Does Economic Upheaval allow for the Progress of Women in Society?

stereotypical gender roles

The traditional role of women is usually associated with being a homemaker, and the traditional role of men is associated with being the provider. This division of roles proved to be effective for our ancestors. In terms of evolutionary advantages, men were stronger and more daring and thus were the ones who hunted for food and provided other resources for the family, and women were more caring and thus were better suited to nurturing offspring and ensuring the offspring’s survival. Although these traditional roles are still common today, we are seeing considerable deviation from such tendencies. The roles of women in particular have rapidly transformed. What is the cause of such a change, and what does it signify?

The progression of women’s roles seems to be apparent during times of great economic upheaval. While evolutionary explanations for gender differences are not completely obsolete, great economic change appears to somewhat downplay the evolutionary differences in the two genders. To keep things consistent (and to control certain variables like culture), let us observe women’s progress during times of great economic upheaval in the Bay Area. To make this post more relevant to today’s society, greater emphasis will be placed on the economic status of women currently in the Silicon Valley.

Were Gold Rush women seeking gold, or something much more valuable?

An appropriate period of time to focus on is California during the 1850’s. The Gold Rush is generally viewed as a male dominated period. But the few women present in the Bay Area during this time had great, if not greater, success, breaking many barriers and standards set upon them in the past. Women exercised unprecedented freedom and power economically and socially. One gold rush woman named Mary Jane Megquier proclaimed, “The very air I breathe seems so very free that I have not the least desire to return [to Maine].”

The huge skew in the ratio of men to women in the Gold Rush is important to note. Although many women were undocumented for various reasons (prostitutes were excluded from the reports and many women who resided in docked ships were also not counted), there was still a huge gender ratio discrepancy.

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Lucky Miners House But No Wife (from “They Saw the Elephant”)

Evolutionary psychologist Kanazawa can explain this discrepancy by the different gender roles and expectations. In order to survive in the ancestral environment, men needed to be more aggressive and competitive, traits that are still apparent today. Men had to be risk-taking and travel great distances while hunting so as to provide resources for the family. The man’s role was to utilize his energy for hunting food and protecting the family. Women, in contrast, tend to be more caring and nurturing, expending considerable energy on their children. Kanazawa’s reasoning is that because women only produce a limited number of eggs (in contrast with the indefinite production of sperm in a man’s lifetime), they are much more invested in the limited children they can raise. Evolutionary psychologists also suggest that the mother always knows whether a child is hers, whereas the father cannot be certain whether he is the biological parent of a child (known as paternity uncertainty). Because of this uncertainty that the men face, they are said to be less motivated to be invested in child rearing. These different inclinations have led to a difference in gender roles. Therefore, it was mostly the men who left the home and travelled long distances in order to make a fortune. Women accordingly stayed in the house and took care of the children. Essentially, the man’s role was to be the breadwinner and the woman’s role was to make sure that the bread went into the mouths of their children.

However, not all women stayed behind, and the few women who were able to hop onto the Gold Rush wagon made a significant impact. As JoAnn Levy’s They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush shows, women had a civilizing influence on men, bringing a sense of order and

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Schools in Sacramento had more than 500 students by 1854 (from “They Saw the Elephant”)

society. Women promoted charities, fundraisers, and benevolent organizations. Margaret De Witt was one of many women who organized a fund-raiser to help pay for San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church. In her letters to home, she wrote that the ladies “formed a sewing society to make articles, to sell for the debt on the church.” Many women were also pioneers in the establishment of schools and hospitals. The rising influence of women during this time also allowed the women to accomplish certain goals such as enforcing Sabbath Observance. On Sundays men would drink all day, play poker, and engage in fights with one another; but women such as Deborah Mulford effectively brought these barbaric men to discontinue such acts.

Some of the women’s roles included boarding house keepers, missionaries, musicians and actresses, church builders, schoolteachers, and even mule riders. One Mexican woman was even a bullfighter. But women also made money simply by cooking, sewing, cleaning, ironing, washing, dancing, pouring drinks etc. And women did surprisingly well doing so; many earned as much, and many times more than, the average miner. Basically if women had even the slightest experience with cooking (say, dumping some meat and potatoes in boiling water and serving them on a slab of wood), she was in business. There was no need for elaborate recipes or extravagant dishes. Men’s desperate desire for food prepared by women allowed their cooking to be highly valued.

