How I think about it
Suppose we define feminism as the movement to remove systemic bias against women in important aspects of society. Feminists have to believe that there is such bias, or else there would be nothing to remove. Systemic bias could be formal, as when women were denied the right to vote or not admitted to Ivy League universities. It could be informal, as when at a business meeting women might not be listened to as respectfully as men.
I think that there are two versions of feminism, each of which has problems. There is “difference feminism,” which says that women on average are different from men, but that some of what holds women back is bias. And there is “no-difference” feminism, which says that women are not different from men, so that any disparities in prestigious positions between men and women must be due to bias.
The problem with difference feminism is that it makes the presence of bias empirically uncertain. The problem with no-difference feminism is that I am very confident that it is false that women and men are the same on average. So I have nothing more to say about it.
To illustrate the problem of difference feminism, consider the case of software engineers. I have known software engineers who, if you ask what they do in their spare time, respond with “work on code.” They do it because they enjoy it, or because they hope that a side project will turn into a business. I know one who spent a lot of time coding an app just for his own personal use.
In my experience, 100% of these software engineers who also do coding in their spare time are men. Are there any women who do it? Probably there are, but I have yet to meet one.
So if you visit a business, and you find that more of its highly-compensated software engineers are men than women, what should you conclude? You cannot say that there is no bias against women, because there could be. But you cannot be certain that there is bias. James Damore tried to make this point at Google, and he was fired for saying it.
Another job that matters in very large firms is that of project manager. In a complex organization, a corporate project can require a team consisting of individuals from different departmental units. In my experience, all of the best project managers were women. I suspect that this is because women tend to be better at handling relationship issues, which seem to be the major challenge in corporate projects. The project manager often has no direct control over the workers whose effort and cooperation is required. Identifying problem behavior and doing something about it seems to come more easily to women.
I see difference feminism as allowing for the possibility that men and women on average have different comparative advantages. My own experience leads me to believe that men tend to have a comparative advantage as software engineers, and women tend to have a comparative advantage as project managers.
I also have a more controversial view of male-female differences. I believe that in large-scale organizations and institutions, systems are very important. Systems include articulated rules, rewards for competitive success, and impersonal norms. Boys on the playground, on average, gravitate toward this. Girls, on average, do not. Rosie Kay describes how girls operate.
Like Kathleen Stock, I too was relentlessly bullied at school. Despite being Scottish born I was bullied due to my impeccable English accent after we returned to live in Edinburgh when I was 13 years old. I remember the school tactics then; one of the girls targeted me, and built a campaign, using other girls to do the dirty work. It progressed from verbal abuse and taunts to full blown punching, kicking, tripping over and pushing. It only stopped when I fought back.
I think that among high-level executives, men are more likely to view an organization in terms of its systems, and women are more likely to view it in terms of its people. Men think that they can solve problems by changing the organization chart, updating the policies and procedures, rolling out a training program, changing the compensation system, or adopting new technology. Women think that they can solve problems by removing the impediments to better teamwork, and they can spot the individuals who are the main source of the trouble. Again, these male-female differences are average differences, not universal differences.
I am fine with difference feminism. I think we should try to minimize bias against women in our society. But I think that society requires impersonal systems, not “gossip at scale” (or bullying, as Kay terms it) which is where we seem to be headed, particularly on line. I worry that as we shift to girlish playground behavior, important institutions will degrade. We could see the demise of rules and norms that have made those institutions great. I see free inquiry, impersonal competition, and what Jonathan Rauch calls the Constitution of Knowledge, at risk.