Seabright’s The War of the Sexes


Jason Collins


May 22, 2012

When measured against his fantastic The Company of Strangers, Paul Seabright’s new book The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present was always facing a tough task. The War of the Sexes contains some interesting insights, and it is accessible and easy to read. However, some parts of the book feel flat.

Part of my reaction stems from the first half of the book, titled “Prehistory”, which contains little new for someone who is well-read in evolutionary biology. It is a great introduction to sexual selection, signalling, sexual conflict and the evolutionary basis for male-female differences, but it contains few surprises for someone who might have read, say, Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind and Spent, or Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen.

One novel thread in the first half concerns Seabright’s views on the change in the relative power of women as societies transitioned from hunter-gathering to agriculture to modern society. Seabright considers that men in agricultural societies had an increased ability to confine women relative to what they had previously. Unfortunately, we only get a taste of this idea because, as noted in reviews by Arnold Kling and John Whitfield, Seabright spends little time on the transition.

My equivocal feelings extended to the next two chapters where Seabright discusses whether talent or occupational preferences might explain differences in outcomes for men and women. Seabright implicitly rejects these explanations. I say implicitly as Seabright does not state this as a direct conclusion, but instead focuses on undermining assumptions that might be made for the other side. For example, he notes the greater prevalence of men at the very high end of mathematics performance and states that this should not be assumed to immediately carry over into economic value, rather than seeking to address whether it might be true. Similarly, when he notes that men and women have different occupational preferences, his major area of exploration is their respective preferences for competition. But what of winner take all professions or scalability? Or desire for power and influence? Maybe they are not the answer, but Seabright prefers to chip at particular points rather than taking on the whole issue and drawing strong conclusions.

I expect Seabright’s approach is partly driven by a desire to be even-handed, which he is gallantly so in an area where many authors are happy to march through with bold, unsubstantiated claims. This will likely have the benefit of reaching an audience who are turned off by discussions of male-female differences. But given the mountain of literature in the area, which Seabright samples but does wholeheartedly embrace, he could have more robustly engaged with the positions of others. Seabright rarely names another author and takes them to task, which leaves parts of the book some distance from the cutting edge of debate.

The two most interesting chapters of the book relate to networking and charm. Men tend to have larger networks, and when it comes to positions of power such as top executive positions, those larger networks give men a material return. Seabright also considers that technological progress is raising the need for charm. When the internet can pull in thousands of responses to a job advertisement, it takes something special to get on the shortlist for that job - and networks and charm are an important part of that. Seabright hypothesises that when women take time out of the workforce to have children, their networks suffer as they are no longer on the charm offensive. When they return, everyone who remained in the workforce was busy building and strengthening networks that the woman now no longer has.

Once he has fingered networks as being a factor in the disparate economic outcomes, Seabright puts forward two ideas to address them. His first is that short lists for positions should be subject to quotas. This brings women into the mix for consideration when their networks may not get them through the first cut. They are then assessed on merit against the other short-listed candidates. If networks, not talent, are standing in the way of higher female representation, this may present a solution. However, as Seabright notes, if this is a good idea, companies should do this without any push from outside as it would be in their own interest to find the most talented staff. The other question is what happens to less social but talented men, who Seabright notes often suffer the same penalties from non-conformist life choices.

Seabright’s other idea, compulsory paternity leave, is likely to be the more controversial. Seabright proposes that men should have to take the same breaks as women, which should then remove the signalling and networking cost to women of taking time off work.

Beyond my natural apprehension at a compulsory scheme of that nature, the question at the forefront of my mind was whether networks have merit in themselves. Employers care about signalling as it contains information. And within a job, networks can lead to sales, a real benefit to the employer.

Apart from his policy recommendations, Seabright’s closing chapter has an interesting take on “the model relationship”. Given the balance of conflict and cooperation that a relationship entails, Seabright argues that is unreasonable to expect our relationships to be conflict free, consistently loving and free from jealousy. If a politician slips up, it probably says nothing about their ability to manage government. If we slip up, it may not mean that we no longer love our partner. We should not measure others or ourselves against an unrealisable ideal.

Seabright’s assault on the model relationship is interesting, but I am not convinced that recognising its flaws would allow us to escape relationship straight jackets. Evolved preferences, however unreasonable, underlie the expectations of relationships as much as social norms.