The publication of Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes by Oxford University Press fuelled the debate over why women haven’t achieved parity with men in leadership positions. Psychologist Joyce F. Benenson of Boston’s Emmanuel College (with Henry Markovits, of the University of Quebec) marshals data collected over 30 years studying children that point to men being “warriors” in battle with a perceived enemy and women “worriers” concerned primarily with their own and their children’s survival. The result, she argues, is that females are innately less sociable and more competitive with one another—at the expense of the group—while men are more sociable and more co-operative to build teams to fight a shared enemy. In conversation with Anne Kingston, Professor Benenson explains why she believes innate biological traits have kept women back in the modern workplace—and what women need to do to overcome them.
Q: Could you please recap what you define as the innate male traits of “warrior” versus the female “worrier”?
A: What males like to do – which I don’t see as positive– is really enjoy fighting. They put a lot of their resources into fighting and defeating other groups, and that provides an enormous amount of pleasure. All these resources are being put forward and not used for other purposes so that men can defeat the enemy—and that can be in government, business any kind of institution there is a natural inclination for males to devote their time to doing better than the other team. So it comes across as very positive. But that means there’s also an opportunity cost: all the other things in the world that we could be doing like worrying about overpopulation and worrying about pollution and worrying about keeping children alive and the future are, then, second, or third or fourth or fifth.
When I go into a classroom and I look at young boys and young girls, the boys are having a better time and the girls are much more oriented towards the teacher and they’re much more fearful. But who would you depend on to keep someone alive in terms of in your community? That would be a female every time. Yes, I do present women as competitive. But that’s sort of an antidote to what’s out there in the world now, which is that girls are loving and intimate and I don’t think that that’s the case.
Q: You argue men are innately more outwardly competitive in taking down the enemy; that requires them to be team builders—cooperative, sociable, able to recognize and value skills in others. Women on the other hand are depicted as fearful and anxious and in constant vigilant competition with people they call their friends and non-family members.
A: I wanted to emphasize than women are keeping the human race alive and that men aren’t doing anything like that. Women are basically the source of life and now wanting to get out into the world and do a lot of the things that men do. And that’s great, but in the end there is this basic desire to take care of and keep alive and help thrive our children. It’s very hard for a woman to get away from that and to balance.
Q: You write that women aren’t nice, per se, it’s a conflict management technique, the first rule of which is to smile. You also say women are far more manipulative and underhanded in their dealings with their friends and other women than men.
A: I agree with “underhanded” but not “manipulative.” Men and boys are terribly manipulative, but they’ll say it to your face. They want something, they’re going to be right up front, “Okay, you give me this, I’ll give you that,” and we can fight it out and then, “Okay, we’ve made our deal, let’s go on.” Girls don’t do that. What the girls are saying and what they’re doing are really different. What I’m trying to say – in a positive way, for females – is that if we are going to be happy and get someplace with unrelated individuals outside of the family we need to be aware of what other women are doing, which is totally normal: we’re trying to get what we want for ourselves. And if we don’t we’re going to be hurting ourselves and ultimately our children. I have lots of colleagues, who come to my office in tears because another colleague – a woman – said something to them that just was horrible, and it goes on and on and on. And I always say, “But look, she’s trying to get what she wants, so you have to see this as a strategic game. You need to get what you want, you need to figure out what she wants, and you need to make it work best for yourself rather than being so upset that girls or women are supposed to be so nice all the time.”
Q: You write that what we think of as intimacy between women is in fact “insurance”—and that friendships between women are simply transactional relationships.
A: Yes, but to me every relationship has to be transactional—that’s what I’m trying to get across.
Q: But women are taught to think of a transactional relationship as a bad thing, as inauthentic.
A: That’s it. That’s what I don’t understand. If we’re going to be very cold and objective about it, you can’t have a relationship with somebody that’s not transactional. We all give and take things so that we can do well, and it’s always a trade-off. And it should be like that. What is the alternative?
Q: You write women pretend they’re not in any competition with one another, and cite the strategies women use to appear to avoid up-front competition—like removing a perceived threat from the group. Obviously that poses a problem when women get out in the big world where competition is necessary.
A: Exactly. So what I’m saying is that if we are not aware that we are competing and that competition is good for us and our children, then we go out there and we think, “Oh, my gosh, these other women are competing against me and “Hey, I would never do that to them. What’s wrong with them?” And we end up saying, “I don’t want to be in this situation,” or, “It’s not worth it,” or, “I’m exhausted from all of this and I don’t understand it.” In contrast, if we said, “Hey, I’m going out there, I’m going to try to do the best I can, and I understand that she’s doing the same, so let’s see what we can work out together up front.” So now it’s out in the open the way that men are doing it. I can’t speak for everyone, but certainly I gave the examples from the book where women are coming home from work exhausted by the trauma of what’s going on between other women.
Q: You also cite studies that show that both men and women would rather have a male boss, and women say that far more than men. But looking at other research you present, that’s a rational response. You claim females don’t value expertise the way men do and that women even undermine the team in the way they cooperate with one another.
A: I don’t know if “undermine” would be right because I don’t have any data on that. I do say that there is a biological desire for a woman to form a very close relationship with other woman. It’s wonderful to have a best friend. But that does undermine a team—because what happens to the rest of the people on the team? I ran one experiment where I had groups of five same-sex 10-year-olds. The boys worked as a team; they’re interacting with each other and yelling and screaming and trying to help each other as much as possible. In contrast, the girls broke themselves up into twos, sometimes threes, and so they don’t get the benefit of the other members of the team. So if you want to use the word “undermining” in that case, I do agree. They’re not benefiting from everyone else and you’re excluding other people and you’re not getting their expertise and so that team doesn’t work as well as a male team. If it’s a one-on-one relationship females do just as well.
