Sisterhood Blog

Malcolm Gladwell's Woman Problem

By Elana Sztokman

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In the perennial debate over “nature versus nurture,” most people subscribe to a rather wishy-washy idea eloquently referred to as the “bit-of-this-bit-of-that” theory.

But not Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell is author of bestsellers “The Tipping Point” and “Blink”, along with a new book, “What the Dog Saw.”

In his book “Outliers,” another of his brilliant explorations of human behavior, Gladwell says that the way we behave ”is all society.”

Our cultural heritage is the dominant feature in determining our success, he says.

Seemingly innate qualities such as “genius” are at best irrelevant and at most onerous.

Thus a “brilliant” man whose home life does not provide opportunities and “practical intelligence” is no more likely than you or me to win the Nobel Prize. On the other hand, a guy like Bill Gates, who happened to attend a school that even in 1967 had an advanced computer room and well-connected parent body, and who had the chance to rack up over 10,000 hours of programming experience by the time he was 18, was molded for success not by genetics, but rather by the quirks of social circumstance.

It is a compelling argument. Or perhaps, as a friend suggests, it’s depressing. Either anyone can be a Nobel Prize winner given the right circumstances, or none of us can because, well, how many of us have spent 10,000 hours of our childhood practicing piano or gazing through a microscope?

I’m a big advocate of society over nature. In countless discussions, I’ve contested the argument that women’s role in Judaism is determined by the “facts” of biology — that is, women give birth ergo, they should not be rabbis (e.g. see Chabad). In one memorable exchange, a man said, “Men are aggressive, we like sports, and that’s just the way it is.” Of course, his wife looked at him and said, “You know, you have two sons. Only one likes football.” Just like that, the son who dislikes football became less of a man, an errant biological artifact.

It’s not that I don’t believe in biological differences. Obviously, I’m the one in my household who has been pregnant. I just think that biology is irrelevant and over-cited. I mean, I’m also the only one in my house with brown eyes. So what? Neither item should determine my place in human society.

The real reason, though, why I like to stay away from the nature-biology argument is that it is an excuse. When a man says, “I can’t help myself; I’m aggressive because I’m a man,” he’s basically abdicating all responsibility. Once we cite nature, the conversation is fatalistically over. The society rationale, by contrast, enables us to be self-aware, self-critical and responsible for our own behavior: What we do is not predetermined; it’s our choice.

Gladwell’s “Outliers” is great in that sense. His illustrations of the power of cultural heritage are captivating. Moreover, the book offers great insight into the dynamics of class culture, a topic of my doctoral dissertation, which is about how Israeli society is built around working class culture that often clashes with American Jewish culture that is more middle- to upper-class.

There’s just one nagging problem with Gladwell’s book: Every example he cites is male. All of them!

His chapter on communication style among airline pilots — all men. The chapter on violence in the Appalachian Mountains — all men. His chapter on Jewish garment industry workers and their lawyer sons — all men. The Chinese rice farmers — all men. Hockey players — all men. He used individual examples of Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Christopher Langan, Joe Flom, Robert Oppenheimer — all men. The only woman to appear in his book is his grandmother, to whom he dedicated his book and whose story is revealed in the last chapter. That’s a lovely gesture but it belies the point. The book is about men.

I have no problem with Gladwell writing a book about men. I think it’s a great idea (I’m even working on one myself). The problem is that he writes about men and calls it “culture.” It’s not “culture”; it’s men’s culture. He should have said that. I thought we were past the era signs reading, “All are invited. For men only.” I guess not. Certain (sexist) parts of our cultural heritage are still firmly in place.

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Michael Makovi Wed. Oct 28, 2009

The question of whether men and women have innate differences is irrelevant.

Let's suppose for the sake of argument that men on average had an IQ of 100, and women an IQ of 50. But let's say that Bob has an IQ of 70 and Sally and IQ of 80. Should Bob take precedence over Sally, just men most men are more intelligent than most women? Here with Bob and Sally, the fact is that Sally is more intelligent than Bob, regardless of statistics regarding men and women in general.

Innate traits and the statistics pertaining thereto are all relevant only to masses in general, but they fall apart when dealing with individuals.

So let's say for the sake of argument that men are innately more skilled in science and math than women. So what? One ought to judge each individual according to his or her own personal individual performance. If an individual woman, despite all odds, does as well as men in math and science (again, assuming for the sake of argument that women are innately less skilled in these fields), why should she as an individual be prejudiced against simply because most women are inferior to men in these fields? What do "most women" have to do with her as an individual?

Given that men and women all deserve equal treatment and education and opportunities, there is no basis for innate ability to play any role or receive any consideration. If an individual passes the math exam, then let him or her into the mathematics program, etc. - regardless of his or her sex, and regardless of the statistics for how likely it was for that man or woman to succeed.

The only role I can see for these statistics is in order to tailor education properly. For example, if men and women intrinsically have different aptitudes or mental processes in certain areas, then perhaps they ought to have separate-sex education where the pedagogical methods are tailored so as to achieve maximal success. But this is the only role I can possibly contemplate, if any.

On an individual basis, regarding individual men and women, statistics are entirely meaningless. My mother is an MSc in chemistry working for the USFDA. Even if most women are - for the sake of argument - incompetent in math and science - the fact is that she passed the courses and exams. What else could possibly matter?

Kal Palnicki Fri. Oct 30, 2009

I hearken back to the days of the "Promise Keepers." They determined that all females are required by the creator of the universe to be subservient to all males who were their superiors by virtue of being males. (The only time I received a death threat in the mails was because I wrote a letter making a point of belittling such thinking as being small minded males demanding the right to be masters of the universe.) It comes down to males being taught by society that they are superior no matter the evidence that it is not true. Some individuals may well be superior to others but no way can males be considered to be superior to females as a group unless you pick and choose narrow criteria.

Since most societies are run by patriarchies the npotion of male superiority will persist till mothers disabuse their offsprings of such societal silliness.

Recruiting Animal Fri. Oct 30, 2009

To acknowledge nature over nurture would not condemn you to a subservient social role.

Those men on top guys make assumptions about nature that aren't necessarily true.

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