In Parts I and II of this series I looked at the “scientific” claims made
about women in Dianne Hales’s book Just Like A Woman. In Part III I began
examining Helen Fisher’s book The First Sex, published by Random House
and widely reviewed, “fascinating” according to the New York Times. Fisher,
an anthropologist at Rutgers University, basically says that because of
(1) gender divisions of work in deep history, as well as (2) gender differences
in the prefrontal cortex of our brains, and (3) estrogen, women have evolved
certain behaviors and innate tendencies, which have kept her as a second
class citizen (through no fault of anyone, and no coercion, apparently)
until now. But women’s traits are exactly suited to what Fisher claims
will be a more team-oriented, egalitarian, information-driven economy.
In her chapter on “Women’s Words.” Fisher says that the ability to communicate
with the written and spoken word is essential in the information-age workplace.
Women, she contends, really dominate in this skill. How does she explain
why men are the famous writers, poets, and speakers? Well, men speak in
more formal, mixed groups; women speak at home or among other women. Why?—because
of our female brains. Women “have 11 percent more neurons in areas specializing
in perceiving different sounds associated with language. Of course, Fisher
mentions that we need ro know more —it is difficult to count neurons—but
the evidence is mounting that women use both sides of the cerebral cortex
of their brains. Also, women’s language centers are located in safer places—toward
the front of the left hemisphere. This doesn’t explain why women exhibit
their incredible verbal skills only in the home, but no matter.
Estrogen, according to Fisher, also helps triggers a woman’s swift rejoinder
by facilitating the flow of information among neurons. Also a women’s capacity
to pronounce words increases during her menstrual cycle. Plus, researchers
have located genes on the X chromosome that inform language, but due to
certain unknown factors related to inheritance, this is active only in
about 50 percent of women and is silenced in all men. Women also evolved
this skill from ancestral women millenniums ago in Africa through the process
of educating their young.
Fisher refers to a survey of 186 societies. Fathers, she reports, had regularly
close relations with infants in less that 2 percent of them. So, mothers,
the designated educators of the young, would naturally have verbal skills
built into the female brain.
Proof of the above claim can be seen in the fact that women are now invading
radio and TV (!?). Fisher reports that more than half of NPR reporters
are women; many radio anchors and producers are women; 25 percent of the
jobs in radio in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia are held by women;
in 1994 25 percent of TV writers and announcers were women, 50 percent
of primetime series has at least one female producer; 52 percent of all
American TV viewers are women.
If women excel in the talking/writing department— and they apparently are
way above men in this—then why don’t they hold 95 or 100 percent of all
communications jobs, as men do in the jobs they “excel at?” Fisher says
that for 3,000 years men have been the most celebrated authors, poets,
speakers, etc., because women haven’t had the time or the education to
pursue their love affair with words. It’s not clear why we have the time
now but, according to Fisher, women are now 54 percent of book authors
and 25 percent of reporters, correspondents, and editors. Plus, women are
better at gossip and the demand for gossip will grow in the new millennium.
Huh? Women will be schmoozing in cyberspace, and they will be hired to
explore ways to use the Internet more effectively. Plus, women are better
educated. By the 1990s, according the Fisher, 89 percent of American women
aged 25-29 had graduated from high school (86 percent of men); 29 percent
of women to 26 percent of men had college degrees; women earned 46 percent
of the doctorates (mostly in education).
Fisher concludes that, “For millions of years our forebears lived in small
egalitarian groups where clever, charismatic, industrious individuals rose
to leadership. But just about everybody had access to knowledge and could
convert it into power.
“We are returning to these prehistoric times and women are grabbing opportunities.”
Just how capitalism—with markets, competition, and the profit motive—will
become more egalitarian and like prehistoric times is hard to fathom and
In a chapter on “People Skills and Mind Reading,” Fisher says that women
will dominate the service occupations. (This is news?) It seems women have
superior hearing and sensitivity to touch—from their deep history of raising
babies. This natural talent can help women evaluate and be sensitive to
their colleagues in the workplace. Women can use their superior sense of
smell to recognize oders in the workplace. Plus women evolved a more subtle
sensitive sense of taste from having to test brackish water millions of
year ago. Fisher says this skill will help women read personalities in
the office cafeteria.
