Reflecting on Complementarity

per editorial

By Helen M. Alvaré
Professor of Law
George Mason University of Law
Arlington VA, USA
Consultor, Pontifical Council for the Laity


While the notion of “complementarity” between men and women is increasingly well-received in scientific and economic circles, it continues to rankle in legal and political spheres. This notion, however, figures importantly in Catholic thinking about the matter of women’s equality and dignity, and is part of Pope Francis’ invitation to assist the flourishing of women, of marriage and of the family. Consequently, it is necessary to think more about how to move the conversation on complementarity forward, taking into account both its positive and negative depictions.

For reasons of length, this essay can only suggest an initial framework. First, it will highlight some of the material in the scientific and economic literature championing men’s and women’s different, comparative strengths, and the synergy generated by combining these. Second, it will describe the “hermeneutic of suspicion” applied to complementarity, especially in the legal and political arenas touching upon family. Third, it will offer a few proposals on the subject of the Church’s speech about complementarity, given especially the likelihood that her speech on this subject will apply not only to the situation of women and men within the Church, but also to questions about the family in society.

Complementarity and Business

Even a casual review of recent literature on complementarity reveals that the concept is garnering respect and even enthusiasm in scientific and economic circles. Neurobiologists, sociologists and other scientists are finding convincing evidence of sexual differences, comparative advantages, and similarities, by means of brain scan images, and qualitative and quantitative studies of men’s and women’s habits, interactions, leadership styles, and preferences. There are more than a few recent books on the subject: Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis’ Leadership and the Sexes, Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference, Michael Gurian’s What Could He Be Thinking? , Lou Ann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, and Kathleen Kovner Kline and W. Bradford Wilcox’s, Mother Bodies, Father Bodies: How Parenthood Changes Us From the Inside Out, to name just a few. These and myriad other books and articles freely discuss the results of decades of scientific investigation. Their conclusions cannot be summarized briefly, but it can be said that they indicate differences between men and women on everything from spatial perception to problem solving techniques, context-perception, memory patterns, and rest cycles, to name just a few categories. The authors trace the origins of such differences to sources as diverse as evolution, biological construction, genes, hormonal action (from conception to death), and familial and social conditioning. The authors are careful to remind readers that these observed and measured differences are “on average” – i.e. that there are some women who are less like the average woman and have much in common with the average man, and some men who are less like the average man and have much in common with the average women. At the same time, the authors are firm that sexual differences are visible across the globe and throughout history.

It is fair to say, too, that the scientists reporting these observations are both adamant and upbeat about several matters: men’s and women’s equality in the realm of intelligence; how both sexes flourish when their specific talents are affirmed; and the synergies unleashed when the two sexes combine their talents in the family and in the workplace. For example, family scholars describe the goods of collaboration between mothers with their on-average superior ability to monitor their child’s emotional welfare, and fathers with their on-average superior methods of playful interaction and establishing discipline. Business scholars describe the good effects in the workplace when companies combine women’s generally superior ability accurately to “read” large, multi-faceted contexts, with men’s generally superior ability to manipulate discrete systems of inputs and outputs. Business authors emphasize that both successful workplace dynamics, and successful discernment of customers’ preferences, require harnessing the joint and complementary talents of male and female talents. In the words of one of the leading business consultancies in the world: “It is becoming increasingly clear that diverse perspectives and experience are critical to solving complex problems and innovating in the midst of rapidly changing conditions. In reality the question is not women or men, it’s how to ensure women and men are working together in decision-making roles.” (emphasis added).

Complementarity and the Family

In the family realm, from the beginning God united the gifts of the male and the female not only toward the creation and rearing of children, but also for their teaching one another about Christian love as the meaning of life. The academic literature considering complementarity in this realm, however, does not usually take this benign view. It is quite different from the literature in the scientific and economic realms. It rather characterizes complementarity as a means deliberately adopted by authorities in order to highlight differences between men and women for the purpose of subjugating women to men; by this means, the literature continues, the authorities seek to conclude that women’s differences render them unsuitable for the jobs, honors, powers, income, and respect enjoyed by men.

