are nearly exclusive to men? I mean, every six-year-old knows that boys and girls are different somehow (and this, way before sex enters the equation), but the child can't articulate how, and it seems that neither can we at the moment.

We need, I believe, to recapture a language of gender in our thinking. Most gender studies at the moment takes it for granted that gender is a purely social construct with no basis in ontology and no necessary connection to sexuality; I think that this dogma of the academy will pass in time. A real understanding of gender will be far more cautious than the premodern one, far more aware that a sloppy theory of differences can lead to oppression and disrespect.

So, I'm not going to answer the original question completely, because I don't think I can articulate it. As far as the Church goes, the most compelling case (apart from the fact that this is the Sacrament of Ordination handed down from Christ through the Apostles to us, which we have no authority to alter in its essence) is that the priesthood is a sacrament of marriage as well, that the priest stands to the Church as a husband, as in the person of Christ, that he may participate in Christ's sacrifice for the Church in saying the Mass and consecrating the Eucharist. That mystical view, again, will not satisfy non-Catholics, but I don't see why it should. Neither will it satisfy many Catholics, either, which is why I think our theology needs to discuss and ponder matters of gender more deeply.

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