Good grief. Is this what anthropologists get paid for? How does that smelling
thing work? And why are we sniffing out office personalities, anyway? Why
not use us like dogs to locate drugs in people’s suitcases or to determine
levels of toxic waste in the landfills under our schools?
Women see better at night and have better peripheral vision, skills we
can use to evaluate coworkers during office meetings, says Fisher. Really?
Women are better at distinguishing colors, especially shades of red. This
skill may have helped them heal their infants because they could judge
their child’s health by the color of its lips and cheeks. Says Fisher,
“That’s why women wear rouge and lipstick: to advertise their vigor to
friends and suitors.” What!? Besides this being yet another inane claim,
how are men going to distinguish anything about women’s health from a face
that is masked by shades of a color that men have an inferior ability to
distinguish in the first place?
Women also have better location memory, Fisher reports. This ability is
apparently linked to estrogen. In a memory test women remembered 70 percent
more of the articles in an office than men did. This female location memory
emerges at puberty when estrogen levels rise. “It also evolved from remembering
where the water hole was,” says Fisher. Unbelievable. How can a serious
academic write stuff like this, a major mainstream publishing house publish
it, and the premier mainstream book review outlet in the United States
praise it? Easily, it sells and it is serviceable. The harder question
is, why do any women take this stuff seriously?
Returning to Fisher, men, on the other hand, navigate by distances and
cardinal directions, which are associated with male hormones, particularly
testosterone. This evolved from primordial hunting. Don’t ask why or how.
Women have tact, says Fisher. They read people, then use this to fathom
“what you want to hear—and they manipulate you with words.” This allows
them to excel as interpreters, police officers, detectives, therapists,
social workers, advertisers, financial advisors, and mediators. This aptitude
for “executive social skills” resides in the prefrontal cortex, in that
same cluster that is active in 50 percent of women—allowing them to perceive
nuances of social give and take. Of course, women have not excelled as
police officers or detectives or advertisers or financial advisors or executives,
but I guess that’s because they were the 50 percent who didn’t have that
Men’s brains, with their smaller connective highways between hemispheres,
may be less agile at interpreting nonverbal data, and less gifted at executive
social skills. Then why are CEOs all men? In fact, why are men of any use
at all? Fisher writes: “Women’s innate people skills will be a valuable
commodity in almost every sector of the 21st century economy.” Yippee.
The Service Industry
Next we discover what Fisher means by “every sector of the economy.” She
mostly means the “service industry.” Fisher finds it a sign of women’s
growing power that today “some 239,000 people, mostly women, are licensed
nail technicians”—they paint your toenails while you read and chat. Other
entrepreneurs sell you hot meals in train stations, return your library
books and video rentals, fill your prescriptions, redecorate your living
rooms, plan your vacations, edit your manuscripts, and even clean out your
In 1994 Americans spent 44 percent of their cash on food cooked outside the
home. (Now that is something to think about…) In the 21st century
economy cooks, bakers, manicurists, bellhops, drycleaners, laundries, and
nurseries selling houseplants will be in demand, i.e., many people will
be self-employed in the small service industry as a “professional servant
class.” Sixty percent of these people are women and women own 52 percent
of the 4 million businesses in the service industry. In 1995, in 174 of
developing nations, women held 50 percent of all clerical, sales, and service
Thus, Fisher concludes that, “women around the world are converting their
ancient people skills into cash.” Is she for real? How does continuing
to hold the lowest paid, least prestigious jobs as professional servants
lead to women being poised for power?
Fisher then points to one woman who decided to become a detective as proof
that women will be especially suited for that job. Why?—because women rely
on cunning. Women are also making their way onto police forces (13 percent
are women) because police departments have begun to realize women are outstanding
at coaxing perpetrators into squad cars. Also, women can sweet talk criminals
Women are particularly suited for mediation because of their evolutionary
heritage. Female chimps, says Fisher, were skilled at settling disputes
and she guesses that ancestral women were too. This explains, I assume,
why 26 percent of lawyers, 80 percent of legal assistants, and 50 percent
of law students are now women. It does not explain why 90 percent of judges
are men or why women are only 13 percent of the partners in the largest
law firms—but no matter.