Accurate portrayal of the varying roles

The gender imbalance allowed women to look beyond just a man’s wealth. As a result, they were harder to please. One woman in the Bay Area mining scene of 1849 described her frustrating experiences with men, stating “the more I see men, the more I am disgusted with them” and declaring that “they are worse too, in California, than anywhere else.” You cannot blame her. The men epitomized the rowdy characteristics of the Wild West. Most were single, young, naive, and looking for adventure. When they did not have their hands in the dirt, they were involved with gambling, fist fights, and taking advantage of prostitution. Although there was a huge gender ratio difference in the women’s favor, most of the men, though sufficiently wealthy, were just not responsible enough for women to be attracted to. The seemingly uncivilized nature of Gold Rush men could very well have allowed women to have a greater impact on society.

Because women were so few, there was great demand for them. The women knew this and thus were able to be quite nitpicky with their husbands. One such woman created an advertisement for herself, placing very high standards. She demanded a man who was educated and had a savings of $20,000 (around $600,000 in today’s money). She disregarded her age and her appearance, two things that are, by evolutionary standards, crucial for mate selection. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that men prioritize these two qualities because age and appearance are good indications of reproductive success and good health of the offspring. Thus men are adapted to be attracted to women with traits that exhibit their youth and fecundity. Yet because a woman was so valued because of her scarcity, she was able to ignore these aspects about her when trying to obtain a husband. Sophia is another example of a woman with high standards; she denied one man’s proposal, stating, “If he is not able to build a house, & give me a good comfortable home then I had better not marry him.” If a woman is to marry a man, there must be some compelling asset the man must possess. One approved man built a mansion for her wife. Another woman named Abigail agreed to marry a man who not only had a ranch worth a half million dollars, but who was educated and shared her interest in books. A woman’s value was therefore exceptionally high.

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One man flaunting his woman to the rest of the envious miners (from “They Saw the Elephant”)

Another huge progression was women’s ability to divorce, which they took advantage of to a great extent. Because of women’s scarcity, judges may have very well been willing to accept divorce files in efforts to try to increase the pool of women who were single. By her own digression a woman could simply jump from one man to the next, enjoying what each man had to offer her. And such high divorce rates kept the lawyers preoccupied. This freedom of swapping husbands created jealousy in some men. In one of her letters, Martha Hitchcock writes about her husband, saying, “quite recovered from his jealous fit- I hope he is ashamed of it- I am ashamed of it, for him.”

The Gold Rush certainly displayed a transcending of standards. Women were able to assume jobs they normally would not have been able to possess. They wielded an unusual amount of freedom, particularly with the ability to divorce. Women had the freedom to obtain as much wealth as men. Women were also guaranteed the right to their own property, freeing them of the dependency on their husbands. In one of his letters, lawyer John McCrackan explains that women are considered equal and thus have the entitlement to half of the profits, and can rightfully sue her husband for them.

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One of John McCrackan’s letters to his family (artifact from Bancroft Library in Berkeley, CA)

One man during this period admitted “We look upon woman as the only agent that can rescue us amid the… quicksands that surrounds us.” Although not as many men are willing to admit this so freely, women had indeed kept the men restrained. Women took full advantage of the freedom they possessed, and used it to benefit the society. Gold Rush women were really the unsung heroes in the Bay Area. They dug deeper and struck a different treasure: equality.


404 Error: No Women Found

A more recent example of such progress in woman’s roles can be seen today in the tech industry.

The tech industry is generally viewed as an industry filled with nerdy computer science majors who code all day: all of them male. Because of this conception, women are dissuaded from joining such an environment. But women bring important contributions to the tech community. These contributions are becoming noticed and are slowly allowing the women to trickle in to the tech industry. And the tech industry is not the only one benefitting; women too can benefit from being in the tech industry. The big imbalance in gender ratio exposes women to a great number of men, giving them more options for a romantic relationship.

