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Men have it worse than women (according to people)

· 9 min read

For at least seven years now I have tweeted, tooted and posted at length, both in English and in Spanish, about the failures of contemporary orthodox feminism. I still consider myself a feminist, as per the sensible and constructive definitions of the word (equality under the law, equality of opportunity, opposition to sexism, respect for individual choice). But I keep on seeing so many inconsistencies, anti-scientific ideas, petty grievances, misandry, and hatred on mainstream feminism, and its focus is misplaced so often, that sometimes I have to repudiate the label and write against that hegemonic strand of feminism.

In the last decade or so, discussing differences in aggregate outcomes per sex has become especially problematic. I see two main pitfalls there.

First, the eternal tension between nature and nurture, and the corresponding open debates. That makes it very difficult to tell to what degree gaps between the sexes are due to innate differences or to upbringing and cultural norms and expectations. (Are there way more men in prison than women because men are naturally more inclined towards crime and anti-social behaviour, or because culture teaches men and women to behave differently and punishes them differently?)

Second, it is not always obvious for everybody what is a “good” outcome or a “preferable” outcome in the first place. (Is the fact that men work longer hours than women on average an advantage of being male because it means they earn more money and get more meaning and prestige from their jobs, or are women better off because work is work after all and it's better to avoid stress and night shifts and have more time and energy for other aspects of life?)

An illustration generated by Dall-E 2 for this post

About the first issue (nurture vs. nature, and why the sexes differ to the extent they do), I think that the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis provides a useful explanation. There are good (evolutionary) reasons why male animals present extreme traits more often than female animals. Mating strategies differ between the sexes. For males, the potential payout of turning some dials to eleven is higher, and thus variance within males is higher. Turning dials mindlessly (as we men like to do) skews skills and traits in all directions: it gives you extremely tall people (men) and extremely short people (also men); it produces a few extra very intelligent individuals (probably men) and a few extra very stupid ones (definitely men); it stretches the gamut of empathy from the most selfless and inspiring leaders (men?) to the cruelest sociopaths (men!).

This is one of many published papers on GMV (Greater Male Variability):

“GMV has been found for a number of attributes including physical characteristics such as weight, height and blood parameters, brain structure, physical aggression, verbal and spatial performance, math performance, and intelligence. The fact that GMV can be observed already at birth suggests the existence of more fundamental gender differences that are independent of social role and context.”

This is Heterodox Academy:

“On average, male variability is greater than female variability on a variety of measures of cognitive ability, personality traits, and interests. This means men are more likely to be found at both the low and high end of these distributions. […] There is good evidence that men are more variable on a variety of traits, meaning that they are over-represented at both tails of the distribution (i.e., more men at the very bottom, and at the very top), even though there is no gender difference on average.”

Or, as Camille Paglia beautifully put it,

“there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.”

Note that none of the above implies that women have to be above or below men on average for any of those traits; all this is about variability, not mean. Sometimes means by sex are different too (eg, men are taller on average), sometimes they don't (eg, men and women are equally intelligent on average).

Note also that just stretching the range of possible values for one of the sexes in both directions is a politically neutral statement: if it feels somehow wrong or offensive to someone to read that there are more men than women within the top 1% of cognitive ability, it should be redeeming to read that there are fewer women within the least intelligent people at the bottom 1%.

Now, what to do about the second pitfall (agreeing on what is “good” and what is “bad” when the sexes have it different, ranking their outcomes by desirability)?

My impression is that (in prosperous liberal democracies, in 2023), at the very least, women do not have it worse than men. I have looked at quite many statistics related to many aspects of life, and for every indicator pointing to a female disadvantage I usually can find an equally important one pointing in the opposite direction.

If there is a glass ceiling, there's a glass floor. For every woman who's denied an executive position, there's a man who is pressured into unhealthy or dangerous labour. There are still more men in a bunch of prestigious professions, but usually many more female students of those professions entering college and graduating. Billionaires are mostly men, but homeless people and drug addicts are mostly men too.

So why do most people think that women have it worse on average? The main reason is one, but it receives many names. Gamma bias. WaW effect. Pro-women/anti-men bias. Social desirability bias. Political correctness.

I suspect that if we were given the choice to be born male or female today, and if we could magically stop identifying more strongly with our current sex, most people would choose female.

To test my hypothesis, I posted a poll on Mastodon back in January. I tried to hide the “sex” component altogether, so that answers wouldn't be distorted by those biases I mentioned above. And I made the decision as clean as possible by imagining a drug that is totally safe and side-effect-free. Note how the two socio-economic outcomes in bold are code for “male!”. In essence, the poll tries to measure if people really prefer the likely outcomes of women.

Mastodon poll in Jan 2023

The result surprised me. Surely respondents hadn't understood well the two scenarios?

To me, there are very good reasons to avoid the worst outcomes even when that comes at the price of forbidding the best outcomes too: the asymmetry between the valences of pain and pleasure, loss aversion and hedonic adaptation, all of which are features of the human experience well known to psychologists, biologists, philosophers and behavioural economists. Suffering (physical or psychological) cripples more than success and pleasure liberate.

Put in another way: I surely would prefer to make sure that my child does not end up in jail or suicidal than to make sure that the leadership of a multinational or the publication of a best-seller remain open as possibilities for him/her.

Why couldn't those Mastodon users see that?

Then it hit me: it's yet another bias! Two biases in action, actually: the appeal to nature (“a pill? that is artificial, unnatural!”) and the omission bias (“in difficult matters, I prefer to err on the side of not acting, not doing”). Even if I tried my best to de-emphasise the artificial device (a pill) and the action (giving a pill), many respondents were still unconsciously responding more to the freaking pill (“safe and effective” as it is) than to the two scenarios presented to them!

I knew what to do. I waited a couple of months to make sure that my followers would have forgotten my previous poll, and then posted the exact same question, only phrased in the opposite way:

Mastodon poll in Mar 2023

Now that result I can understand. And notice that the answer is much stronger than before, which indicates that even if in both polls it is mainly a silly bias against giving perfectly safe and effective pills to newborns adding a lot of noise, the signal points towards a preference for outcomes that are typically female.

I admit that the title of this post is somewhat inflammatory. And that my little polls are but a toy and an unreliable experiment, for two reasons.

First, the sample is tiny and not representative at all (a handful of Mastodon users who stumbled upon my post).

Second, I do not claim that the wording of the polls accurately encapsulates the many pros and cons of being a man or a woman in a prosperous liberal democracy in 2023. There is an ocean of nuance and stats left out from my two posts for the sake of simplicity and brevity.

For example. What about morbidity and mortality associated with pregnancy and childbirth (men face none of that)? What about paternity fraud in its many forms, which has women as its sole perpetrators and men as its sole victims? In times of war, men are much more likely to be conscripts, and to be killed or maimed in battle (but then, how likely is war in the West anyway?). Not seeing many women at the apex of hierarchies may have a significant negative impact in aspiring young women, but that's hard to gauge. The unconscious association between maleness and greed, aggression and rudeness in our collective psyche has bad consequences for both girls and boys (or maybe not).

Still, this experiment is a hint in the expected direction for me. At the very least, it is not clear that women have it worse than men, here and now.

Fifty strangers on the internet have spoken.


Image by Dall-E 2 & tripu