When, earlier in April this year, Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau famously tweeted about how his budget for 2021 would turn things around for women because they had been hit harder than men by the pandemic, he was met with harsh criticism. Not that, in today’s culture, there’s anything surprising in being muted, challenged, or even cancelled. In Trudeau’s case, however, the dispute had more to do with his reference to the “she-cession”, something that seemed to justify the accusations of gender discrimination. At first, before running my own Internet search and realising that the term “she-cession” had been around for at least a year before this incident, I too was infuriated, but only because personally, I am against the careless manipulation of words. Then again, it’s good to remember that even “she-cession” is simply the female version of the “man-cession” coined during the Great Depression.
Linguistic matters aside, one of the things that struck me was a follower’s comment saying: “Oh I didn’t know COVID-19 could tell male from female.” Surely enough, as much as we know that the virus is not intelligent enough to make this distinction, we are also aware that it does affect men and women differently, and even without going into the wider debate of whether the pandemic has caused more damage to one sex compared to the other, we have evidence to show that COVID-19 is one of those problems that manifest themselves in a gendered way in various domains – economic, social, psychological and perhaps even medical.
A question of evolved sex differences
When presented with statistics that highlight a gap between the sexes in many important areas of life and work, including unemployment, performance in academia, experiencing of fears, anxieties, and other negative emotions, feeling burdened by the additional responsibilities for childcare, homemaking, and educational needs, and so on and so forth, the clever response would be to come up with solutions that are based on a deep understanding of why this has happened in the first place. The research article ‘The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights’ offers some proposals. Using an evolutionary perspective throughout, one of the things that the authors explain is that the regression of gender norms and increase in gender inequality brought about by the pandemic, and the reasons why women, more than men, felt pressured to quit their jobs, to manage added responsibilities, and to become makeshift teachers, are firmly rooted in evolved sex differences rather than outdated gender stereotypes and lack of empowerment. Without a shadow of a doubt, I agree.
Putting my own personal judgement aside for a moment, we could explore the alternative scenario, in which we continue to deny that these differences exist, and ignore them in the hope that they will go away. Unfortunately, that is hardly ever the case. In his latest book ‘When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault’ American evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss points out how, as a result of various factors, such as social distancing and isolation from friends and relatives, intimate partner violence spiked by about 20%, and this at a time when the rates of other violent crimes dropped. Buss’s book is a scientifically-valid demonstration of how the sexual conflict and the multitude of problems it gives rise to – including intimate partner violence as a violent form of mate retention – have a biological basis, and that, rather than turning a blind eye to the differences in features of men’s and women’s sexual psychology and pushing for sex-neutral laws and policies, we should be doing exactly the opposite: appreciating sex differences and using them as a basis for designing policies and solutions around our gender-based problems.
Here I am not making a case to serve the interests of women. What I am saying is that it pays to be attentive to these differences and to offer a different type of support to individuals according to their sex, because the other option, treating different things the same, is likely to generate more inequality and injustice.
A gender-based post-pandemic vision
Many of the thematic areas underpinning Malta’s post-pandemic strategy already offer immense potential for applying this kind of targeted approach on the basis of sex – the planned focus on mental and physical health as one of the ways to improve quality of life and wellbeing, and the emphasis on nurturing a culture and national conscience built on purpose, public interest and good governance in relation to our goal of remaining resilient and competitive, are both excellent examples – but this is also a unique opportunity for the business community to step up to the challenge and enter the scene with a new suite of services and solutions that have been made specifically for the female (or the male) mind rather than the gender-neutral customer.
In building a post-pandemic vision and investing in a more sustainable version of society, there is benefit and advantage in appreciating sex differences and in having the foresight to know that gender-based problems deserve gender-based solutions.
This article was first published on Times of Malta.