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The gender ratio disparity should first be addressed. Evolutionary psychologists can explain the discrepancy of men and women in various job positions due to the difference in biological characteristics between the genders. According to Cambridge psychologist and researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, men have brains designed for systemizing, that is to say for analyzing and exploring (beneficial for careers in medical surgery, scientific research, and engineering). The adaptation of this brain type allowed men to invent and craft tools and weapons for hunting and/or for interpersonal violence. Men also tend to be more competitive; through evolution, men who were more competitive had better success in mate selection, outcompeting other men for limited resources to provide for the family. In contrast, women have brains designed for empathizing, for effectively discerning someone’s emotions and thoughts and reacting appropriately (advantageous for jobs in teaching, nursing, and management). This brain type was advantageous in the ancestral environment since it allowed women to effectively understand an infant’s needs and form friendships with others living in a different area. Women tend to be more nurturing, and as such tend to be less competitive and risk-taking. Because women generally have type E brains and are less risk-taking, less status-seeking, and less competitive, not as many women are in industries like tech, which require these traits to be successful. In Gender, Earnings, and Proportions of Women: Lessons from a High-Tech Occupation, Ranson and Reeves show data providing evidence that women computer professionals indeed do less well than men in income and job status. Many high paying jobs like those in the tech industry require lots of hours, relocation between cities, and competition for promotion, which would further conflict with a mother’s ultimate evolutionary role of devoting her energy towards her children.

The two types of brains by the standards of evolutionary psychology

And the statistics support Baron-Cohen’s affirmation. According to one executive summary from the Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA), an agency within the United States Department of Commerce, women occupy nearly half (48%) of all jobs in the U.S economy, but hold only 24% of STEM jobs. All things constant, we should expect twice as many women to represent jobs in STEM.  ESA also shows that this tendency has not changed since the past decade. Even if women do earn a STEM degree only 26% of these women have STEM occupations. Women STEM majors are twice as likely as men STEM majors to go into the healthcare and education. The evidence that even women who have a STEM degree go into healthcare and education instead seems to validate Baron-Cohen’s claim that women are more suited for professions in education and nursing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the 2015 data of occupations by sex and race. The jobs that have a majority of women are: childcare workers (94.9%), education administrators (65.7%), medical and health services managers (73.7%), social workers (83.8%), and secretary and administrative assistants (94.5%).

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There is no denying that there is a tendency of occupation discrepancy by gender. But there are endless factors that can be a result of this. Biology does seem to have its impact, but there are other reasons for this as well. Strong gender stereotypes may dissuade women from pursuing such STEM jobs. The lack of female STEM role models can also attribute. Because women have to assume the responsibilities of a mother as well, it could be that STEM jobs are not as accommodating in terms of time flexibility.

Research conducted by Else-Quest, Linn, and Hyde explored the different mathematical capabilities of men and women, using more than 400,000 students age 14-16 from 69 countries. The meta-analysis shows that girls are not worse at math than boys. Despite this however, girls are much less confident than boys in their math abilities.Confidence is important in gaining motivation to do well, and this lack of confidence could explain the scarcity of women in the STEM field. Else-Quest claims, “these results show that girls will perform at the same level of boys when they are given the right educational tools and have visible role models excelling in mathematics.” Thus it cannot be sufficiently proven that women are biologically incapable of certain jobs. Instead, encouragement to these girls is needed to give them a greater chance in pursuing and succeeding in STEM.

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This narrowing funnel continues to “weed out” women in each step of their career much more drastically than it does to men

There are exceptions of course to Baron-Cohen’s claims: not all women are uncompetitive and not all have empathetic brains. It may be reasonable to assume that all women in the tech industry have type S brains. But the tech industry does not just have programming jobs. Many other positions in the tech industry are greatly benefitted by the employment of women, particularly in the management and customer service department. Because of their type E brains, women bring communication skills, empathy, and social awareness. They essentially save the men from being plastered to the screens, void of any human connection. In Kim Malone Scott’s novel Virtual Love (which is largely autobiographical and thus based on reality), Virginia lands a managerial job at Google, and has great success. She is not only able to effectively communicate with the engineers around her, but also to provide personal and social advice for her employees. Because Virginia is empathetic, her male and female employees go to Virginia to discuss their personal matters and not to other male co-workers. Virginia additionally comes up with bonding events for the team, and the Monday morning staff meetings she leads become much more personal and inviting. The feminine characteristics of Virginia were a welcome change that helped bring the team closer together, something that may not have happened if the manager were a typical male software engineer who got promoted.

