Coordinating Sex Roles

Robin Hanson (
Fri, 4 Apr 1997 17:55:11 -0800 (PST)

I just finished reading Farrell's thought-provoking "The Myth of Male
Power". It made me realize that the genders have an awful lot of
unfinished business.

Once upon a time, people had relatively constant and predictable sex
roles, allowing matching expectations. More recently, these roles
have been in flux, especially regarding women. Many of us are
confused because we are not sure where these changes are going, or
where we want them to go.

Now its all well and good to say that each person should choose the
sex role they like best from all imaginable sex roles, but there is a
big coordination issue here. People are choosing many actions based
on their expectations regarding the distribution of choices other
people will make, now and in the future.

For example, we choose how to raise and educate our children, and
people choose for themselves what sort of skills to invest in
learning, in part based on expectations about who in the future will
tend to raise future children, who will tend to defend us in war and
on the street, who will work in contexts where teamwork and
competition are at a premium, and who will do the unpleasant boring

We also make various choices based on what we expect the opposite sex
to be looking for in partners and relationships, and on who will be
expected to initiate and take risks regarding the growth of such
relationships. And employers make choices about who to hire based on
who is likely to have invested in what skills, and who is likely to
stick with a job for how long.

For example, employers who want long-term employees may be less
interested in hiring women if women will tend more to leave jobs for
child rearing. Parents may be well-advised to have their sons suffer
more from hazing, risk-taking and encourage them to do more team
sports if they are more likely to be sent to war or to be employed in
competitve team-oriented jobs. And boys should learn more to suffer
rejection if they are still going to be expected to initiate

Now if we all knew that we were moving to a future with no substantial
correlation between sex and roles in society, it would be wrong and
unfair to train people for old sex roles. But this may not be our
future. Maybe our genetic heritage implies that the sexes differ in
what they *want*, such as perhaps women enjoying child rearing more.
So the big questions are: what do we want, and what can we expect?

Robin D. Hanson