Q: At one point you talk about female bosses being more egalitarian and less autocratic than male bosses. Is that a positive or negative?
A: At first I thought, “Oh, that’s wonderful!” And it’s really nice if everyone is on your same level, but what do you do if you have somebody who’s new and you are an expert? Then they aren’t equals, and you still need to cooperate, and sometimes that means being autocratic and saying, “Hey, I’ve been here for a long time, this is what you need to do, and let’s do it together because I’m going to help you then move up the rank.” What I’m trying to argue is a lot of people see women as better because they’re equal. But I’m saying, “Yes, women do really well with equals, but what does that mean when women are with unequals?” That’s where women don’t do as well.
I have data coming out in the next few weeks that’s also generating a lot of publicity – I went to 50 universities, eight in Canada and 42 in the United States, and I looked at co-authored publications in psychology departments. When it came to equals, females were just as likely as male to publish with somebody in their department. But when it came to working with somebody who’s not your equal – a full professor with an assistant professor, say – women were much less likely than men to do that. That’s objective data that women are not helping the team as much as men are. There’s an instinctive bias for males to reach out to their group because they want to defeat other groups, they want their psychology department to be publishing more than another psychology department, for example. If you become aware of this then you can do something, which is set up collaborations between juniors and seniors and see it more as, “We are the psychology department so we are going to work together,” and try to break that down. Then we become much more powerful relative to men.
Q: You also say women are not as willing to mentor as men are.
A: There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that women aren’t into mentoring as much as men are and they don’t want to be bothered with it, but they’re always called on it – partly because there are so few women who are available to mentor. I was arguing from another perspective: that women are more comfortable when they are with an equal. When women form friendships it is with an equal, and an equal can kind of exchange reciprocally better than somebody who’s not as good as you and oftentimes somebody who’s much better than you is not going to want to give you as much. Therefore what you get is these wonderful, egalitarian relationships – friendships, work relationships, whatever – between women that are just as good if not better than men. But when it comes to mentoring or other ways in which people of higher status work with people who are lower status, I would argue women are not as good as men. And unless they’re aware of that they can’t correct it.
Q: You lay out what you see as innate sex differences between boys and girls very clearly in the book. Now what do we do with this information?
A: We have to be aware of what seems to be innate. If we are aware of that, then we can overcome it. We are not slaves to our biology. If I go into a room and it’s full of people my instinct is go over to the person I like there best and get involved with a deep conversation with her. But then I say, “That’s what I really like to do, but I’m not going to do it. I’m going to go around and I’m going to say hello to all the women here and I’m going to purposely introduce them to one another and I’m going to do things differently than I would feel most comfortable with.” That is how things will change. And on top of that I would add that if women can realize, “Hey, even though this other woman is at a higher or lower status level in this organization than me I’m going to make an effort to talk with her even though it doesn’t feel that comfortable at first.” That is how it would change for women in non-family contexts.
Q: People will look at this data and use it to argue that women aren’t fit to lead, which obviously isn’t the case. Are you concerned about that take-away?
A: That’s a good point. I’m writing this is to say, “Hey, women, let’s be more conscientious, let’s be more aware of this. Now they become aware of this and they think, “I’ve got to make more of an effort,” and in the end, if that happens, then women are going to do better than men.
It’s not that I don’t want women to do better; what I’m trying to do is explain it, to go before, when did these structures arise that are keeping women in this place, which is what Sheryl Sandberg has been criticized for not talking about. Well, I’m trying to go before that, and that’s what the children give me because, you know, most classrooms don’t have a structure set up where the boys are officially at a higher status level. In fact, boys do really poorly in school: girls are at the highest status level.
Q: At what point do cultural gender constructs enter into the equation [of how we see boys and girls]?
A: Right from the beginning. A mother is more likely to kill her daughter than her son in most places in the world. As soon as a woman can find out – whatever the technology is – that she has a daughter she’s more likely to kill it than a son. That’s changing in modern societies but that’s the way it is.
Q: If women are enmeshed with maternal worry – perceived as always anxious about their survival and that of their children – how does translate into the sense that women are capable of leadership?
A: Well, a mother is a leader; that’s a natural role. tried to make the point in the book that I think women are actually more hierarchical than men are.
Q: But isn’t that a very outdated Victorian conceit: that the woman runs the government of the home whereas the man works in the public sphere?
A: I’m looking at kids on the playground and I’m seeing boys trying to figure out who’s better at this and who’s better at that and whatever, and by doing so they’re honing their skills. I see girls not wanting to do that at all, and I think, “But if they play house then they’re perfectly happy to say, ‘I’m the mother and you’re the baby.’” Nobody wants to be the baby, they want to be the mother.
Q: That’s because the mother gets to boss everyone around.
A: Exactly, mother gets to decide what to do and mother gets to put her interests ahead of the baby’s interests – as she has to do in order to keep the baby alive. Women are certainly very much leaders all the time, and I would say naturally they are spending more time in the developing world leading than men are. So I don’t see it as Victorian. In fact, I think girls love to lead. The other girls don’t like to be led, though. They’ll be led by the teacher and they’ll be led by the mother, but they don’t want to be led by their peers. So how do you figure this out so that women can be leaders?
Q: The book ends on a fairy-tale note, quite literally: “more than anything a woman truly wants herself and her children to live happily ever after.” That’s not evolutionary biology, that’s a learned cultural construct: the Disney “happily-ever-after.”
A: I thought about that, and I thought I probably should have italicized “live,” In other words–it’s to live, and to me that would make such a difference for the world. I really do think when women gain more power then the whole emphases, and all the structures, will change. But the question is: Why haven’t they?