Virginia’s assets as a woman in the tech industry are not exclusive to this novel. Research shows that companies/ teams with women in management positions perform better financially. Herring investigated 500 U.S. businesses and determined that the companies with greater gender diverse teams had greater sales revenue and market share than did less diverse companies. One research study investigated the effects of gender-based teams on innovation and productivity by studying 669 people working in groups of 2-5 people. They found that the team’s collective “general intelligence” (a psychological term that measures the general ability to perform a wide variety of tasks) rose with a higher proportion of women. This is suggested to be due to women’s higher performance in tasks that require social sensitivity. One executive summary examined 1,400 team members from 100 teams at 21 companies. The summary shows that the gender-balanced teams were more likely to be creative, share ideas, and fulfill tasks. Yet another study investigated the benefits of gender diversity on research and development (R&D) sector, studying 272 projects at four companies. The research has found that once again gender diverse teams displayed greater performance in adhering to project schedules, lowering project costs, increasing employee performance ratings, and increasing employee pay bonuses. Thus, having gender diversity proves greatly beneficial to business performance.

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source: McKinsey & Company
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source: an executive summary from the London Business School

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In particular, having women employees in the tech industry presents an even greater advantage. Intel researcher Genevieve Bell reports in Australia’s Radio National that women are the ones consuming the most technology. Bell states, “women are the fastest category and biggest users on every social networking site with the exception of LinkedIn.” Accordingly, women use the Internet 17% more every month than men and are the vast majority of Internet enabled devices. Thus, because of such huge usage in the female demographic, it only makes sense for tech industries to focus on them when making consumer-based products. Usage, interface, and marketing should all be focused on women. One article review claims, “[women] account for $4.3 trillion of total U.S. consumer spending of $5.9 trillion, making women the largest single economic force not just in the United States, but in the world.”

What better way for tech industries to evaluate what women want than to actually hire some and identify first-hand?

Because women are so few in the tech industry, they have the luxury of raising their standards. In Virtual Love, Virginia has a wide variety of romantic options and thus has the ability to be nitpicky, looking beyond wealth and high status in men (the two primary characteristics that evolutionary psychologists claim women seek). Max, Virginia’s ex-boyfriend, is an incredibly prosperous manager of a hedge fund, who also happens to have pheromones that drive Virginia crazy. Caleb is a shepherd and cook at Google, a hottie with impeccable thighs. George is the director of Adsense, a generous man who can provide emotional support. Evolutionary psychologists claim that women value status and wealth of a male as the biggest determinant of mate selection, since this indicates a man’s potential to provide resources for the family. But if it were just about wealth, Virginia would have accepted Max’s proposal and chosen him over the others. Because of a lack of women, she is able to seek something much greater than wealth in a man. She keeps her options open and flirts with all three, being very critical on trivial matters. Keep in mind that this is a novel, and it is very possible that some of these characters and their personalities could have been altered to make the story more dramatic. Still, the author has been in the tech industry and thus the story should merit some degree of accuracy.

Because their scarcity has allowed women to set higher standards for men, women can be quite critical of their options. Thus, not all of their experiences with men are pleasant. One woman describes in an article her unpleasant experiences dating immature guys in the tech industry. Not much can be helped when a typical day at their office consists of nerf-gun fights, unlimited snacks, slides instead of elevators, and a virtually nonexistent dress code. Men dominate much of the tech industry and thus workers have very minimal interaction with females.

