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Back issues




The Staff



Two Girls for Every Boy

By Wil McCarthy

J ust in time for Valentine's Day, Harvard president Lawrence Summers has gotten himself in hot water for allegedly suggesting, off-mic, that while men and women are equally valuable to the fields of math and science, they may approach it in different ways and with different levels of determination. The fact that anyone bothers to disagree with this, much less get upset about it, says more about our society than Summers ever tried to. At the risk of ending up in the soup myself, I'll throw my voice behind his and say, you know, "Duh."

In my professional opinion as a science-fiction writer, husband and father, men and women are amazingly similar in some ways, complementary in others and contradictory in others still. The cleanliness of bathrooms and the importance of violent sports spring immediately to mind. But don't take my word for it; in an interview last year, one of Harvard's own physics professors—a woman whose privacy I'll respect here—told me, "Women are more patient than men; we make better students. But men are better at pushing the envelope, whatever the envelope may happen to be. In physics they get all the Nobel prizes. In street gangs they commit all the murders." Well, vive la difference.

This is all based on averages, of course—your mileage may vary considerably. Still, stats from all over the world bear out the claim, showing men and women having equal intelligence but wildly different ways of using it. For example, men commit at least 95 percent of all violent crimes, and 60 to 80 percent of property crimes, with the severity of male-committed crimes being generally more serious. Anecdotally, men also spend more time thinking about sex, have a harder time taking care of small children, perceive a more limited palette of colors, and are enormously more likely to become multimillionaires. Should any of this really surprise us?

In every species on Earth there are anatomical and chemical differences between the brains and bodies of the sexes, but the single largest difference is in testosterone levels. As the main regulator of competitiveness and aggression, body hair and libido, this confidence-promoting hormone makes people do all kinds of crazy things, ranging from the horrid to the ridiculous to the sublime. Although women have a higher tolerance for pain, men certainly seem to have a greater willingness to confront the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that stand between them and success.

Women will rule the world

And yet, in a stealthy way, Western civilization is heading into an age of matriarchy. I don't mean this in any sort of figurative sense; last year 70 percent of special-education students (i.e., slow learners) were boys, while 60 percent of college entrants were young women. Even in science and engineering, where women have historically been less than 20 percent of the population, women now comprise almost 75 percent of the student body at some top schools. This figure comes from a friend at the C.U. Boulder—no stats were readily available for Harvard itself. And this trend makes perfect sense, in a way; if women are better students—not smarter people, mind you, but better students—and all our children are encouraged equally, then any admissions system based solely on academics is going to select more women than men. QED.

And although women earn, on average, 20 percent less than men in equivalent jobs, they also seem to fare better than men in tough economic times, with fewer job losses and lower unemployment rates. Why? Probably because they're more cautious, and don't push the envelope (or rock the boat) as hard. They're less ambitious, more dependable. That's neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a thing; it takes both sexes to make a world.

As a futurist, though, I'm fascinated by this trend. What happens when every education-heavy profession is dominated by women? Will women carry themselves in a more masculine way? Will corporate cultures become less cutthroat—more feminine? Will our standing with old-fashioned patriarchal economies tilt for better or worse? Will competitive, territorial males still be disproportionately represented in certain jobs, including leadership roles?

One troubling factor is the declining importance of unskilled labor in modern society. If this equates to a declining role for men, the world could see an explosion of idle testosterone. Historically, an overwhelming majority of societies have been male-dominated, and many have encouraged their women to be idle or to work in the home. But a nation of working women and jobless men would be a bold experiment indeed—something the world has literally never seen before. It's doubtful the men would gravitate to the sort of activities favored by Victorian Englishwomen or Chinese dowagers; even today, few househusbands relish their roles, and fewer still learn to sew. They can of course save the family money as handymen and landscapers and such, but societies with high male unemployment rates invariably see an increase in crime and social problems as well. That's a sad fact of life, which we may soon have a chance to experience firsthand.

