The gender gap

This month’s Cato Unbound has another interesting subject, this time on the decline of men. In the lead essay, Kay Hymowitz runs through the mass of ways men are starting to fall behind women. Many of the statistics were a surprise to me. Take the following:

In an analysis of recent census data, Reach Advisors found that childless twentysomething men now earn 8% less than their female counterparts in 147 out of 150 of American cities. That’s despite the fact that college-going women major in subjects that tend to lead to lower paying jobs. Young single men are less likely to own a home than women. While on average men continue to earn more than women, their wages, unlike those of women, have stalled.

In her response essay, Jessica Bennett counters that women are still behind in many areas:

By the time women enter college, studies show they’ll have given up many of their leadership roles. The rise of the knowledge economy may have multiplied opportunities in other fields (Hymowitz sites public relations, graphic design, and management). But women will still make up just a third of business-school students and barely a quarter of law firm partners. …

Women still have trouble penetrating the highest rungs of the corporate world: they are also just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, less than a quarter of politicians, and just 22 percent of the leadership positions in journalism.

Between the two essays, there is a thread that young women are overtaking men in many areas, while not yet penetrating the top. So, what is going on?

It always surprises me how often this discussion ignores that men and women are different. That is not to say that the entire gender gap is due to inherent male-female differences, but differences exist and they shed some light on the situation.

Bryan Caplan notes one of these differences, namely that women seem to have less variance in traits than men in many dimensions:

But isn’t the obvious explanation just that men have higher variance in general?  This is easiest to prove for cognitive ability – see Garett Jones’ review of the evidence.  But it also seems very plausible for interests and obsessiveness.  Anyone can start a blog, but men are much more likely to do so.  The reason, I’ll warrant, is that the male distribution of ego has a right tail that stretches far into the horizon.

From an evolutionary perspective, the higher variance for men makes sense. In a winner takes all competition for women, men at the top can have many children. Meanwhile, women are constrained in the maximum of number of children they can have. The jackpot of being the best male far outweighs the cost of being the worst. Genghis Khan was so reproductively successful (as was his grandson Kublai Khan) that one in 200 men globally are direct descendants along the male line and hence carry his y-chromosome. Such success would be impossible for a woman. Being a rich, successful male could buy additional access to mates and reproductive success that being a rich, successful woman does not. The evolutionary incentives are stacked in favour of the man seeking those top positions.

An evolutionary perspective also assists in the following, in which Hymowitz asks whether the loss of the historical male role as provider has played a part in the “decline of men”:

Consider another recent study by S. Alexandra Burt at Michigan State University. Burt followed 289 pairs of male twins for 12 years, between the ages of 17 and 29. More than half of the twins were identical. She found that men who had shown less antisocial behavior as adolescents were more likely to marry as they got older, which argues for self-selection. But she also found that a married twin had fewer antisocial behaviors—aggression, irritability, financial irresponsibility, and criminal involvement—than his unmarried brother. This suggests there is some truth to the very unfashionable idea that marriage helps to discipline men.

Obviously, less anti-social men have a higher probability of getting married – they are better at providing something women want. In the case of the anti-social, unmarried brother, their risk taking activity reflects that, having failed to initially get a mate, they move to progressively riskier activity until they succeed, die or are jailed, or they somehow survive as their testosterone fades into old age. Marriage helps discipline the man by providing the man with his objective.

Ultimately, I wonder how long the trend that triggered the essays will last. Many women, as they have for the last 40 years, are choosing to remain childless. The genes of these women, and any inherent traits that result in a predisposition to remain childless, disappear from the gene pool. The women that form future generations are the children of mothers who chose to take time out to have children despite the growing options for their own careers. As Hymowitz notes:

The point is that today, with the important exception of the technical and financial sector, younger women (that is, childless women, an important caveat) have shown they can easily be men’s equals, and possibly even their superiors, in the knowledge economy.

That important caveat will be applied more and more in the future. In that case, some of the gap will remain. (And as an aside, I recommend that you read all of Hymowitz’s essay – there are a lot of interesting ideas in it)

Update: A follow-up post is here.

11 thoughts on “The gender gap

  1. What we see right now is the societal shift from a system predicated upon a long-term mating strategy to one predicated upon a short-term mating strategy.

    Putting it in simple terms, women, through feminism, are encouraged to be promiscuous and pursue bad-boys, men see this, realise that being a provider is a losing option as it will lead to either cuckoldry (at least this is what their emotions tell them, remember that our psychology evolved in an environment that didn’t have contraception or paternity tests) or to not mating at all , and so they adapt and become bad boys themselves. It doesn’t matter that these women will try and change to a long-term mating strategy when they are approaching their thirties as the value given to men from an aging, formerly promiscuous women isn’t worth it from the man’s (emotional/irrational) perspective.

    Or put another way, since the value of a long-term partner is determined in men’s minds from evolutionary principles, and women are engaging in behaviour which negates their value as long-term mating partners, then men aren’t going to pursue the mating strategy which results in them being high-value long-term mating partners. Instead of becoming providers, they’re going to become cads. Instead of pursuing financial or economic success, they’re going to pursue behaviours which enhance their ‘sexiness’ in front of women so that they can sire ‘sexy’ sons.

    Furthermore, not only are the behaviour of the current generations of women disincentivising the pursuit of a long-term mating strategy for men, but the environment, demonstrated through the cultural and legal systems in Western countries, also disincentivises the pursuit of a long-term mating strategy for men.

