by Vicki Larson
There has been a lot of research lately that I’ve found particularly handy in coming to my defense when I’m forgetful or when I’m clearly acting “like a woman.”
It’s nice to be able to blame biology or my brain for whatever failings I may have.
But some recent writings have thrown a new wrinkle into the working mother issue. Bringing ancestral roots into modern-day arguments is always tricky, but I’m starting to wonder if we working women are going against our biology, thus wreaking havoc for future generations, or if men are just not evolving as fast as women are.
Of course, women have always worked; the only difference, notes Anne Campbell in ”A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women,” is that nowadays we typically have to leave our children to do so.
Yet some researchers are saying we just aren’t cut out for work the way men are. In his book “Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality,” Wayne State law professor Kingsley R. Browne suggests that the reason women don’t fare as well in the workplace as men do has to do with the different pressures we faced throughout our evolutionary history, which effects our temperaments and interests. Men are more interested in making money and achieving higher status (which, back in the cave-man days, assured them reproductive success) while women, whose reproductive success relied on our ability to mother, are less risk-taking, less status-seeking, and less aggressive and competitive.
Chalk it up to oxytocin, the hormone that drives us to care for our young, writes Montreal psychologist Susan Pinker in “The Sexual Paradox.” Women seek meaning and connection in our work; the same competition that boosts a man’s performance lowers ours.
And Sandra Witelson, the Canadian professor of psychiatry and neuroscience who analyzed Einstein’s brain, believes focusing on our career may not offer women as much pleasure as it does for men. “It may be that the way the female brain is wired — and maybe through the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens — that there is a pleasure and a reinforcement that one gets when one is care-taking. This may be something that is more developed, on average, in women than in men,” she says.
In truth, the most aggressive, competitive bosses I’ve had have been female, and now that I’m a divorced mom of two teens, I am extremely interested in making money, evolution be damned. But my choice to quit my full-time job and stay home with my two boys while I was married meant that I, like many other stay-at-home moms, didn’t take the risks and make the sacrifices that my former husband was willing to make to support our family. Now that I’m back in the workplace, I’m paying the price.
Still, other researchers are finding that our hormones and the way the female brain is wired may give us an edge in the workplace, or at least add a nice complement to the way men handle things, offering a holistic approach to decision-making and problem-solving, better multitasking, and a more collaborative, inclusive management style.
Yet it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t — work, that is.
Last year, Forbes editor Michael Noer created a firestorm from his article on two-career relationships. His advice? “Whatever you do, don't marry a woman with a career,” he writes, citing research that professional women are “more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat and less likely to have children. And if they do have kids, they are more likely to be unhappy about it.”
In response, Forbes' contributor Elizabeth Corcoran suggests that men get up to speed. “Fathers have to learn to adapt, too, by learning to help care for children, to take charge of new aspects of a household, to adapt as the mothers change,” Corcoran says. She gets support from Linda Hirshman, who urges women to stay in the workforce and demand equitable divisions of domestic work in “Get to Work: And Get a Life Before it’s Too Late.” She insists that men need to adapt, and anyone who thinks they’re unable to is "very misanthropic and anti-male."
But it is true than more career women are choosing to not have kids; how this will change women’s hard wiring a few hundreds of thousands of years down the road is a big unknown.
Male or female, we’re all in trouble, or so says Oxford anthropologist Timothy Clack, whose new book, “Ancestral Roots: Modern Living and Human Evolution,” looks at the rampant problems in today’s society and concludes that we’re simply not cut out for modern living, period. Included in that is modern parenting, and Clack argues that one person should stay home and take care of the kids.
Thankfully, he doesn’t say who should do that — a man or a woman.
Maybe we’re evolving in a good way after all.