Stuff and sex: It’s a female thing


The elephant in the room whenever you’re discussing stuff and clutter is sex.

(That’s sex as in gender, although our style guide at The Economist urges us to use gender only for words and sex for people. So the gender of ein Mädchen is neuter, whereas her sex is female.)

I believe we can stipulate that:

women need and keep and hoard, and cannot let go of, stuff much more than men do

Is this controversial? It shouldn’t be. It’s mostly women I’ve talked to who have said as much. If you go into a random house and count things, the odds are that “hers” outnumber “his” (although that need not apply to total weight or size, of course). It’s women who agonize over getting rid of things, not men.

(To pre-empt a Larry Summers situation, this is the time to remind everybody that I’m making a statement about averages and statistical dispersion. Of course, there are individual men who keep more stuff than individual women.)

So the question is: Why?

  1. One possibility is our hunter-gatherer past, which accounts for almost all of our time as a species. Whereas Neanderthal men and women hunted together, our ancestors sent the men to hunt and the women to gather, and benefited from this division of labor. A hunting party travels light. The less you carry the more fiercely you will wield what you do carry, and the more likely you will be to bring your prey back, which is the point. Stuff would only interfere. By contrast, gathering is about stuff, the collecting of it.
  2. Another possibility is that the nesting instinct shows up in females even outside of pregnancy, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Get a male (we’re not necessarily talking about our own species) to build a nest, then fill it up. All the way up. Don’t drop anything.
  3. The previous two points might just add up to a third possibility: That women have a stuff brain but men don’t. I read research somewhere (which applies eerily in my case) that men are usually better at, for example, such tasks as rotating an imaginary object in space, whereas women are better at remembering and locating objects in a crowded drawer that is briefly opened and shut. Men can’t find anything, women seem to find everything. (When I need something, I usually ask my four-year old daughter, and she always knows.)

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9 thoughts on “Stuff and sex: It’s a female thing

  1. Das Mädchen (girl, neuter); die Junge (boy, masculine) ; der Wagen (car, masculine). Odd language, German, don’t you think?!!!

    “……….men are usually better at………rotating an imaginary object in space, whereas women are better at remembering and locating objects in a crowded drawer………”

    But, best known of all, women are far better at multi-tasking than are men – something to do with the thing that connects the two halves of our brains, being thicker in the female brain than in the male’s.

    By the way, I recommend highly the book, “The Female Brain”, by Louann Brizendine. It’s controversial, I do realise, but well worth the read.

  2. “…the thing that connects the two halves of our brains, being thicker in the female brain than in the male’s…”

    Interesting: The disconnection, or thinness, of that link is how I recall Temple Grandin explaining the causes of autism to the BBC in a documentary about her. This fits with other theories I’ve heard that autism is basically a spectrum of “maleness” in brain terms.

  3. Hmmm dangerous territory – even if you are of the gender that has a predisposition to better navigation skills.

    It’s amazing to me that a not insignificant strand of Feminism persists in ignoring both the bulk of everyday experience and also a lot of scientific data, preferring instead to resist the notion that male and female brains are physically (and hence also probably functionally) different. Hence the Larry Summers incident.

    The best research I’ve seen on innate gender differences is by Bruno/Borat’s cousin – Simon Baron Cohen – who has demonstrated that two day old neonates have different preferences for what they stare at (baby girls prefer to spend more time staring at faces). Two days is too early for that to be nurture. He also is a leading proponent of the view that autism is an excessively male brain (over systematizing).

    Vive la differance!

  4. Amen. Although, don’t you find that the same not-insignificant strand of Feminism persists rather selectively in ignoring experience and science? Ie, only when convenient.

    To Simon Baron Cohen’s research I will add my own observations (again, this is about averages and standard deviations): Girls, way better with language early on; boys, way better with balls. Of the bouncy sort, that is.

    Also, as a language matter: At The Economist, we once had an interesting discussion about phrases such as your “not insignificant”. Generally, you would think that a double negative is bad writing and should just be a positive. But then we all recoiled. “Not insignificant” is demonstrably different than “significant”. It’s a nuance, an entirely different tone. But you would be hard pressed to define it.

    • Yep – that is the problem with ‘political correctness’ and other primarily ideologically driven agendas – they aren’t open to inconvenient truths

      Interesting example on Feminist selective scholarship
      “deliberately misleading sisterly sophistries.”
      Feminist misinformation is pervasive. In their eye-opening book, Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies (Lexington Books, 2003), the professors Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge describe the “sea of propaganda” that overwhelms the contemporary feminist classroom. The formidable Christine Rosen (formerly Stolba), in her 2002 report on the five leading women’s-studies textbooks, found them rife with falsehoods, half-truths, and “deliberately misleading sisterly sophistries.”

    • Wow, Jag. What a treasure of a link, and what a devastating J’accuse of academic Feminism.

      The clincher, after the anecdote:

      “All books have mistakes, so why pick on the feminists? My complaint with feminist research is not so much that the authors make mistakes; it is that the mistakes are impervious to reasoned criticism. They do not get corrected. The authors are passionately committed to the proposition that American women are oppressed and under siege. The scholars seize and hold on for dear life to any piece of data that appears to corroborate their dire worldview. At the same time, any critic who attempts to correct the false assumptions is dismissed as a backlasher and an anti-feminist crank.”

  5. Hello from Santa Fe!
    Nietzsche might call the Feminists part of his slave types who gather their power by trying to make the rest of us feel guilty.

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