Susan Pinker’s new book explores the ‘gender paradox’

It’s a rare book that can challenge our assumptions and leave everyone wondering: “Why didn’t we talk about this sooner?”

Susan Pinker’s revolutionary book The Sexual Paradox opens up the long-taboo topic of gender and the workplace. The premise of the book is simple: traditionally it has been assumed that when given the option women will want the same things as men and be very unhappy if they don’t get them. However what if women have different goals? Also despite making less than men on average when career satisfaction is measured women beat men hands-down. Women seem to be increasingly choosing careers that satisfy them instead of conforming to the traditional male model of success. “Economists call this the gender paradox” says Pinker.

Despite increased equality why have we been so hesitant to talk about gender differences? Pinker says she believes people fear going back to a place where women didn’t have opportunity. “The science is amazing astonishing” she says. “Not acknowledging it would be like refusing to acknowledge the [heliocentric model of the] solar system.”

Pinker argues that this is “not just a female story — men have mothers and wives and daughters and women have fathers and husbands and sons.” Indeed it’s impossible to read this book without making connections between Pinker’s “extreme men and gifted women” and the people around you. Every time I opened The Sexual Paradox in a public place people wanted to talk about it. In fact the topic kept popping up everywhere.

“The assumption seems to be that if the social order had really changed women would be exactly like men by now” says Pinker. However in the world I inhabit as a young woman entering the workforce this is certainly not the case. There are posters for health careers in Saskatchewan employing taglines like “I’ll always be home” and “spend an extra half-hour with them” (the kids that is). These are things that women seem to value and employers would do well to take notice. A woman I know recently gave up her incredibly lucrative (male-dominated) career in engineering to focus her energy on becoming a high school teacher. My cousin still feels a twinge of guilt for choosing to stay home with her kids instead of entering the workforce right out of university. One of my best friends is currently taking a self-imposed break from her fledgling career to figure out what path might satisfy her urge to be financially independent and emotionally satisfied with her work.

Women don’t necessarily want to earn less but they do want to be satisfied in their work — it just happens that according to Pinker the jobs women enjoy pay less. It’s what she calls “the money-versus-meaning gender gap” and explains why women my age are so unclear about what to do with all the freedom we’ve inherited. “Not all women want the same thing” says Pinker. “And when women have choices only about 20 per cent will choose what men choose.

“People confuse equality with 50/50” she adds. In terms of work an “everyone should do what they really want to do” approach would serve us better. Ultimately Pinker would prefer a type of equality that allows for differences between the sexes and among individuals. “The ability to follow your inclinations instead of doing work that others think you should do is a feature of a free society” she says.

Pinker’s research illuminates our innate tendencies toward gender-typical behaviour. “People think that I’m doing a Mars-Venus thing — I’m not” she says. Instead Pinker’s work finds a comfortable common ground for a commonly uncomfortable subject. Part science part story her writing finds a balance between typically “male” and “female” methods of processing information. She is hesitant however to divide the sexes so blatantly clarifying that “individuals vary and group averages say little about any single real person.”

Reassuring and thought-provoking Pinker provides a framework to begin new discussion on the topic of gender and the workplace. “I make my living giving advice — but that’s not what this book is about” she says. What she offers is “a more nuanced understanding of gender differences [that] pinpoints exactly where we might direct our efforts for change.”