Fragile’s Not the Word:

Essay Review of Pinker, Susan, 2008. The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap.
[no city listed in flyleaf] Random House of Canada; New York: Simon and Schuster.
(c) 2016, Davd

I borrowed this book from the Public Library to see what more i could learn about a “variance difference phenomenon”. There was much more to be learned here, than just that; and it has been a valuable read; but some syntheses Ms. [Dre?} Pinker offers appear mistaken, as often happens when the gynocentric is not balanced by the androcentric.

First, then, the variance difference: Boys’ and girls’, and men’e and women’s ability scores average about the same (as i recall being told in my student days, this is because the psychometricians set up the tests to get the same averages for both sexes); but boys’ scores are significantly more variable:

Even though the two sexes are well matched in most areas, including intelligence, there are fewer women than men at the extreme ends of the normal distribution. Men are simply more variable. Their ‘means,’ or the average scores for the group, are roughly the same as those for women, but their individual scores are scattered more widely. So there are more very stupid men and more very smart men, more extremely lazy ones and more willing to kill themselves with work. [p. 13, discussion continues to p. 18, citing among others Deary, 2003; Benbow and Stanley, 1980, Halpern, 2000, and the author’s brother Steven Pinker, 2002]

If a profession requires very high ability, or intense application to one kind of work, it will select from a part of the population distribution where male people predominate.

There seems to be one exception: Girls and women average higher in language aptitudes [e.g. 36-7, 45-47, 75-77]. (Boys and men have higher mathematical aptitudes—which accentuates the variance difference when a line of work or a university selects for those who are the very best at maths.) So men of exceptional language skill (e.g. Churchill, Jefferson, Lincoln, Pascal, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Wells), and women of exceptional mathematical skill, are more different from the general run of their sexes, than the other way ’round.

Pinker names a second female advantage, empathy [ch 4]; and cites some fairly impressive research. But i’m not as nearly convinced as i am about language; men and women must share a common language more than a common sense of empathy; and Norah Vincent (2006), for instance, was surprised to see that men among whom she “passed as one of them” were attuned to one another in ways that Vincent herself missed.

Pinker rather thoroughly refutes the “glass ceiling” notion, and my blog on that subject cited her extensively. Her third chapter [pp. 62-91] contains several interview statements by educated women, that they were not disadvantaged and may have been advantaged. Again on pp. 92-97, she reports that women she interviewed got extra help to achieve senior management rank… but many chose to have more family time, … in particular, caring for ill or newborn, family members, rather than work as senior management are expected to do. On p. 124, she writes: “Even with the dramatic changes in customs, laws, and social expectations over the past four decades, there are aspects of women’s work preferences that are likely to stay the same—for example, a desire to stay in a position that accommodates family, or to find work that exploits a talent for connecting with people.”

Men are more likely to choose and enjoy intensive, relatively solitary work; women, more likely to insist on work which is more sociable. Or one could as fairly write, “More men are willing to choose and able to enjoy intensive, relatively solitary work ….” Men on average, choose sociable. work if they can get it at decent pay rates, and prefer family time to lonely career eminence… but women are more insistent about it.

On p. 159, she writes: “A study of Harvard law graduates found that women were more likely than men to be hired at elite firms, but ten years later only a quarter of the women had stayed on to become partners (meanwhile, half the men did.)” “Greedy” jobs, as she terms them, repel most women and a smaller majority of men; while many women who stay in such jobs become “machoid”, hiding heart attacks and cancer diagnoses.

So even fewer women than men, are at the top in ability, and even fewer are single-minded in the application of their talents. The “top” jobs that the Glass Ceiling concept claims women are denied, call for—very high ability and single-minded application. More men have both, than women—many rather than a few more—though even the men are a small minority of our sex.

Rather than a glass ceiling, then, there are two or three sex differences, working to put far more men than women in “top jobs.” It is not against women, but in favour of extremely high ability and intense application, that the biases work, and they are biases built into competitive, capitalist, even bureaucratic societies.

The “third sex difference” is distinct from, but easily confused with, the variance difference: Boys and men are more likely to have very high ability in one aspect of mental life, with ability levels at or below average in others1; while women are more likely to be high in all abilities, average in all, or low in all.

“On the one hand” such a combination of high and low abilities, leaves many men with clearer guidance as to what sort of work to do: Work your strength and not your weakness. In contrast, a woman with several strengths, must choose; while a man with one, has his path set clear before him.

“On the other hand”, a man with but one or two strengths loses less than a woman—or a man—with many, in taking up a “greedy job”. He has fewer ways to use his time “strongly”. Single-minded application comes more naturally to a man with few but great talents, than to a woman with many very good ones. Pinker didn’t seem to notice this particular cause-effect possibility.

(It’s worth mentioning, finally, that some men have multiple talents—a smaller fraction of all men, if Dre. Pinker has got these patterns right, than women with multiple talents are of all women, but still a large number of men. So it’s not a one-sex predicament.)

This book is a good “secondary source”—a source of many citations to reputable research, with worthwhile discussion of the primary studies and of other “secondary” books and articles—on sex and gender differences in abilities and in motivation. (Sex differences, to try to clarify the distinction, are innate; while gender differences are more learned than innate.) Susan Pinker does useful service in chronicling the effort to eliminate gender differences, and the stubborn persistence of sex differences in motivation.

To summarize yet again, since this is important and often mis-stated: Men tend to have more-variable abilities, both in the sense of varying more in each area of ability, and also in more often having very high abilities in some areas combined with average and low abilities in other areas. We are more likely to enjoy working alone or with just a few very well known colleagues. Women tend to be all high, all mediocre, or all low in their individual abilities; and to prefer larger groups and work that includes socializing. Thus, the “glass ceiling” is a mistaken expression; what actually produces a great male preponderance “at the top”, is the demand many, arguably most “top jobs” make for extremely high ability and extensively great application to a fairly narrow kind of work. More men than women have the extremely high ability and also the extensively great application.