Next, Fisher looks at the healing professions. She says that in the new
economy more and more people will be looking for hands on curing. She doesn’t
say why, but guess who is suited for this type of healing: women.
Fisher writes that the female talent for healing has been overlooked. (That’s
any interesting way of describing the history of women healers and their
treatment by men and the powers that be.) Yes, folks, women are bringing
their innate assets—emotional expressiveness, nurturing, patience, and
the “physical ability to manipulate small objects, such as a surgeon’s
scalpel” to the healing professions. How does Fisher know this? Well, in
1995, 95 percent of registered nurses and licensed practical nurses in
the U.S. were women (do nurses perform surgery?); women are also 90 percent
of speech therapists, occupational therapists, and dieticians; women are
99 percent of dental hygienists and 75 percent of physical therapists;
women are 36 percent of pharmacists and 79 percent of home health care
In 1960 women were 1 percent of dentists, in 1990 they are 15.4 percent
(in 1995 they were 37 percent of the dental students). In 1990, 25 percent
of U.S. doctors were female; in 1995 45 percent of medical students were
women. “This means (says Fisher) that women are reclaiming a role that
we never lost in more traditional societies.” Could it derive from women’s
struggles, from the women’s movement. No, don’t be silly. It’s genes expressing
themselves in a new world.
Women have a superior ability to express compassion—88 percent of Americans
think that women are more emotional than men. Now that’s a surprise.
Men, it seems, internalize their feelings. They have emotions, they just
don’t express them. This could stem from biology. John Gottman at the University
of Washington has an explanation: emotions like fear, jealousy, and anger
activate the autonomic nervous system (ANS), getting the heart pumping
and revving up the body to fight or flee. Chronic ANS arousal is harmful
and men get aroused at lower levels and recover more slowly, so psychologists
hypothesize that men unconsciously withdraw from conflict for health reasons.
(What? Isn’t this one of men’s prime areas—conflict?)
Fisher also suspects (no proof mind you) that gender differences in the
brain play a role. Men’s compartmentalized prefrontal cortex helps them
divorce themselves from feelings. It also evolved from deep history, because
men couldn’t feel pity for the baby gazelle, or fear of the leopard, or
compassion for the enemy whose camp they were raiding. That certainly explains
Women also are better at manipulating small objects and this skill may
be related to estrogen because the skill increases during women’s monthly
cycle when women become better at putting pegs in the right holes.
“Most men,” writes Fisher, “are at a serious disadvantage at performing
fine motor chores. Try asking almost any man to unfasten your necklace;
then wait five minutes while he struggles with the clasp….Men are generally
built for strenuous action and power instead of fine, precise work.”
So how come men dominate as surgeons, dentists, tailors, chefs, and many
other jobs requiring fine motor skills? Fisher writes: “It is difficult
to see how men’s gross motor abilities will be useful in the many desk
jobs that are coming to dominate the workplace.” (no desk jobs for men?)
“They are certainly of little use as doctors, dentists, or most of the
healing professions.” (What!?!?)
Men do have an outstanding spatial sense and a mechanical ability. They
excel at predicting the path of a moving object. It seems when testosterone
floods the male at puberty, boys generally outstrip girls in geometry and
mechanical drawing (but doesn’t the latter require an ability to do fine,
dexterous tasks, a skill that Fisher claims for women?) This spatial ability
is in the brain architecture created by fetal testosterone. It also evolved
from millions of years ago when men were tracking “zebras and wildebeests,”
thereby giving them the advantage in stringing telephone cable and getting
to the moon. I am not making this up.
Fisher says that in the future men will design and operate complex computers
and high tech medical equipment. (Doesn’t that require sitting at a desk
using fine motor skills? How does tracking a zebra enable men to do this?)
Men will also run hospitals because they are technically proficient and
concerned with rank. But the art of healing will return and women will
bring “to the curing arts a compassion, a patience, a precision touch,
people skills, and interest in healing as a team, a tendency to seek holistic
cures, and a view of the patient as a whole human being with social and
psychological needs. These feminine aptitudes for curing come across the
eons from ancestors who roamed the plains of Africa millions of years ago.
oon they will dominate many sectors of contemporary Western medicine as
well.” (But not apparently as heads of hospitals with the power to determine
policy and to hire and fire.)