    This has a lot to do with game theory and the prisoners dilemma.

    In marriage, which is essentially the societal codification of the human long-term mating strategy, women are now, through the Courts and the State, given the ability to defect from their agreements to their (reproductive) advantage and their husband’s (reproductive) disadvantage, while men have no such option (technically they do but it is one that the Courts and State have significantly mediated.)

    Thus, the Western environment further acts to disincentivise the expression of long-term mating behaviour in men, and the consequent striving for economic/financial success.

    In the future, unless the behaviour of young women and the environment they live in changes, expect more and more men to become cads, and less and less to become providers and all the consequent changes of behaviour in men that that will entail.

    1. Not even a criticism of my statement? If I’m wrong I’d like to be set straight. Pessimism isn’t exactly a state of happiness.

      1. I’m going to address your argument in a post in the next week or two when I summarise my thoughts on how the discussion at Cato Unbound turned out. But in short, I think your argument is right in the sense that people respond to incentives and some shifts to shorter-term mating strategies flow from those incentives – think child-support payments and the welfare state. However, when you examine the winners and the losers in the modern mating era, the low income, low-status male is doing much worse than the high-status male. There is still no shortage of competition between men and more reproductive opportunities for those on top.


        “I measure the price of sex in a couple of different ways. I didn’t
        write this theory personally, but social psychologists claim that men’s
        sex has no value per se. In the world of prostitution you never see
        women paying men for sex. Men pay women for sex, men will pay men for
        sex, but women don’t pay men for sex. You get a sense that she has
        something of value that he wants.

        So how do we measure how people price this? A couple different
        ways: First, the time until they have sex in a relationship. A second
        measure is the number of sex partners that “sub-optimal men” have had. I
        define that group as men who are 22 years old, dropped out of high
        school and don’t have a full-time job — men who don’t have a lot going
        for them. We compare the number of partners they’ve had with the number
        of partners of a male college graduate who is employed full-time.
        Theoretically, if sex is valuable to her then she’s not going to trade
        it away to just some crummy man, and when we look at the data, we find
        that those sub-optimal men report a lot more partners than men who
        actually have a lot going for them.

        In the book, we report that 35 percent of men’s relationships are
        reported to have become sexual within two weeks; and 48 percent become
        sexual within a month. That gives you an indication that it doesn’t take
        long for men to access sex, so it must not be all that valuable, right?
        That’s how we get an indirect sense of the price of sex. Now, let’s say
        sex was the highest possible cost. You’d see women never having sex
        with anyone until a man commits to marry her — that’s the most
        expensive thing you can charge. But that’s just not the way the world is
        today, and that’s not the way the world ever was — the price of sex
        has never been that high, but it was certainly higher than it is today.
        All he has to do is maybe buy her dinner and text her.”

  2. The explanation of higher variability in men compared to women is likely to be more due to molecular biology then any evolutionary argument. After all, the sexes share the same autosomes and only differ in the Y chromosome, which contains very few genes. In fact, it is almost a tautology that men should have more variance because they only have one X chromosome so any mutation will be exposed. Additionally, if intelligence was a selected trait in the past then the greatest pressure should also fall on the X because men only carry one copy. Thus women selecting for intelligence would have been the main pressure on increasing intelligence. The irony is that the so-called intelligence genes of men would be carried by their daughters. Hence, intelligence may also increase at a faster rate in matriarchal societies.

      1. Of course it would but increased variance in males would necessarily occur in the absence of it. I just think many pop evolutionary explanations, and I’m not necessarily implying yours, disregard the constraints of biochemistry.

      2. Of course it does, but we are speaking of completely different time-scales here. The greater variability of mammalian males due to only single copy of X chromosome was evolutionarily fixed 100s of millions of years ago. The elimination of it by selective process (gradual moving of most genes out of X chromosome) would probably need at least similar time-frame. So even if during the whole human history the greater variability of men would have been evolutionarily disadvantageous, it would still probably be present in population.

      3. Higher male variance does not rely on only one X chromosome (although that is likely one mechanism behind it). You also grossly underestimate how much selection can occur in 100s of millions of years (let alone the last 50,000).

        Regardless, the fact that males generally make a lower cost input into reproduction has not changed for millions of years. They are able to sire more children, leading to more variance in reproductive success and suggesting that higher trait variance would be advantageous. How many societies on eartth, current or past, have higher variance in reproductive success for females?

      4. I think that sudden, random large-scale rearrangements of chromosomal material are normally not fixed inside population by selective process but (if they survive) will normally cause the emergence of new species through reproductive barrier. Gradual moving of small fragments on the other hand takes its time.
        Thus there is in my opinion no real way how most genes could move from X to autosomes for H.sapiens during the lifetime of this species. The migration itself can happen, of course, but the result would be dying out of old species (with its specific ecology and behavior) and the emergence of new species, possibly with quite different behavior.

        As of the higher variance of males – it is sort of meta-phenotype. On average it does not give any advantage to current generation, but ensures that the evolution (i.e. adaptability) of such species is higher in the long run. Sort of evolutionary division of labor – females bear the burden of raising offspring, males the burden of natural selection. The near-absolute prevalence of two-sex model in animal species seems to suggest, that this division of labor is highly advantageous.

      5. There is evidence that the X chromosome has a higher then expected proportion of genes for general cognitive ability. Many of these would have emerged more recently. You do not need large reorganisation of chromosomes; you only need mutations in different locations to have different effects.

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