Gender Stereotypes

07.22.134:45 AM ET

Female Irrationality and the Trayvon Verdict

Yes, Trayvon's jurors were irrational—not because they're female, but because they're human.

One of the hardest parts of the George Zimmerman trial for a lot of people to swallow was that it was handed down by an all-female jury. For those of us who believe the verdict was largely a product of subconscious racial prejudice, it served as an ugly reminder that despite the sexism women face every day, women are not particularly better at getting over irrational fears and bigotries than men are.

Feminist writers like Jessica Valenti and Janell Hobson (and, yes, myself) wrote about how the irrational fear of black men colored the decision rendered by this all-female jury. Unsurprisingly, the admission that sometimes women can, like men, be irrational, was seized upon by the “gotcha” conservative brigade. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal tweeted, “Ha, look how @AmandaMarcotte and @JessicaValenti stereotype women as governed by their emotions,” though it’s unclear what his point was. That women should be banned, due to irrationality, from serving on juries, as they were up until the 1970s? Probably not, but it’s clear that he certainly wished to bolster the stereotype that women are especially irrational, a stereotype that keeps cropping up again and again in the debates over women’s rights.

So let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, women can be irrational. Women can be ignorant. Women can be bigots. All of these things are true. Of course, they are equally true of men, and men’s rights are never called into question because of it. But when it comes to women, merely admitting that women might be just as flawed, irrational, or plain screwed up as men is hard for feminists to do, because it’s so very often used as an excuse to attack women’s rights.

Take, for instance, much of the anti-choice rhetoric about abortion and women’s ability to make a rational decision. It’s popular lately for anti-choicers to trot out women who regret their abortions as an argument for banning it. Georgette Forney, anti-choice activist, spelled out the claim in The New York Times, saying she and her fellow activists “share our abortion stories at public gatherings and outside abortion clinics, carrying signs that say ‘I Regret My Abortion.’" It’s a wildly popular campaign, especially after the specter of the woman who regrets her choice was wielded by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Gonzales v. Carhart, the decision whereby the Supreme Court banned the safest kind of late-term abortion method in no small part because the justices feared some ladies might regret having made that choice sometime down the road.

Beyond just being flat out wrong (most women experience relief, not regret, after abortion), the implied argument is chilling, that since some women might make the wrong choice, then no woman should be allowed to make a choice. We don’t do this to men—argue that because a few end up feeling like they made the wrong choice, the ability to make choices should be removed.

Similarly, discussions about rape and domestic violence often drift away quickly from talking about the male assailant’s choice to rape or beat—which is both irrational and morally wrong—to focusing heavily, often exclusively, on what the victim supposedly did “wrong.” Was she drinking? Did she wear certain clothes, hang out with certain people? Let’s debate how “stupid” it is to return to someone who is beating you! You start to get the impression that if a woman ever makes an emotional, irrational, or just plain bad choice, she forsakes all right to basic protections against crime and justice for those committed against her.

The problem is the stereotype that women are especially irrational, a stereotype that encourages sexists to seize onto any evidence of female irrationality as “proof” for their arguments against equality. In turn, this causes feminists to try to defend women as rational creatures, creating endless arguments over whether or not this woman or that woman made the right choices, and not on the real issues of rights and justice. This is a fruitless waste of time. So let’s just be out with it: women are irrational. But no more so than men, making female irrationality no more relevant than male irrationality.

Why does the specter of female irrationality get so much more attention than male irrationality? Carol Tavris, social psychologist and co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, explains that it’s all about who gets to define what is irrational: “Men have been claiming that women are ‘irrational’ since the dawn of time, a claim that usually translates into ‘why aren't they doing what I want them to?’” Of course, she adds, women do the same to men, accusing men of being irrational for getting “huffy and defensive” when women demand their rights.

The reality, according to Tavris, is that irrationality is all too often in the eye of the beholder: “Thanks to the universal mechanism of cognitive dissonance, we all seek to maintain harmony between our self-image and our beliefs: because just about everyone thinks that they are smart, well-informed, and rational, the other guy—who annoyingly refuses to agree with us—must therefore be dumb, ignorant, and irrational.” The truth is that all of us are mostly governed by our emotions; we decide how we feel and then come up with reasons for it, not the other way around. This is universally true, and not a product of gender.

Julia Galef, the president of the Center for Applied Rationality, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching people better and more rational decision-making, concurs. “The human brain relies on quick decision-making shortcuts like emotions, pattern matching, and simple rules like ‘Copy the people around me,’” she explains.

“Most of the time those shortcuts work just fine,” she hastens to add. Most of our daily decisions, from what to eat for lunch or how to act in a social situation, don’t need more firepower than that summoned by our irrational brain.

But sometimes that irrational brain leads to less-than-ideal decision-making, Galef emphasizes. “The key is noticing when these shortcuts don't work—for example, noticing when you're reflexively dismissing an argument because it comes from the wrong political ‘tribe.’ And that's a rare skill for humans of any gender.”

Some folks have looked to justify believing women are more irrational, more emotional, or less analytical by focusing on differences in brain structure, often for the purpose of trying to explain why it’s women’s biology and not social pressures that result in fewer women in science and engineering fields. But they’re barking up the wrong tree, according to cognitive neuroscientist Indre Viskontas. There are “definitely biological differences between men and women,” she says, but “but there are also differences between individuals of the same sex, and these differences often trump sex.” Brain structures vary on stress levels, age, and even cultural background. For example, she notes:

Let’s take the corpus callosum as a case in point—this is the fiber tract that joins the left and right hemispheres in the brain and is often cited as one of the regions that shows robust sexual dimorphisms: women tend to have larger and more bulbous corpus callosa than men, and this finding has been interpreted as showing that women have more communication between hemispheres, and think more holistically. In 1982, a study published in science first reported this difference. Then, in 1991, a second paper came out in the Journal of Neuroscience indicating that it’s more bulbous in women, but more tubular in men and the total area is the same. Then, a metaanalysis in 1997 found no significant sex differences across 49 studies of the corpus callosum. Finally, a study in 2003 in India showed that in Indian brains, the corpus callosum found to be longer in males than in females and to increase with age in males, not females. What these studies show is that measuring brain volumes, even in the same region, is complex and that variability with age, culture and other factors muddies the waters significantly. In fact, musicians have also been shown to have larger corpus callosa than non-musicians.

Viskontas herself is both an opera singer and a scientist, standing as a counter-example to the easy dichotomies that we so often fall for, such as art vs. science, rationality vs. creativity, and male vs. female.

So yes, women are irrational creatures who are often swayed by prejudice and emotion over facts and reason. This isn’t because they are women, however. It’s because they are human. Women’s mistakes, knee-jerk reactions, poor planning, and regrets don’t differ from men’s. There’s no value on dwelling, much less building policy, around the fear that women are uniquely poor decision-makers, because the people sitting in judgment of women have no reason whatsoever to think they are any better.