Cockroaches and equality
A couple weeks ago I was in NYU’s “eLab,” a space that promotes entrepreneurship. Besides a few administrators who work there, it’s mostly students there, mainly connected with tech startups.
That morning there weren’t many people there. I sat on a couch near the entrance and the staircase downstairs. Twenty or thirty feet away, across the open meeting area to my left, a few students worked on their laptops in the booths. The place was pretty quiet. Morning light poured in the big windows.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement on the floor. A large cockroach creeped slowly across the meeting area—large like a few inches long, between the size of a thumb and the size of a palm. I don’t know if it had a sense of where it was going—by scent, some kind of memory, something else, or maybe it was randomly moving—but it was generally moving toward the staircase downstairs, from my left to my right.
When its meanderings moved it in my direction I’d think about how to handle it getting too close to me and my stuff on the floor, but it never did. No one else was near or facing this direction so no one else saw it. I watched it with mild curiosity of how it moved and how I would handle if it came too close.
Eventually it reached the staircase and disappeared from my view. The staircase was open, so it could crawl around the outside of the stairs, which it seemed to do. I figured that was the end of it.
A few minutes later I heard loud shrieking from downstairs. The bug had crawled onto the wall of the working space downstairs, some students saw it and were freaking out. But they weren’t just freaking out. They were screaming for their friend upstairs to come downstairs and kill it. In particular, they were saying that because he was a man and they were women, he should do it. So from downstairs, they were calling for someone upstairs, busy working, to come downstairs for a gendered reason.
In another space I might not have thought twice about it. Women have asked men for help handling bugs, mice, snakes, and other vermin forever. But this space was devoted to promoting entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, independence, ability, and so on. In fact, as I’m writing, one of the top events the eLab is hosting is “Women of Entrepreneurship Fall Meetup (Premier Event).” I support and promote entrepreneurship for everyone who wants it, including organizing a women in entrepreneurship event last year.
I see people as equally as humans. There are differences between men and women. The other day I helped a woman reach something off a store shelf above her reach. Your mother gave birth to you and not your father. While men tend to be taller, stronger, and faster than women, compared to a roach, those differences are negligible, as best I can tell. Of the relevant differences between men and women, I couldn’t see a compelling one that, if the students downstairs didn’t like the bug, they couldn’t handle it as well as anyone, independent of sex.
So why did these women bring sex into the picture? Why didn’t they kill the bug themselves or just let it go away on its own? They passed the admissions filter to one of the world’s elite educational institutions and in that institution, they’re at one of its lauded spaces for self-reliance and problem-solving. In particular, why did they act helpless and call for help, not from just anyone, but from a man, clarifying that his being a man made him more capable and responsible than them? They took more time, work, and resources than handling the issue themselves would have taken, interrupting all of us from what we were doing, came upstairs themselves, and brought the man downstairs.
Given the entrepreneurial context, should we conclude anything?
If there are no meaningful differences between men and women, why did these women act like there was?
If there are meaningful differences between men and women, how do they manifest themselves in school and the workplace?
If you look at a roach as a problem, then someone claiming their sex prevents them from solving the problem themselves would suggest they are less able, or at least that they consider themselves so. Would you prefer hiring someone who disrupts a workplace like that, claiming others can solve that problem better, or a member of the group that they themselves claims is better at it?
Alternatively, you might say some groups are better at some things, others better at others—maybe women solve things in social ways and men in physical ways, or some other theory. The women in the eLab did solve their problem and maybe, despite interrupting everyone, they helped strengthen their team. After all, in our ancestors from whom we evolved, men were taller, faster, and stronger, yet women weren’t all getting eaten by lions. So each individual that had babies adapted to their environment. You can speculate on what made each person equally fit despite physical and behavioral differences.
But if you say men and women handle things differently, you’re back at saying there are meaningful differences. If you say men and women have innate differences, are you saying they will perform differently in different contexts? If so, are you then saying we should see differences in jobs they do, professions they seek, and compensation they earn? You could say that despite differences, advantages in some areas will balance disadvantages in others, but wouldn’t that balance have been for the environment where our ancestors evolved, not necessarily our modern world? Though in this case the women claimed themselves less able and responsible, they may be yet more able in other areas, so I’m not suggesting the direction of any imbalance. If the women got the man downstairs, their skills might be more valuable in sales. NYU is something like 60% female, 40% male, for example, so there seems some inequality in getting through the admissions process.
Anyway, I asked a lot of questions without answering any, only following through to what seemed follow-up questions. I can’t extrapolate from one data point. Also, I know many see controversy even in just talking about sex differences in academic and professional contexts. I consider talking about them among the best ways to understand them and each other.
I’d love to read people’s thoughts and perspectives beyond mine.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees
1 response to “Cockroaches and equality”