Why aren’t there more women in…

As someone who is getting really tired of “why aren’t there more women in artform X” discussions on blogs like Io9, I decided to answer that question. Now despite what some of you may think the answer has less to do with discrimination, and a whole lot more to do with biology. Yes, I said it- biology. I am totally going there, so be warned now.

Let’s start with men.

Men are biologically designed to be single-minded hunter-gathers. We (since I am a male) have an inbuilt trait of hyperfocussing on whatever we consider the most important aspect of what we are doing or interested in. This is a survival trait designed to allow us to do things like spend days hunting animals for food, or single-mindedly pursuing a mate.  In addition to this, we are also designed (by god, or more likely  evolution) to be risk-takers who explore new things and take chances in the pursuit of greater success. (There’s a reason it isn’t “she who dares, wins”.)

Women, on the other hand, are designed to focus on the big picture, and to cover many small details at once. Again, this is a survival trait, since that’s what is needed to raise a family and maintain societal ties. Woman are also oriented towards being more practical and realistic than men- more things that benefit survival. The successful women in ancient times were ones who kept the family unit/tribe stable and maintained social order; unsurprisingly, they were also the ones who produced lots of children and thus had their genes carried on.

Now, none of this is to say that either group is superior or inferior, just that evolution has primed each of the sexes for different roles in continuing the existence of our species. These are also “traits”, which means that how strong they are in a gender varies greatly (some men really suck at focussing on tasks, for example) and they also cross gender lines as well (some women can hyperfocus quite well, thank you very much).  However, the whole risk-taking hyperfocussing thing seems to be a point of male biology, and women who have it also tend to be ones who have other more masculine traits. (Perhaps due to higher levels of testosterone than the normal female population.)

Clear? Good, let’s move on to how this connects with certain creative pursuits.

Because of this hyperfocussing, men tend to be extremely detail oriented about the tasks they consider important, and in the modern world (where this trait isn’t useful for survival) it usually gets oriented towards other things. We call these “hobbies” if you don’t get paid for them, and “professions” if you do. This results in things like men who can tell you the statistics of every man who every wore the uniform of their favourite sports team, men who can know where every single last nail is on a house they’re building, and men who know every inch of their restored and customized 1957 Chevy.  Their hyperfocus has found a direction, and it gives them incredible acuity over everything related to that direction. You will also notice these are things that very few women are interested in doing, but is that lack of interest really a lack of interest, or a lack of ability, or both?

To take this another final step, I see this trait (or its absence) as being the reason why there are so few prominent female film directors, writers, computer programmers, engineers, scientists, and less women in a great many other fields. There isn’t some massive conspiracy going on to keep women down, but in reality a biological leaning that simply tends to give men an advantage in those areas that require extreme levels of focus and detail.  Be it opening up a human skull for brain surgery, or spending days without eating as you code a new plugin for Firefox, that natural ability to focus in extreme is a masculine trait and that’s why there are more men doing those roles.

Now, of course most of you can probably quickly leap to suggest women who are brain surgeons, programmers, directors, writers, and so on. I can too, but that doesn’t disprove what I’m saying, because as I said I’m talking about traits, not absolutes. Of course some women can do those things, and a great many do them very well. But, are they the norm? If we line them up next to the number of males successful in their fields, what percentages will we find? I suspect we’ll find, even accounting for discrimination and other social factors, that the number of men skilled in those areas tends to far outnumber the number of women for the simple reason that men have a biological advantage when it comes to certain tasks. (As do women, but not the same tasks.)

Let’s take a look at Fantasy Writers, for example. Now Fantasy is a genre that despite its male-oriented roots has become one dominated by women in a lot of ways. Women are the main readers of fantasy fiction, and you would think they’d be most of its writers as well, but if we actually look at the list of “names” when it comes to Fantasy fiction we’ll find some strong patterns very quickly emerge. There is an area of Fantasy where women do dominate in the extreme- Urban (Modern) Fantasy, a sub-genre that includes both the Harry Potter series, the Twlight books, the Sookie Stackhouse (Tru Blood) novels, and countless other tales of modern magic.  Here is where women shine, and considering how Harry Potter and Twilight have literally been the heart of the publishing industry during the past decade it’s not a stretch to say women can make great fantasy writers.

But, here’s where that hyperfocussing thing comes back into play. While women do indeed dominate Urban Fantasy (where the setting is modern), when it comes to Fantasy set in alternate worlds the names pretty quickly become majority male. With the exception of perhaps a few like Jacqueline Carey, Ursala K. Le Guin and Robin Hobb we end up with a long list of male names whenever it’s about otherworldly Fantasy, and even when women do work in these other worlds from what I’ve seen they tend to actually strip out many of the fantasy elements. For example they often they write in settings that are not only human dominated, but often human only in terms of common mortal races.  (ie Vampires and Dragons are not mortal or common)  Their stories are still stories about interactions between people, not so much about building a new world.

On the flipside we have Tolkien, Jordan, Howard, Martin (and the list goes on and on) and a whole host of male writers who are beloved for their complex worlds and creative visions. We’re back to that hyperfocussing again- that intense drive and sense of detail that once let men hunt is now being used to produce richly described worlds of fantasy and wonder that carry the readers off into new lands. Has there ever been a female writer who successfully wove a world as complex as Middle Earth? I doubt it, because it’s just not where the female talents lie. Women’s talents in fantasy tend to rest with characters, whereas men’s talents tend to rest with setting. Women soar in Urban Fantasy exactly because they’re not really creating a setting, they’re just using an existing one to backdrop their characters, and on the converse the more important the setting is, the more the male advantage of being able to assemble and build that setting’s details becomes.

I also think this is why the majority of fanfiction writers tend to be female– women are good at making connections, and so they like to play with existing sets of characters and settings rather than create new ones. I guess you could say that men are set up to hunt/create new territory, while women are set up to make the best of what they’ve got. Both are equally important tasks, but both genders are not equal when it comes to them.

For further reading on this topic try this article which goes into the hardware side of things a little more than I do.