And since many, probably most modern jobs call for a few, usually narrowly grouped abilities, many boys who didn’t do well in school where they had to sit still, be Nice, and pass a wide variety of subjects, mature into men who succeed at a job fitted to the abilities they do have (and often more tolerant of standing, moving around, and somewhat rude manners, than a schoolroom). It’s not that the world is biased against girls (this book demonstrates that it is not) but because school is organized around girls and their more compliant, sit-still characters, that boys do better relative to their school performance, after leaving school.

Maybe it’s school that is biased, and maybe the talents of many boys could be better nurtured and applied.


Equal opportunity for women, a principle I hold dear ….” [17] could be called the foundation, or one wall of the foundation, of this book; and it underlies a basic fairness and clarity of fact, which makes the book so valuable. Too many Feminists, too much of Feminism, have sought and often won privilege, better-than-equal opportunity, for women and girls, and misused the word equality in the process. Nathanson and Young, 2006, is one of the better sources documenting this. Pinker really means equal opportunity, not privilege for women, and in the winter of 2015-16, that implies improvements in the status of men. It is no surprise that she dedicates the book to a [male kinsman, probably husband], names two sons and a daughter, and cites a brother as one of her important sources. Her social formation respected both sexes, and so does her book.

Still, this will be awkward reading for many men, in many places; because its perspective is quite gynocentric. She sees the world, human nature, and her specific subject matter in a woman’s way and writes in a woman’s patois.

It seems absurdly inconsistent to a man, for instance, to read that “Andrew”, a tall, self-confident body-builder working in the challenging milieu of a high-ranking commercial kitchen, is “fragile”. To a school psychologist, whose work is “about” passing reading and other required subjects, his dyslexia is a fragility; to the chef of the kitchen where he works, it is no problem if he can read the smaller vocabulary involved in meal orders. To a woman whose sex is more skilled on average at language, the weakness Andrew has finessed rather than overcoming, might remain a fragility; to other men, “he does his job and does it well.”

She does have a tendency to treat not the femme herself, so much as the schoolroom, as the criterial model from which other ways of employing the mind2 are to be treated as deviations. Since she worked for many years as a school psychologist, this is not entirely surprising. Likely she enjoyed her work and felt good about its effects. .. but at the same time, her text goes in and out of accepting the schoolroom standards based on the normal girl as the typical pupil3, and boys’ different ways as behaviour problems.

Are men in fact emotionally or empathetically inferior? Or is our way of showing emotions and assessing them, simply so far from the present day gynocentric standard or as Pinker would write, “vanilla model”, that it seems inferior to those who follow the standard?

No, men are not imperfect women any more than women are imperfect men; now let me add, that neither nearly perfect men, nor nearly perfect women, even approximate the odd variation on humanity who loves a “greedy job”. Those who love greedy jobs, really love them, and those who made those jobs to their own tastes and specifications4, are about as typical of humanity as are Buddhist monks. We happen to have had a society, in Canada, the US, [should i add the USSR?] and several other so-called “developed economies”, that over-rewarded the lovers of greedy bureaucratic and profit motive jobs, but not the monks. A majority of both happen to be male.

The cheap abundant “raw materials” that made these industrial economies able to support so many bureaucrats, sales representatives, advertising workers, financial number crunchers, etc. ad. naus., who produce no subsistence themselves, in addition to artists, engineers and scientists who might or might not—those resources are no longer so abundant; and the fraction of non subsistence-producers they can support is in decline.

In a 21st Century where resource efficiency matters more and more rather than less and less, the [frankly, awesome] efficiency of the “guided human muscle” will regain its pre-Industrial prominence. When the work is heavier and employs the large muscles, men’s guided muscles are much more powerful—and accurate—on average, than women’s. “It would only be natural,” to encourage boys who are capable but not brilliant, into skilled manual trades; and see that they are well paid for good, increasingly important work.

We will continue to benefit from scientific and engineering genius, and from mothering well done. There will continue to be ways to misuse men’s and women’s strengths. At the end of the day, perhaps instead of “top jobs” there should be decision circles and conciliar direct democracy, and men’s work especially should be more diverse.

Some References:

Baumeister, Roy F., 2011, Is There Anything Good About Men? New York: Oxford University Press.

Benbow, Persson Camilla, and Julian Stanley, 1980. “Sex Differences in Mathematical Ability: Fact or Artifact?” Science 210: 1262-64.

Deary, Ian J. et al, 2003. “Population differences in IQ at age 11: The Scottish Mental Survey 1932. Intelligence 32.

Groth, Miles 2012. Review of Roy F. Baumeister, 2011, Is There Anything Good About Men? New York: Oxford University Press. New Male Studies v. 1 Issue 1: 116-120.

Halpern, Diane F., 2000. Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities. Mahwah, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nathanson, Paul, and Katherine K. Young, 2006. Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systemic Discrimination against Men Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Pinker, Stephen, 2002: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. NY: Viking.

Vincent, Norah, 2006. Self Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man. New York: Viking Penguin


1. This book mentions handicaps more than mediocrity; my impression is that men are more likely than women to be extremely capable in one or a few areas, and mediocre (which means not subnormal, but ordinary or average) in others.

2. and the body, which in a schoolroom can be a hand to write and ears to hear, the rest being told to sit still and be quiet

3. In my grandfather’s German, student meant post-secondary.

4. .. or could it be that the profit motive and bureaucracy made those jobs?.. based on their limited objectives and limited notions of efficiency?


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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