March 01, 2005,
For this week and next, New Yorkers had better be ready for unending assaults of bureaucratic jargon and run-on sentences. Ten years ago in Beijing, the U.N. held a major conference on gender equality. This week begins the second review (one is held every five years) of efforts to promote equality, and position papers will be flying at U.N. headquarters.
The delegates have my heartfelt wishes for success in curtailing the monstrous problems of trafficking in women and girls and establishing full political and civil rights for women. But these are not the cutting-edge issues in the West. Here the gender-equality issues center on making sure that men and women live identical lives. Thus, for example, the European Union has issued a pre-conference statement that calls for men to do an equal share of unpaid labor in the home and for new financial incentives so that women with children will "take up, remain [sic] and return to work."
While women who wish hard-charging careers should have full access to them, the push to make androgynous feminism the gold standard for gender equality is unfair to most women and to their children, because mothers usually want to care for their young children and they are usually better at it than their husbands.
For over 30 years, Sweden has led the world in trying to get men to do more childcare. At one stage, there was a massive advertising campaign, and later a law was passed granting families an additional month of paid leave but only if the father took it.
Changes in parenting intensity have not been impressive. More men are taking parental leave, but women's leaves are still six times longer than men's. Many men take leaves at the same time as their wives. Even in families where Swedish fathers have taken leave and expressed a desire to be the primary caretaker of their new infants, the traditional parenting differences have emerged nonetheless. For example, one study found that the mother in these homes "displayed affectionate behavior, vocalized, smiled, tended, held, disciplined and soothed the infant more than the father did."
One supporter of the Swedish gender-equality goals calls the results "a disappointment if not a downright failure." The source of the disappointment is the female desire to nurture. Though they take more leave and do more parenting, Swedish women are far less likely than men to report pleasure at returning to work at the end of their parental leaves. In this country, women do far more childcare than men, and when men do care for children they are more apt to play than to do less agreeable chores. Nonetheless, fathers report significantly lower satisfaction with parenting than mothers do.
The roots of these differences are in biology. Testosterone inhibits nurturing both within and between the sexes. Thus, for example, females exposed to high levels of testosterone are less interested in babies, and those with a defect such that they have no testosterone show an exaggerated interest in babies.
Oxytocin is the chemical that promotes bonding and a calm, relaxed emotional state. In virgin female monkeys, injection of this hormone produces maternal behavior and a friendly demeanor. In humans, women have more neural receptors for oxytocin than men do, and the number of receptors further increases during pregnancy.
Mothers' love for their young children is fully reciprocated. Young children find mom more comforting than dad. Moreover, mothers are better than fathers at distinguishing a cry of pain from one of hunger or of anger, and women in general are better than men at reading body language and other nonverbal signals.
In practice, encouraging mothers to remain at or return to work with a baby at home means calling for more day care and less breastfeeding. Time in day care means more ear infections and other maladies for young kids, who then turn out to be much more aggressive and disobedient when they get to kindergarten. Less breastfeeding means more cancer for moms and a higher risk of a host of diseases for kids, including respiratory, middle-ear and urinary infections, and bacterial meningitis. Statistics show that there is a dramatic drop in breastfeeding when mothers return to work.
A survey by the Pew Research Center using a 10-point scale found that 86 percent of mothers rate their children a 10 for their importance to personal happiness; just 30 percent of employed women rate their job as a 10. Evidence provided in an article published in a 2003 issue of The Journal of Marriage and the Family shows that between 1973 and 1994, working women increasingly came to see home, not work, as their haven, whereas for men there has been no change. When Pew asked women whether the increased number of working mothers with young children is good or bad for society, women of all educational levels were more likely to think it was bad, but college-educated women by a margin of more than three and a half to one were particularly likely to think so.
Despite their political clout, androgynous feminists don't speak for most women. They should stop telling mothers to hurry back to full-time work after leaves of a few months and desist from telling them that they are wasting their talents if they are not full-blown careerists. A feminism that cared about either women's distinctive virtues or their preferences would remind us that being the stage manager of a loving family is as important as work outside the home.
Steven E. Rhoads teaches public policy at the University of Virginia and author of the recently published Taking Sex Differences Seriously.