Jordan Peterson on Gender Equality: Is He Right?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "12 Rules for Life" by Jordan Peterson. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Jordan Peterson has gotten a lot of criticism for his views on gender equality. He asserts that males and females have differences, and that we’d be foolish not to recognize them.

Is Jordan Peterson a biased bigot? Or does he have some wisdom in his words? Let’s look into Jordan Peterson’s gender equality views.

Jordan Peterson and Gender Equality in a Nutshell

Jordan Peterson’s main point is this: modern society desires gender equality.

When gender equality means equal opportunity, rights, and treatment, this is good. 

However, it can be taken too far – like denying any biological difference between males and females, and insisting that behavior and outcomes be equal in every way.

This idea of literal, complete quality is not supported by biology, and it could be counterproductive because it forces people against their nature. For example, we might raise boys to “feminize” them, erasing their biological tendencies and making them less independent and more agreeable. This is counter to their nature and can cause unintended consequences

The Flaws of Complete Gender Equality

According to Jordan Peterson, some postmodernist thinking claims that all of gender is entirely a social construct, that it was popularized by men to oppress over women. This began with roots in communist ideals that all people should be equal, that the rich exploited the labor of the poor, and that social structures were put in place by the rich to oppress the poor. When implementing this idea largely failed in the Soviet Union and China, the Marxist ideals were rewritten from the idea of oppression of the poor by the rich, to oppression of everyone by the powerful

When extended to its logical conclusion, this promoted skepticism that every cultural construct and hierarchy was merely constructed by the powerful to continue their oppression – science benefits only the scientists, gender classification benefits only the males, management benefits only the managers, measurement of skill benefit only the skilled. As the thinking goes, every hierarchy is an artificial construct made up to selfishly benefit the powerful and to exclude others.

Peterson decries the nihilism in this approach, the rejection of all categorizations as done only for power reasons. Surely power and corruption play some role in hierarchies, but they aren’t necessarily the only role or even the primary role.

The idea of complete equality itself is flawed. In general, pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy – some people will be better and some will be worse. In modern well-functioning societies, the hierarchy is based on competence and ability, not power.

Take the most diehard egalitarian, and when she gets sick, see if she wants to find a more reputable, more skilled doctor. See then if she believes in a hierarchy of skill that is not merely an artificial construct.

To demand absolute equality between all people in all situations would require sacrificing value itself. 

There is a perverse logic to the argument that all hierarchy is socially constructed. Its believers desire for all inequalities to be eliminated, on the basis of fairness. But – IF some inequalities are hard-wired into our genes, or have functional purposes (like identifying the spectrum of skill), or result from free will (females may, given completely equal environmental treatment, just enjoy nursing more than males do), THEN proposing obliterating these would sound unreasonable. It would mean opposing free will, or overwriting biology. 

In other words, find someone who insists that all hierarchies are artificial constructs, and you’ll see someone who cannot stomach the idea of inequality in any sense.

Accepting Gender Inequality

Within gender equality, Jordan Peterson maintains there are clear biological differences between men and women – men tend to be more interested in things while women are more interested in people; men are more disobedient and women are more agreeable. The variation among individuals is very high – the most [adjective] of one gender is more [adjective] than the average person of the other gender (for instance, the most aggressive female is more aggressive than the average male), but by and large, the general trend is true. 

And in societies with more social freedom (like Sweden) the gender imbalance in certain professions is magnified. For instance, the imbalance of males and females in engineering is greater than it is in the Middle East, where there is less social freedom. The implication is that when given freedom, people do what they naturally want to do.

When it gets down to it, even with equal opportunity, what if women really just want to nurse and teach more than men, and men really want to design bridges more than women? Should we force equality in ways that wouldn’t naturally arise, like forcing a 50-50 gender split in every single profession? What are the costs and benefits of this type of policy?

Instead, Jordan Peterson considers another biological possibility – that women, by nature of sexual specialization, have to bear children; and that when they get pregnant, they need more protection than usual. In a time when humanity faced many more existential threats, with higher probability of death and higher risk inherent in unwanted pregnancies, different legal treatments of men and women may have arisen. 

How to Treat Boys as They’re Growing

Peterson wants society to be amenable to the idea that boys and men want to prove their competence, to friends and to romantic partners. Boys want to skirt at the edge of danger, where life is challenging enough to grow. This is why friends tease each other and have hazing rituals, subjecting newcomers to social stress – they are evaluating character and determining who can be trusted, who has a strong spine, who is entertaining. 

Peterson decries the neutering of male independence for the sake of gender equality. Instead of being independent, boys raised this way become socially weak and dependent on parents. Still their natural urges remain, and they’ll lash out in other ways, like adhering to violent, fascist ideologies. “Men have to toughen up. Men demand it, and women want it.”

Modern parental overprotection robs men of this opportunity. Don’t remove risk from life – let children optimize for it and improve their competence. Let boys push against authority and toughen up and do some seemingly dangerous things. Hence his rule: “Leave children alone when they’re skateboarding.”

Jordan Peterson on Gender Equality: Is He Right?

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  • Why standing up straight will make people treat you differently
  • How to find meaning in your life and work
  • Why you're lying to yourself without realizing it

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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