The 3 West Club on West 51st Street in Midtown Manhattan played host last week to the Independent Women’s Forum, a not-for-profit that advocates for women through the lens of diminishing government dependence and intervention as opposed to increasing it or maintaining it at current levels.

The event asked Who’s Afraid of Sex Differences? And to answer the question was a panel of individuals who don’t seem to be afraid of anything: Debra Soh, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Lee Jussim. I’d briefly met Soh and Sommers at the Quillette meet up in Toronto, where Stephen Elliott stopped me from photobombing the now iconic “intellectual blonde web” shot with Soh, Sommers, Danielle Crittenden and Claire Lehmann.

I stopped at the bar for a vodka & soda with lime before giving my name to the well-dressed man at the desk. I sipped around the straw and took stock. The ballroom was set up with rows of chairs that would not have looked out of place as a summer garden party. I sat down and pulled out my phone so I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody.

Behind me, a guy with way too much hair derided the concept of the bottomless brunch. “Mimosas are overrated,” he remarked definitively. His companion agreed.

“I only brunch for the food,” she said. Amateurs. I realized with dismay that I should have refilled my drink before the panelists took the stage. The sound guys adjusted the panelists’ mics.

Inez Stepman sat to the left to moderate. Her blonde bob framed her face perfectly imperfectly. She wore her lips in bright red, a tribute to recently passed Federalistcolumnist Bre Payton.

“Equal opportunity is incredibly important,” Jussim said, “forced equality is terrible.” His concern is that there is no ideological diversity in academics, and that the scholarship is being distorted by an obsession about gender, race, and oppression.

This is the issue with denying sex-based differences. In forcing equitable compliance, through quotas or set-aside programs, individual choice and preference are ignored, and inequity is explained through oppression and bias as opposed to any impact from self-determination.

“Thank you for coming out, especially the ladies,” Soh said, taking the mic, “for embracing their internalized misogyny, and being interested in the science of sex differences.”

She explained the difference between biological sex: “Biological sex is either male or female based on biological functions.” And gender: “Gender is how we feel about our sex, whether it be male or female.” Soh’s cognitive research has led her to the conclusion that “there are biological sexual differences in the brain, and gender is not a social construct.”

In 20th Century feminism, the idea was that believing gender, gender roles, and gender based preferences were social fabrications would lead to the liberation of women from those oppressive roles. Now we find that in relinquishing the innate aspects of those, we open the door to a definition of womanhood that contains only those trappings of femaleness, without any of the biological substance.

For Soh, the feminist project has much worthy of commending it, but in its current incarnation, shaming men for male typical behaviour and “infantilizing women,” it’s lost its way. Women don’t need to be the same as men to be considered as equals, and feminism should be able to address that.

In a striking, black fur trimmed wrap, and statement necklace, Christina Hoff Sommers asked “why would there be fear and hostility in talking about gender differences?” She said that “women paid a heavy price” to have access to and input in this conversation of what women are and the extent of their worth. She believes that it’s this history, of excluding women from the dialogue, that has led to women refusing to talk about or acknowledge sex based differences.

“The proper corrective to bad science is good science, to be logical and reasonable, not to stop the conversion,” she said, noting that there “are risks in denying differences,” and that those risks are of a particular danger to children. With regard to the recent and perverse trend of behaviour specialists trying to mix up children’s gender-specific play, she said that “children resist efforts to liberate them from their preferences.”  

“Increasingly in our schools … in Gender Studies … parents are ‘learning’ that [gender differences] are constructed.” But with boys falling behind in school, perhaps the going progressive wisdom that “maleness is thought to be a social construction” is a harmful one. It is boys, primarily, who are more likely to be redirected in play.

“Play is the basis of learning, it’s the basis of happiness,” Sommers said. “Play preferences are not a disorder … Yes, we have to be careful about assuming there are differences where there are none but we must also be careful about denying differences that are real.”

The audience was fidgeting in their garden party chairs. They wanted to ask questions; they wanted to have their say. Which speaks to how essential this conversation is. Western culture is desperate to have it in a real, rational way, yet emotionally we can barely tie our gendered laces. People voiced concerns about feeling uneasy in voicing their opinions at work or school.

Soh offered that we should “find the people that think like you and try to mobilize that way.”

“Don’t worry about what other people think,” Jussim said, “find what you want to do… it’s not easy to find what you want to do, but once you do, don’t give a damn what people think.”

“Thinking you’re a boy or a girl is fundamental,” Sommers sympathized, “if your wires are crossed that would be difficult.” There are gender differences but they are not determinative of an individual’s worth. “We can be aware of differences without that being a basis for discrimination.”

“I would like people to give scientists the benefit of the doubt,” Soh said. “There are many in the public who are afraid that if researchers could just pursue what they wanted they would find reasons for prejudice and discrimination.”

A scientist next to me adjusted her knit cap and was passed the mic. She wanted to know “why whenever we talk about gender we talk about how women are going to come out below. My experience is that we come out above!”

A Columbia student asked a question that wasn’t a question. Women tend to go for things that have more meaning, he said, like relationships. Women know what has more value, he basically said, so maybe we should take note of that.

And there we have the reason that we’re so afraid to talk about sex differences. Because when we do, it turns into this whole better and worse dichotomy. We find we need to come up with reasons that women, so long derided for their difference, come out on top.

We think that if we say women are just wiser in certain very specific ways that masculine culture has said are worthless, then women can take their equal place. This, too, is a fallacy. Men are not better than women; women are not better than men. Women and men are different; men and women are equal. Let’s stop being afraid of ourselves.