A1996 Gallup Organization poll of men and women in 22 societies found that
the people in Japan, China, Taiwan, and France thought men were a great
deal more ambitious than women. Spaniards thought women more ambitious.
Thirty-seven percent of Americans considered men more ambitious while 26
percent thought women were more ambitious and 37 percent thought the two
were equally eager to get ahead. Why then are women almost universally
excluded from leadership positions in governments? Well, it seems that
women and men are ambitious in different ways.
Women will achieve access to power through their leadership in non-profit,
nongovernmental organizations, charities, and foundations. Fisher says
that Americans volunteer over 20 billion hours annually and by 2010 more
than 210 million Americans will volunteer at least 5 hours a week of their
time. So civic organizations will be the third sector of society, after
the corporate and government worlds. (Fisher’s foresight is marvelous,
isn’t it?) Women will predominate here (haven’t they always?) as the civic
organizations tend to have less hierarchy and more collaboration. Women
like them because, Fisher believes, women are inclined to think contextually
and in the long term. This, combined with people skills, i.e., a preference
to cure ills, heal, and nurture rather than make money, will put women
in the leadership of this third sector.
A 1998 report by the Council on Foundations canvassed 667 major American
Foundations and found that, of 4,580 staff, 75 percent are women. Ninety-two
percent of the support staff are women; 68 percent of program officers
and 50 percent of all CEOs are women; whereas less than 5 percent of CEOs
and board members of Fortune 500s are women. Fisher determines from this
that clearly women are more likely to be in the foundation world, not the
Fisher writes: “Arabs call women the grave diggers of dynasties, presumably
because women can undermine established political orders with their facility
for meeting, talking, and planning outside officially approved channels.”
This will increase. According to Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, the concentration of power in the hands of states,
which began in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, is over, at least for
awhile. We are not told why or how. But this is, conveniently, good news
for women. You see women are not drawn to this form of power—as leaders
of governments, perhaps because women are less comfortable than men in
rigid, hierarchical formal settings.
Women have never held more than 9 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate
or more than 12.6 percent in the House. Women have never occupied even
10 percent of U.S. governor’s mansions. They fare better in Scandinavian
countries where they hold 25 percent of the seats in the lower houses.
Under communism, women held 20 to 55 percent of the seats in the lower
houses. After communism half of those seats went to men. In Cuba, South
Africa, and China women hold more than 20 percent of the seats. In Japan
they hold 2.3 percent. In 1995, women held 6 percent of the cabinet posts
around the world, except in Scandinavia and the Netherlands where women
held more than 30 percent. Only 22 women have become heads of state in
the 20th century.
Fisher says that women’s lack of participation in national governments
cannot be explained by a country’s stage of development (female leaders
are hard to come by in all societies, even traditional ones—in 82 out of
93 hunter/gatherer societies the leaders were men); nor can it be explained
by voting behavior (statistics show that women win as often as men, when
they run and in a 1996 Gallup Poll, many more women and men thought that
things would improve if women held political office. In 1991, 90 percent
of Americans said they would vote for a woman president, if she were qualified).
So how do we explain the lack of female leaders in government? Well, according
to Fisher, women run for office to improve society, men to gain business
connections or climb the political ladder, so women probably won’t achieve
parity but will sway governments through civil organizations.
In other news, women won’t become preeminent in the military because (a)
we don’t like hierarchies and (b) men are more violent and aggressive by
a rate of 9 to 1. Also, men have learned to be the protectors during deep
history: they fought to win mates, and fought to protect the mates they
had won. So women are partially responsible for man’s aggressiveness since
they chose the most aggressive males.
Also, neurosurgeon Rube Gur placed 37 men and 24 women in a brain scanner.
The men registered more metabolic activity in the action-oriented emotional
centers in the brain. Women registered metabolic activity in an evolutionary
way, that is, in the newer regions of the brain—whatever those are. This
apparently explains why women argue with words and men get physically aggressive.
But didn’t Fisher say earlier that men tend to avoid confrontation as bad
for their health? Men also have a natural weapon for combat: their testosterone.
