Over the last couple of days I’ve stated something that shouldn’t be controversial but is: that men and women at a fundamental biological level are different – our chromosomes, our bone structure, our hormones, our differing responses to disease and yes our genitals mean that we are not the same. My case today is to draw out some of the implications of this because it does have implications, positive and negative for both men and women.
Here is one fact that has profound implications: Men are stronger than women. There are plenty of areas where the design and shape of women’s bodies make them better than men – balance, co-ordination and flexibility for example (think of the difference in men and women’s gymnastics for example).
Men are generally bigger than women, being both taller and heavier means there is generally more muscle and brute power. In addition as this article shows women have significantly less muscle. One study showed that women have 52% of the upper body strength of a man.
As I wrote here this physiological difference is such that many sporting authorities have rules so that men and women compete separately. Personally I’m all in favour of where no such differences exist, for men and women to compete in the same event. I see no reason why a female driver shouldn’t compete against men, or in my own past-time of running where at ultra-distances (longer than a marathon, a females smaller body and chemical balance tips the event back in her favour). However since 1983 the gap in elite sports has remained constant. Men are faster, stronger, more powerful.
This doesn’t really seem to be too much argument about this but the implications in our past and present are profound. This greater strength has typically shaped what jobs men and women perform – men taking on labour in mines and manufacturing for example. Warfare, until the invention of modern weaponry, required strength of arms both to carry the weight of the weaponry and then to kill someone with it. Even though today technology means that women can go into combat alongside men, the physical tests in the Marines for example are not the same. If they were, not enough women would pass.
One of the greatest contributors to advancing opportunities for women, ironically was not really a change of attitudes first but the necessities born out of war.
Two world wars took millions of men out of civil society and dumped them on the battle field to be mown down, forcing society to push women into roles they hadn’t previously been in and clearly demonstrating the ability of women in areas of agriculture, engineering, manufacturing and civil defence, when the wars finished it became impossible to redraw the boundaries.
The second driver of change has been the speed of technological change opening up areas of life to women that previously their lack of relative strength had kept them from, combat being one of them. Think manufacturing and engineering – it no longer requires physical strength to tighten a bolt on an aircraft or car because we have tools that do that for you – in those trades where a tool replaces muscle gender becomes largely irrelevant.
It wasn’t attitudes amongst politicians or the public but advances in healthcare and reproductive medicine that produced great changes for the welfare of women. Laws and attitudes have simply been running to keep up.
Much of human history has been built upon and by physical strength and created structures and value systems to underpin that. Where strength has equalled power and power is seen as a virtue then strength is good and weakness is not. That’s not a big jump to men are better than women. Conversely it’s not surprising then when you have a society where physical strength is largely irrelevant (as it is in developed nations) that not only are women proving to be the equal of men but in many cases overtaking them.
As The Economist says,
“Poorly educated men in rich countries have had difficulty coping with the enormous changes in the labour market and the home over the past half-century. As technology and trade have devalued brawn, less-educated men have struggled to find a role in the workplace. Women, on the other hand, are surging into expanding sectors such as health care and education, helped by their superior skills. As education has become more important, boys have also fallen behind girls in school (except at the very top). Men who lose jobs in manufacturing often never work again. And men without work find it hard to attract a permanent mate. The result, for low-skilled men, is a poisonous combination of no job, no family and no prospects.”
Despite the great progress that women have made in society and the vastly greater career opportunities that are available now compared to even 30 years ago – physical strength still allows men to dominate. Tomorrow, we’ll look at one of the worst ways this strength has been used – violence against women.