What if anything can evolutionary theory tell us about the explanation for gender disparities in the workplace? According to a fascinating new book, The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Co-operation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present, by Paul Seabright, a pre-historic division of labour between men and women resulted in economic inequalities that have lasted until now for two reasons.
One is that women have different preferences, having a wider set of goals in life, and choose to work fewer hours and take career breaks. “These choices have an adverse effect on women’s advancement not just in the child-rearing years but for decades afterwards.” The unfair economic penalty women pay for this difference in preferences is amplified by the fact that men are rewarded for bargaining aggressively over pay, whereas women are not. (Linda Babcock’s excellent book, Women Don’t Ask, also looked at this specific dilemma.)
The second is that there are small differences in the way men and women network, partly as the result of women leaving the workforce for some years, so that women less likely than equally talented men to have a connection with the powerful people in the workplace that can be exploited for advancement.
Although these disadvantages are rooted in our ancient evolutionary history and legitimised by long custom, the book is mildly optimistic (because of increased demand for skilled labour) about overcoming the ancient disadvantages of sexual selection. Not that it offers public policy recommendations. Rather, the advice is directed at individual women, with suggestions for signalling talent more clearly to even the most antediluvian employers.The bottleneck for women’s talent is the limited attention in other people’s (men’s) brains, so the key is being known and noticed. Scarce attention has been an interest of Paul Seabright’s for a while now – see his recent Princeton in Europe lecture and the earlier Toulouse School of Economics workshop (pdf) – while the linking of anthropology and evolutionary theory to economics dates back to his previous book, The Company of Strangers. Like that book, The War of the Sexes is a fascinating read. I love its interdisciplinarity. I’m just not sure that it persuades me to be even mildly optimistic about improving economic justice for women, given the record of what happens when male brains confront female talent.
The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present