The prevailing model to explain this persistent gender imbalance is, of course, patriarchy. As with most topics in feminism, the specific meaning of this oft-bandied term is contentious and amorphous. One reliable lodestone for understanding its meaning is quoted in The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology: patriarchy is “the totality of male domination and its pervasiveness in women’s lives.” Patriarchy is a system created by and for men at the direct expense of women.
The concept of the patriarchy has an intuitive appeal that meshes well with our folk reasoning: when we see that one group of humans has markedly better average outcomes than a separate group of humans, it is common to assume foul play. This is to say nothing of the laws and norms that forcibly prevented women from participation in the full array of human opportunities. As a young(er) girl looking up at the higher echelons of human achievement, I saw only men, and I mentally armored myself to scale the system that I believed was hostile to the very idea of my success.
In retrospect, I see that I was so captivated by the dazzling images that mockingly towered above the imaginary limits I imposed on my dreams that I forgot to look down at gender composition of the poor creatures that reside lower down the social totem pole. It is certainly true that women have not equally shared in the greater glories of human existence, but they have also been disproportionately spared from some of its darkest horrors. Far more men than women are homeless, on death row, killed on the job, and killed in military service. For a system that is supposed to elevate men above the confining tedium of women’s domestic lot, the “patriarchy” has had an abysmal track record of improving the outcomes for most of its wards.
How does a system that was supposedly created for the domination of men fail so miserably to save such a large number of its prized specimens from such dreadful outcomes? Why would a system that is predicated upon male exploitation of females not only spare women from the dirtiest jobs but also channel the fruits of these labors to the protected, albeit coercively sheltered, female gender? Perhaps the model of patriarchy is an inadequate tool to provide a satisfying explanation for the enigma that is gender’s role in society.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that we start looking at gender relations in a different way. Rather than seeing men and women as intertwined in a perpetual battle for dominance, Baumeister is interested in understanding the ways in which a third party, culture, exploits both men and women for the overall benefit of society, although with significant and different trade-offs for both genders. To understand how and why culture differentially exploits men and women for the ultimate advantage of both, we need to first understand what culture is and how it develops.
Culture is a biological strategy to disseminate wisdom that helps groups to survive in a world that is often hostile to this end. To describe his conception of culture, Baumeister relates the story of two groups of the same species of monkey that lived on opposite sides of a small Japanese island. The staple food of these monkeys was a wild strain of potato that they dug up from the ground and immediately devoured; dirt, bugs, germs and all. By chance, one female monkey on one side of the island discovered that the potatoes were more appetizing if she doused the tubers in a nearby stream first. This information quickly spread among this group of monkeys through observation and imitation; by the next generation, all newly-mannered young monkeys washed their food before consumption, despite the fact that they never saw the original monkey make the discovery. These monkeys had established a culture. By limiting their exposure to disease and digestive problems, the culture of this group of monkeys helped them to outcompete the rival group of monkeys for scarce resources.
In the same way, human cultures that discover life hacks—like our simian friends’ discovered penchant for hygiene—spread this information to members in the group and tend to outcompete other groups that do not identify these beneficial adaptations. In the case of gender roles and outcomes, Baumeister believes that human cultures exploit both men and women according to their comparative advantages and preferences.
Men want sex—and lots of it. Unfortunately for them, their demand far outstrips the supply of willing partners. Because of this, men must furiously distinguish themselves from other men to prove their worthiness to understandably choosy women. Our culture has taken advantage of men’s competitive nature and ambition to direct them towards undertaking the dangerous, but necessary, tasks that contribute to human flourishing, tasks like providing defense for vulnerable members of society, undertaking high-risk (and therefore high-reward) projects, developing large-scale social networks and culture, and sacrificing the short-term pleasures of life to achieve glory and (hopefully) the companionship of women. Culture has channeled men’s otherwise destructive sexual anxieties into a productive enterprise that results in more innovation and resources to care for women and their children.
Women face a different reproductive dilemma. We suffer from no shortage of slick suitors that promise the moon and swear they’ll be true, but we desire a dependable mate with the ability and desire to protect and provide for our children. Sperm are a dime a dozen, but women’s reproductive cells are constrained by the limits of high energy costs and an exceptionally long child-rearing period. Additionally, women’s risk preferences tend to be lower than men’s since they must consider the well-being of their children as the primary caregiver. It is not surprising, then, that culture would tend to dissuade women, and our preciously scarce reproductive faculties, from high-risk (but high-reward) activities. The trade-off to this protection is, as we all know, restricted freedoms and less opportunity for personal achievement. However, the contention that this norm was unilaterally forced on women, and was not the result of comparative advantage and self-interest, is specious and condescending.
Note that none of this is to say that any current or historical social arrangement was moral or just; it simply describes the incentives that led to our dominant cultural institutions. If we are to have any hope of changing social structures, it is imperative that we first turn a dispassionate eye to understanding the logic of the mechanics of the system in question. The unfalsifiable (and unscientific) story of patriarchy is laden with emotional appeal and unnecessarily combative rhetoric; for this reason, it is more effective as a motivating force than a descriptive model.
Sometimes, the stories that we tell ourselves bring us to a beneficial outcome despite the fact these stories they may be baldly incorrect. In this way, the myth of the patriarchy may have been just what society needed to reform the stifling social system that coincided with the emergence of second wave feminism. People are more likely to join a radical movement if they believe that the system that they are fighting is fundamentally opposed to their interests. The story of the patriarchy was potent enough to light fires in the bellies of the female activists that risked ostracism and hostility to expand opportunities for modern women at a time when economic conditions could support this social shift, and for this, we owe them a debt of gratitude. However, the story of patriarchy is unnecessarily hostile to men and is insufficient to describe the nuances of gender relations. The cultural exploitation model accounts for the high frequencies of men on the high and low ends of human achievement and is a better tool for understanding gender relations and outcomes.