Stereotypical tech industry setting that many think of

With the ability for females to become financially independent of males, we see a difference in what is held important. One study investigated the qualities that males and females most wanted in each other. They found that with greater power equality, the more similar were their desired traits for one another. This essentially means that men place less emphasis on youth and fertility, and women place less emphasis on wealth and status. The rise of women’s education and work has changed the dynamics of marriage, as women now seem to delay marriage until financially stable. Women will then look for emotional support, seeking a man who is supportive, romantic, and helpful at home. Virginia in Virtual Love also displays this tendency to seek a man for more than just his wealth. She is already in her 30’s and has not been married yet; instead, she is constantly talking about a soul-mate and waiting to find the right man. She proclaims “But if I want to get married I want to be because I want to be with the man for the rest of my life.” When Virginia to her grandmother on the phone, she says that money is not the point, but love and freedom. Indeed, she seems to be seeking something much more profound than just a man’s wealth.

The second word, freedom, is also something that should be brought to attention. Virginia’s biggest reason against marriage is that she is afraid starting a family will hinder her work life, effectively bring it to an end. This concern is becoming more apparent as more women are choosing to delay marriage, and even forego it altogether. In Ansari’s Modern Romance, his interview  in a New York City retirement community shows that the average age of marriage for an older generation woman was around twenty. Today the average hovers around 27-30 years old. Previously, women would get married because it was viewed as the first stage in adulthood. Ansari suggests that during this time, “marriage was the easiest way of acquiring the basic freedoms of adulthood,” as it liberates these women from the parents. But now, women have many other options in seeking their freedom. Women now have the ability to attend a university and receive a degree, allowing women to obtain prestigious job positions.

The pursuit of greater marital expectations coupled with the heavier emphasis on careers has allowed women to delay marriage and continue to seek her desires, whether it be a job or a more suitable husband. Evolutionary psychologists would suggest that a woman’s youth is a crucial factor in mate selection, but we see women doing perfectly fine in marrying later than their most fertile years. Women are thus no longer limited in their age to seek husbands.

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Trend of delaying marriage (from “Modern Romance”)

The tech boom has fostered a transcend from old standards, changing the work culture to a much more inviting one and contributing to a different dating scene in which women are severely limited and thus high valued. Women are able to obtain positions in the tech industry because they now have unrestricted opportunity to get a degree and obtain great jobs in the tech industry. We are seeing that women like Virginia are able to place greater focus on their careers, further increasing the chances of women obtaining high positioned jobs.

Although few in number, women introduce skills that many men in the tech industry are lacking. The character of Virginia shows that women are indeed qualified in understanding all of the coding jargon of male programmers. Because the values of hiring women in the tech industry are becoming apparent, more women should be motivated to challenge the standards of tech industry employment. Virginia is also characteristic of women choosing to place greater emphasis on their careers instead of on marriage and children, a drastic transcend from the evolutionary role of women.


On the surface the Gold Rush and the Tech Boom seem to have little correlation with one another. Despite the relatively small focus on women during these periods, they have drastically progressed from their ancestral roles and exhibited great benefits to society. This phenomena of economic upheaval resulting in women’s progression is not unique to these two periods. World War II is another example of a time of economic upheaval, where the mobilization of male soldiers allowed women to fill in the gaps and assume the jobs that were normally reserved for men. Rosie the Riveter is the perfect icon of women who began to don overalls and assume physically strenuous jobs.

Times of economic upheaval not only enhances women’s  potential for economic success, but also enhances women’s potential for romantic success. Thus changing of the economy plays a crucial role in changing the standards and expectations of social norms. Although the claims of evolutionary psychology can still be supported, during times of economic upheaval there seems to be a deviation of those claims. The transcend of women’s roles is achieved and accepted quite so easily; like any big transformation, there was/is resistance and reluctance. During these transitional periods, many women must exhibit a double burden of responsibilities, having to accept the responsibilities of both work and home.

Women have come a long way from their ancestral roles. This statement is in no way attempting to undermine or sugarcoat the discrimination that is still present. There is still a glass ceiling that hampers many women from climbing any higher on the social ladder. Also, only women in the Bay Area were discussed; women in other cultures and societies may be at very different stages in their socioeconomic status. But if Bay Area women are able to strive for greatness despite biological inhibitions, any and all women are capable of defying their evolutionary limitations.




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