On women, empathy and (sometimes) not giving a toss

Years ago I happened to read the mansplainer wankscience classic that is Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference (cover quote: “Women will want to talk about it … men will sit silent and brood over its details”). It was every bit as rubbish as my feminine intuition had told me it would be, apart from the appendices, which featured some cool multiple choice quizzes (a bit like the ones Cosmo used to do in the 80s). According to these, I have a high SQ (Systemizing Quotient) and a low EQ (Empathy Quotient), or, to put it in everyday sexism terms, a male brain! Get me!

Naturally, I was rather pleased about this. I may be a feminist but I’m also pretty damn responsive to the sexism that surrounds me every minute of the day. “A male brain?” thought I. “That must mean I’m dead clever!” Of course, this joy was tempered by the fact that my low EQ must mean I’m pretty shit at being a woman. No wonder my partner called me “dead inside” for failing to cry at the end of Ice Age 2! But at least from that point onwards I’d know that it wasn’t my fault for having been debating the merits of US foreign policy with some right-wing tosser on CiF when I was meant to be following the trials of Manny the Mammoth; it was my male brain wot made me do it.

Unfortunately close (or indeed any) examination of Baron-Cohen’s quizzes would reveal that they are in fact pretty damn flawed. Moreover, it’s never quite clear what the purpose of dividing the world into empathizers and systemisers would be. Baron-Cohen claims that “society needs both of the main brain types” (oh really, Simon? Kind of like a binary, or maybe even a hierarchy?):

People with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary-school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators or personnel staff. Each of these professions requires excellent empathizing skills. People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catalogists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers or even lawyers. Each of these professions requires excellent systemizing skills.

Oh look! A world in which one half of the population does supposedly high-value stuff and the other half cares for the doers! And one in which the doers just so happen to have higher status and pay than the carers! And in which the activity of the doers is circumscribed whereas the work of the carers seeps into all interpersonal relationships in all aspects of life! And in which it JUST SO HAPPENS that we call the doers “male” and the carers “female”! Brilliant! It’s a pity no one thought of it before.

Before anyone panics and starts to think this might sound just a teensy bit sexist, Baron-Cohen has some words of reassurance. He might just have offered scientific “evidence” to justify an exploitative, divisive hierarchy, but don’t worry! Having a female reproductive system doesn’t necessarily mean you’re part of the underclass (but it helps!). Apparently, “when you think about your sex, you have to distinguish five different levels”:

  • Your genetic sex
  • Your gonadal sex
  • Your genital sex
  • Your brain type
  • Your sex-typical behaviour

I know what you’re thinking: why has he tacked those last two things onto the other three for no apparent reason? Why not, if there has to be some binary/hierarchy, call it Type A and Type B? Why, if being an “empathizer” has nothing to do with a prescribed social role assigned to people with a female reproductive system – those people who just so happen to end up lumbered with a ton of unpaid caring work to do – should it have to be aligned with femaleness in any way? Why can’t it just so happen to be something which dominates in females (and may well do so due to female socialisation)? It’s a total mystery (by the way, Baron-Cohen is male).

Anyhow, so I have a male brain, apparently. But no one can see it. What they can see are external markers of gender: my clothes, the things I do, the way I talk, the choices I make. In addition to that they can see that I am female. The latter, in particular, is a total pain. It is more resistant to the magic power of queering dust than anything else. There are so many things associated with it to which no one is attracted and which no one wants to describe. The empathy assumption is invisible. It doesn’t matter what else I do regarding gender presentation or performance. People still look at me, think “female” and expect me to be a bloody empathizer who is also crap at systemizing. Truth is, I’m not. There are times when I’d really like not to give a toss.

Look: I didn’t cry at Ice Ace 2. I’m not always interested in everyone else’s problems (not even those of cute mammoths). Sometimes I have my own ideas, my own thoughts, my own stories, my own pain. Sometimes I want to be a doer, too. And yet I’m always expected to listen, be patient, polite, giving, to do the emotional donkey work in any relationship with anyone who happens to be male. I am expected to bow to their superior systemizing wisdom. I’m expected to hear rationality and reason in their every word, absorbing it all and learning from it. I’m expected to know my place. No one says this (often) but everyone knows it’s there (hence the term “mansplaining”). We know it but there is an absolute horror of stating something which I suspect we also know to be true: females are every bit as intelligent and feeling as males, and their needs are just as great, but society is too dependent on their physical and emotional labour to admit it.

I’m increasingly convinced that empathy is the final frontier in challenging gender. We might twiddle around with the surface elements but watch any conversation between a male and a female and you know exactly what the expectations are. You know who is the carer and who is the doer. You know whose words will be granted the sheen of wisdom and whose responses will be analysed for their empathy quotient. You know who is expected to dry the tears, make the apologies and clean up afterwards. You know who is allowed to scream and shout and who is meant to be mummy, patient and lenient. You know which person mustn’t try to be too clever – it’s not her place – and which person will naturally be assumed to be in touch with The Only Truth. It’s nothing to do with clothes or feelings or pronouns. It’s nothing personal. It’s about exploitation and power, and the myths we need to sustain it. But god, it’s boring and oppressive when you find yourself stuck on the “carer” side. Self-styled male feminists wonder why we give them such a hard time. It’s because of this. You don’t even notice this imbalance so you carry on expecting too much.

It’s particularly unfair because I ticked all the right boxes. I got the low EQ score! I’m meant to be crap at all this! But it’s nothing to do with who I am, nor who anyone else is. It’s to do with what I’m for. I can say I don’t care but who would ever believe me?