Rebirth of Reason


Objectivism, Venus and Mars
by Robert James Bidinotto

A common lament heard at many larger Objectivist gatherings (at least among heterosexual men) is the relative absence of women. While millions of both sexes avidly read Ayn Rand’s novels, far more men than women participate in organized Objectivist activities. Male to female ratios of 4-1 at events and in local club meetings are common.

For decades, the Objectivist movement has remained largely a boy's club. I believe the roots of this problem lie in our failing to appreciate several things:

—differing cognitive styles that are typically (though not exclusively) preferred by the two sexes, respectively;

—the distinctive constellations of values typically associated with these differing ways of processing information; and

—the fact that Objectivists overwhelmingly embody, and communicate by means of, a cognitive style alien to that preferred by most women.

In saying this, I'm well aware that my words will be chewed up and spit out by those who believe that there is, or should be, only one "rational" style of thought and communication of ideas -- and especially by those exceptional women who don't fit the demographic profile I describe below. The former, I believe, are mistaken; the latter are the exceptions that prove the rule.

What is my basis for making these claims?

As Rand pointed out, there are profound psycho-epistemological differences between thinking and non-thinking people. But a less recognized fact is that there also tend to be great differences among thinking people in their respective cognitive styles -- i. e., in how they process information. The differences among thinking people tend to relate to relative preferences for one of two distinctive cognitive methods: a largely deductive/analytical/"thinking in principles"/sometimes even "rationalistic" cognitive style, versus a more inductive/synthetic/exploratory/"creative"/or "empirical" style of information processing and learning. (For support of this division, see for example the works of British psychologist Liam Hudson, such as Contrary Imaginations and Frames of Mind.)

The "analytical" or deductive mindset likes to process information in terms of conceptual hierarchies, and to break down a "big picture" logically, into its components. By contrast, the "synthetic" mindset prefers to look at scattered perceptual elements, and from these concretes attempt "holistically" to construct or find a "big picture." For that reason, analysts tend to think and learn in terms of abstract, hierarchical systems (including concepts and theoretical principles), while synthesists prefer to think and learn in terms of stories (including analogies and metaphors).

These cognitive preferences tend to dovetail with distinctive constellations of values, too. Analysis allows one to differentiate himself from the world, and things from each other, in order to achieve mental control over the world. Synthesis, by contrast, allows one to experience his personal relationship to the world. This implies that people whose highest value-priority is mental order and control tend to go the analytical route, while those placing a priority on seeking enriching or novel experiences tend to go the "synthetic" route.

Men and women tend typically (though again, not exclusively) to differ measurably and markedly in their preferred cognitive styles -- which conclusion is supported by medical studies of the two sexes' respective left-brain/right-brain functioning. There is thus a biological, not just cultural, basis for cognitive differences. Men tend to be much more analytical and "detached," women far more "synthetic," "intuitive," and "experiential" in their cognitive methods. Not surprisingly, then, men and women tend to have very different constellations of values. The tendency toward biologically-rooted differences in cognitive methods leads to biologically-rooted biases toward certain values.

In short, the "Mars-Venus" differences are very real, and very important. Some examples:

—Men tend to be more focused in single directions, women more exploratory. Men, for example, tend to be more aggressively career-focused and -driven, with relationships taking a back seat; women, the reverse. Men tend to be less altruistic, more aggressive, more interested in financial success, more fascinated by technology, less interested in spirituality, than are women. (More on this below.)

—Bright men tend to be disproportionately attracted to such fields as math, the "hard sciences," law, engineering, and other professions in which basic principles and concepts are applied deductively to concrete situations. Bright women tend to be attracted disproportionately to the arts (including the performing arts), social sciences, to jobs stressing interaction with people rather than with concepts or things, and generally to situations in which their involvement allows an enriching participatory or social experience. (See Liam Hudson.)

—Men tend to communicate "one thing at a time," and tend to approach discussions of problems linearly, with the idea of zeroing in on "one right answer." Women tend to express themselves less hierarchically, seeking more to explore their feelings about a range of issues and options, and to seek interpersonal understanding and emotional catharsis, rather than to find "one right answer."