Men must be winnowed down

But science fiction can point the way to a brighter tomorrow. It's interesting to note that SF's stereotypical male fantasy—found in everything from Star Trek's "The Cage" to John Norman's GOR books—is a planet where women are subjugated or enslaved. Conversely, the stereotypical women's fantasy (from Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness to Nicola Griffith's Ammonite to Futurama's "Amazon Women in the Mood") is a planet where men don't exist at all. Both cliches spring from the same basic desire: not to be marginalized in one's own society, or forced to play an unnatural role. And you know, while these fantasies are divisive at heart, there may be a solution that preserves the best of both worlds. Believe it or not, the answer was first suggested in 1963 by the musical duo Jan and Dean, when they crooned dreamily of a place called Surf City, with "two girls for every boy."

Possible? Sure. Most animals give birth to equal numbers of male and female offspring, but some find it useful to control this ratio to suit the environment. Ant and bee colonies, for example, are predominantly female, and the number of male larvae is controlled by the queen, who chooses which eggs to fertilize with stored sperm. (The unfertilized ones become male.) Alligators, crocodiles and turtles use a different mechanism, relying on temperature to determine gender and allowing mothers to regulate the sex of their offspring by deciding where to bury their eggs. In humans, a similar effect could be achieved either by sorting the sperm into XX and XY bins and selecting manually (a technique already proven in horses), or by developing some sort of futuristic drug or vaccine that makes life twice as hard for male sperm as for female.

While it might seem a bit shocking to talk about phasing men down to just 33 percent of the population, this cockamamie plan does offer a number of advantages for both sexes. Women would enjoy a lower crime rate and probably a mellower, less dog-eat-dog society. Men would enjoy having fewer die-hard competitors to deal with, and more potential mates to choose from. Who knows, even harems might make a comeback—something few men would object to. And in purely economic terms, there'd be no surplus or shortage of "men's work" in the world, because the number of men could be adjusted every generation to suit demand.

(I'll also predict, on a completely frivolous note, that women will continue to take over men's names one by one. First it was Leslie and Tracy, then Terry and Pat and Chris, and soon they'll be taking over Mike and Bob and Jim. Since men consider "feminine" names to be insulting, the end result will be a world where the guys all have names like Og and Crom and Thor, which no self-respecting woman would touch. But that's neither here nor there.)

For better or worse, a female-dominated society would behave very differently on the world stage than a traditional patriarchy. There's even a risk of going too far, of becoming too feminine for our own good. There's a lot to be said for balance, for not straying too far from nature. On the other hand, Asian societies place a high value on male heirs, and if choosing the sex of a child were easy to do, we could expect rather more than 50 precent of Asian babies to be boys. Through simple economics, girls would become scarcer and scarcer until families finally learned to appreciate them. But demand without supply is a sorry condition, and for a society composed mostly of unmarried men, fiercely competing for scarce (and choosy) brides, the level of mayhem could be considerable.

Since this is almost certain to happen in the 21st century, it's fun to imagine the results a hundred years hence, when a strong but love-starved East comes courting a matriarchal West. Two houses equal in dignity, but expressing their power very differently. Can whole civilizations "date," fall in love or possibly even marry? Time will tell. But just to be on the safe side, maybe they should start sending us Valentine candy now.

Sources used for writing are:

The United States Department of Justice, Crime Statistics:

Gottfriedson, Michael and Hirschi, Travis: A General Theory of Crime, Stanford University Press, 1990.

Phillips, Melanie: "The Feminisation of Education," The Daily Mail, Aug. 19, 2002

"The Gender Gap: Boys Lagging," CBS News, October 31, 2002

"The New Gender Gap," Business Week, May 26, 2003

GAO Report to Congressional Requesters: Women in Management: Analysis of Selected Data From the Current Population Survey, GAO-02-156 October 2001

Larry DeBoer and Michael Seeborg: "The Female-Male Unemployment Differential: Effects of Changes in Industry Employment," The Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review, November 1994

The Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite, 2004 Edition: testosterone, turtle, alligator, crocodile, bee, ant, clown fish

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently Lost in Transmission. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available in paperback.


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