Not surprisingly then, research and writing about the goods of complementarity for families (children especially) has been slow to develop because it was declared per se hostile to women beginning in the 1960s. Today it faces a new hurdle: it is labeled per se hostile to individuals experiencing same-sex attraction who are calling for the state to recognize “same-sex marriage”. Thus, in the legal and political arenas, where arguments are truncated and sound-bites pass for engagement, complementarity has been a very dangerous platform.

Respecting women’s rights, this is not without reason. In fact, misuse of the inquiry about differences between men and women was rampant in the past, and is not entirely concluded today. Women were denied basic human rights on the grounds of their differences from men, particularly their ability to bear children. We have heard this history repeated so often -- including in John Paul II’s Letter to Women – that the account can lose its power to shock, though it should not. Simply put: where women differed from men on average, their differences were marked as weaknesses or deficiencies. They were used as a rationale for denying women both equal rights before the law and equal regard in the private sphere. Further, progress beyond this situation is still quite uneven around the world. Thus still today, caretaking as a private matter or as paid employment remains undervalued. Human interaction is often sacrificed to efficiency. Collaborative leadership models are regularly distrusted.

It will not do, therefore, to brush aside worries about using the framework of complementarity with simple assurances that the speaker means no harm, but in fact means to promote the human rights of everyone involved. Rather positive discussions of complementarity should begin with the protagonist acknowledging past misuse of the concept, and providing a roadmap excluding the possibility of fomenting unjust discrimination in the future. At the same time, the protagonist can offer today, perhaps more surely than ever in the past, a case for exploring the goods to be generated by acknowledging and developing on-average, sex-specific gifts, and for bringing them together in a single enterprise – whether in the family or in the world outside the family.

Why is the case for the good of complementarity particularly strong today? There are many reasons. One, the scientific data in this area is growing exponentially, as referenced above.

Two, acknowledgments of complementarity are coming from even previously reluctant sources. In the United States, one of the most powerful women serving the Obama administration wrote a famous and path-breaking essay about women in which she stated simply:

“It’s an indisputable fact – women and men are different in many core ways, grounded in their neurobiology and their cultural training. … So much of men and women’s behavior is programmed, hard-wired in our brains, and also culturally influenced. … More multicultural and diversity training must occur for women and men to wholly embrace their differences, and understand that it is diversity and difference that makes us stronger and more competitive.”

Three, women’s experiences over the last half-century seem to have convinced them that it is unsatisfying to attempt to be “two different people” at home and at work; they want to be their authentic selves in both places. Women therefore have a lot to gain from an acknowledgement of their unique gifts, as well as the gifts they share with men. Based upon this evidence, both employers and the state might be more easily moved to adopt policies women want.

Four, the business-case for letting complementarity flourish is getting stronger and stronger. This has application both in the Church and in non-religious enterprises. So is the case for complementarity in the family, though there is a great deal more research needed here, given the neuralgia surrounding this topic in the family arena in the past and continuing to today.

Five, respecting the family, there is increasing evidence that children’s well-being depends upon the stable, complementary contributions of both of their parents. To the extent a culture cares about the most important socializing influence there is upon children – the family -- it should care about complementarity.

Sixth and finally, so much important Catholic theology depends upon complementarity. (This is in fact true in many religious traditions around the world, but is beyond the purview of this essay). When we say that the male and female together image God; when we say that human beings are a community of persons reflecting God’s Trinitarian identity; when we say that marriage is a glimpse of the relationship between Christ and the Church; and when we say that the family is the school of love that prepares the human person to love and serve every “neighbor” he or she encounters in the world -- when we say any and all of these things – we are relying upon an understanding of complementarity.

Now is an excellent time for scholars of many disciplines to take up research and reflection on this subject of complementarity. For Catholics, this work can assist Pope Francis’ initiatives on women, as well as on marriage and the family.

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