Having too much can cause rage. Having too little can also cause rage.
Go figure. Men have seven times more testosterone than women (that’s all?).
Fisher concludes that men will continue to be the world’s top military
leaders. She feels that the only way women would become involved in the
military—even a high tech one—is if the military became less hierarchical.
Then Fisher speculates on whether women and men will ever achieve job parity.
Fisher finds that the gender division of labor has been a hallmark of humanity
and it is still with us: women are 95 percent of childcare and kindergarten
teachers, nurses, secretaries, dieticians, dressmakers, bookkeepers, bank
tellers, housekeepers, information clerks, and physical therapists. Men
still do 95 percent of the manual labor (as if the above wasn’t manual
labor) such as garbage collection, loading machine operators, well drillers,
roofers, plasterers, bricklayers. Men are 96 percent of the car mechanics
and 97 percent of carpenters, construction workers, and truckdrivers. Men
are still the protectors (97 percent of firepeople, 90 percent of police).
True, Fisher says this is breaking down a bit in the U.S., but most women
and men like these traditional genderized career paths. How does she know
this? Because our choices are due in part to our genderized brains. Researchers
(Who? Where? How? Are they as careful and astute as Fisher?) discovered
that most men and women in male typical jobs (carpentry and bricklaying)
had male organized brains. Men and women in nursing tended to have female
Does this seem like an unbelievable crock of shit? Even if true, what on
earth would be so daunting that a woman couldn’t wield a saw and hammer
and men couldn’t change a bed pan?
Anyhow, this division of labor results in a two-tiered economy: nurturing
vs. rank. The 21st century will see men in higher paid jobs, women in more
part time hands-on jobs (lower paid, presumably, since women aren’t in
it for the cash, which is strange since Fisher traces women’s rise to power
in traditional and industrial economies through her ability to own land
and earn some cash).
Fisher gives a quick historical review. It seems that women were economically
and socially powerful in many societies before the European farm based
economy took over (you would think that women being gatherers would give
them more power in farm based economies than men who were hunters and of
no value to farming societies—but apparently not).
Fisher visited a Navajo tribe where a single mother of five did all the
traditional work that women usually do but no one looked down on her. Where
women have owned land, livestock, fishing rights, or have provided special
services like “making beer or healing,” they have had prestige and power
(although not as leaders). In these two tiered economies, women were equal
because the jobs that Western society considers inferior aren’t really
inferior. With the advent of Western colonialism, women’s status became
depressed around the fourth millennium as men came to own the land and
protect it. This farming life, according to Fisher, spawned many myths
about women (why? how?)—that they were frail, vain, dependent, less sexual,
less intelligent, less ambitious, and dependent on men as their possessions
and property. Oi.
Then, with the industrial revolution, women gained some wealth and property.
Soon globalization will shift us to an economy based on goods and services
and will open things up even more to women (as a professional servant class?).
Now we come to the best part: “…a quirk of 20th century demography, the
baby boom (World War II as a quirk?), in conjunction with the reality of
feminine physiology, menopause, should accelerate this trend: the emergence
of economically powerful women.” “Menopause,” says Fisher, “causes levels
of estrogen to decline, unmasking women’s natural levels of testosterone—a
hormone regularly associated with assertiveness and a drive for rank.”
Evidence for this can be found in traditional societies where after menopause
women gained some power. In fact, older women are often viewed as being
“like men.” So when women are perceived to be like men then we gain power?
But I thought we were poised for power because of our innate skills as
women–-different from men’s?
According to Fisher, by 2050 15 to 19 percent of the population will be
over 65. Most of these will be women. We will become a voting block, and
will favor social programs. Also ads will be more elaborate to suit the
female mind (!?) and home office equipment will be in a range of colors
and the climate in the office will be more egalitarian. Women will enter
management ranks of the police and group healing practices will flourish.
I can hardly wait.
In Part V, I’ll look at the “feminization of lust” and Fisher’s conclusions
about family, kinship, marriage, divorce, sex, and polyamory—an intimacy
network. Let me leave you with another astute Fisherism: “…although the
traditional patriarchal family had some merits, it was not an institution
that was necessarily good for women.” No! You’re kidding.