These differences also relate strongly to the "three cultures" phenomenon identified by philosopher David Kelley. Kelley argues that American culture is divided among three warring subcultures: one shaped by the country's founding Enlightenment values; a second shaped by remnants of the West's pre-Enlightenment religious values; and a third shaped by the post-Enlightenment's anti-rational values. This analysis has empirical support. A major survey of American subcultures, reported in the Feb. 1997 American Demographics, found the following:

1. Among Enlightenment types (referred to as "Moderns" in the survey), men outnumbered women 54 to 46 percent. Among anti-Enlightenment types (referred to, interestingly, as "Cultural Creatives"), men were outnumbered by women 40 to 60 percent. This is a remarkable statistical difference in overall value preferences between men and women. Or, as the article puts it: "In Cultural Creative circles, it's common to meet women asking, 'Where are all the good men?' The answer is most men are Moderns."

2. The male-dominant Moderns ranked highest in orthodox religions and beliefs, while the female-dominant Creatives ranked lowest -- by a 23% difference. However, as for "New Age" beliefs, the Creatives were far and away more interested than the Moderns in "spiritual psychology" (40 to 24%), agreed that "religious mysteries exist" (53-25%), and "liked the foreign and the exotic (85-63%). (In short, the statement by an OCL member that women seemed more attracted to "New Age" and occult stuff is absolutely true. That's why the "Psychic Friends Hotline" ads on TV feature only women, and why women are overwhelmingly the consumers of grocery-store tabloids.)

3. 36% of the mostly-male Moderns said "success is a high priority," while only 12% of mostly-female Creatives did. On the flip side, 39% of Moderns said success was unimportant, while a huge 70% of Creatives regarded it as unimportant.

4. A whopping 76% of Creatives said that "relationships are important," while only 49% of Moderns did.

5. Moderns were most interested in material things (82%), while Creatives were least interested (51%). Compared with Moderns, Creatives were more likely to uphold "altruism" (58% -32%), to believe in "ecological sustainability" (83-56%), general "green" values (83-59%), and "voluntary simplicity" in their lifestyles (79-53%).

None of this can be reduced to the simplistic notion that "women are more emotional, and less rational, than men." That would be true only if reason is equated solely with a purely conscious, largely deductive process, detached from one's subconscious integrative mechanism. The chief difference of the sexes, cognitively speaking, is that men tend to stress conscious logical analysis, sometimes to the point of neglecting the invaluable input and integrations of the subconscious; while women tend to stress their subconscious integrations ("intuitions"), sometimes to the point of neglecting logical structure and consistency. In other words, there’s a basis in reality for the familiar cultural stereotypes.

Of course, there's no necessary dichotomy between seeking cognitive order and control, and seeking enriching or novel emotional experience. What we need to grasp is that just as the sexes complement each other in so many other ways, so too can their characteristic mental methodologies.

Sexually-based (or -influenced) differences in cognitive and communications styles, and core personal values, have profound implications for those who wish to run Objectivist clubs and events. Communicating Objectivist ideas and values in a typical "male" fashion -- i.e., via "logical structure" discussions, and abstract, largely deductive analysis seeking the "one right answer" to a given question -- is a sure-fire way to guarantee that most women will never return to your events.

If you want more women to attend Objectivist events, at minimum you should to your “program mix” the kinds of values (social and experiential) and communication methods (e.g., stories, personal participatory elements) that are part of the cultural "comfort zone" of most women. That means adding films, arts excursions, fiction discussions, poetry readings, self-help speakers, parties, dances, etc., to what you do. If you don't want to do any of that, if you wish to remain in your own comfort zone -- then resign yourselves to forever remaining a boy's club.

Remember: the best salesperson of the Objectivist philosophy was Ayn Rand; and her most successful vehicles for conveying her message "holistically," to women as well as men, were her stories -- not her non-fiction.

While I was involved in planning events at The Objectivist Center, keeping those principles in mind as we designed programs helped to dramatically increase female participation. In fact, the best male-female ratio consistently occurred on foreign travel excursions of Objectivists, where at least half the travelers were women.

And guys: most of them were single. Enough said.

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