Women Behind the Wheel

The internet is currently aflame with debate over (just fired) Google engineer James Damore’s “anti-diversity” memo or manifesto (Gizmodo; Motherboard; Medium), containing the incendiary suggestion that:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership.

and the corollary that:

Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.1

This post considers one of the most curious instances of an apparent Talmudic assumption of a “difference in distribution” of a particular characteristic between men and women (although as we shall see, the nature of the characteristic in question is unclear), and its concomitant halachic significance.

The Talmud rules:

ת”ר השוכר את החמור לרכוב עליה איש לא תרכב עליה אשה אשה רוכב עליה איש ואשה בין גדולה ובין קטנה אפילו מעוברת ואפילו מניקה2
בבא מציעא עט:‏

The clear implication is that female riders place more strain, or cause more wear, on donkeys than do male ones, although the Talmud, and (so far as I am aware) the medieval commentaries, are silent as to exactly why this is the case. The Sema gives the startling interpretation that “[a woman] is heavier [than a man]”:

לא ירכיב עליה אשה. שהיא כבידה:3

This explanation is problematic, on two counts. Firstly:

“Males weigh about 15% more than females, on average. For those older than 20 years of age, males in the US have an average weight of 86.1 kg (190 lbs), whereas females have an average weight of 74 kg (163 lbs).”

It is possible (actually, very probable) that this is at least somewhat culturally dependent. Even if we assume that there’s a natural, inherent disparity in average weight between men and women, this can surely be affected by factors in which cultural variations between genders exist, and vary across societies and eras, such as diet, physical activity and aesthetic preferences about body image. Perhaps, then, in the Talmudic era women actually were heavier, on average, than men, even though this is not the case today. [We know, after all, that women of that period actually preferred to look “fleshy”4, in stark contrast to the modern Thin Ideal.] If this is the case, however, we would expect poskim to note that these halachos do not apply, or actually apply in reverse, in contemporary times.

Secondly, even if we do assume that women of the Talmudic era were indeed heavier than men, this was presumably only true of the average, but surely there were many men who weighed more than many women. Since one who rents his donkey for use by a man is (presumably – see below) willing to allow any man to ride it, he should also be presumed to allow those women who weigh less than men to ride it. To this we can counter that the halachah establishes general rules, even if they sometimes result in illogical consequences. Since in general women are (or were) heavier than men, we presume that one who rents his donkey for use by a man means to limit it to such use, even though some of the allowed riders will be heavier than some of the disallowed ones.

In any event, this second objection was raised by the eighteenth century Italian Rav David Pardo:

ובטעמא דלא ירכיב אשה לא פירש”י ולא מידי ובחו”מ סימן הנזכר פירש הסמ”ע לפי שהיא כבידה ואני שמעתי ולא אבין מאי פסקא דאטו לא משכחת איש גדול ושמן ואשה קטנה וכחושה ואפילו הכי סתמא תנא לא ירכיב אשה אפילו קטנה

ונראה דהאי טעמא משום דסתם אשה אינה בקיאה ברכיבה ואינה יודעת וגם אינה בת דעת כל כך להשגיח להנהיגו יפה בדרך כבושה ושמא יתקלקל בהליכתו בדרך עקלתון או כיוצא בזה וכן נראה שהבין ריב”א הביאו המרדכי בפרק הנזכר וז”ל

פסק ריב”א דכל שכן אם הרכיב עליו גוי דגרע מאשה כי אינו חס על ממונו של ישראל ע”כ

מזה נראה דאשה נמי מהאי טעמא הוא לפי שאין לה דעת להקפיד ולהשגיח לחוס עליו שלא יוזק ומשום הכי אתי שפיר דאשה מרכיב עליה איש ואפילו גדול וכבד דהא מדקאמר אשה סתם היה יכול להרכיב אפילו גדולה וכבדה ביותר אם כן כשמרכיב איש על כל פנים עלויי קא מעלי ליה מטעמא דאמרן …5

In other words, R. Pardo understands that women are poorer drivers than men: they are less proficient, and have inferior judgment.

A major ramification of the varying interpretations of the Sema and R. Pardo is the halachah’s relevance to automobile rentals. According to the Sema, it would presumably not apply, since the relatively minor weight difference between males and females is insignificant in the context of automobiles. According to R. Pardo, however, the situation is less clear. Conventional wisdom stereotypes women as bad drivers, but the evidence is actually somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the statistics show that in general, male drivers cause more accidents than do female drivers. But on the other hand, this may be wholly or partially due to the fact that the former drive far more than the latter. Furthermore, at least one famous study found that women are actually overrepresented in certain types of crashes (although exactly why this is so is not entirely clear, and may even be caused by “common stereotypical expectations” that the drivers have of each other):

While men and women often disagree about which gender has better driving skills, a new study by the University of Michigan may shed some light on the debate.

Using data from a nationally representative sample of police-reported crashes from 1988 to 2007, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the U-M Transportation Research Institute studied the gender effects in six different crash scenarios (based on crash angles, direction of approach and speed). These two-vehicle crash scenarios included various maneuvers in which one vehicle turned in front of the other, one vehicle side-swiped the other or both vehicles collided head-on. …

Sivak and Schoettle compared the actual frequencies of different combinations of involved male and female drivers in the six crash scenarios with the expected frequencies if there were no gender differences. The expected frequencies were based on annual distance driven for personal travel by male and female drivers. Because men drive about 60 percent of those annual miles and women drive 40 percent, men are expected to be involved in a higher percentage of crashes for each scenario, road conditions and driving skills being equal.

But the researchers found that crashes involving two female drivers were overrepresented in five of the six crash scenarios, including two by at least 50 percent more and two others by more than 25 percent greater than what was expected. On the other hand, crashes involving two male drivers were underrepresented in four of the six scenarios, including two by more than 20 percent and another by just less than 20 percent. In crash scenarios involving both male and female drivers, actual frequencies tended to be close to the expected frequencies.

“The results indicate that in certain crash scenarios, male-to-male crashes tend to be underrepresented and female-to-female crashes tend to be overrepresented,” Sivak said.

“This pattern of results could be due to either differential gender exposure to the different scenarios, differential gender capabilities to handle specific scenarios or differential expectations of actions by other drivers based on their gender.”

In all, success in handling on-road conflicts depends not only on psychomotor ability but also on the outcome of complex social interactions between traffic participants. In turn, these interactions are influenced by expectations based on prior experience “and a set of common stereotypical expectations that drivers have concerning the behavior of male and female drivers.”

A mini-haburah that I delivered a couple of years ago (partially) on this topic is available at the Internet Archive. A follow-up post will, בג”ה, deal with the propriety of women driving in general, beyond the context of rented conveyances.

  1. This controversy is reminiscent of the one of a decade ago over Larry Summer’s hypothesis (inter alia) that “different availability of aptitude at the high end” may explain “the very substantial disparities … with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions.” []
  2. בבא מציעא עט:‏ []
  3. סמ”ע ריש סימן ש”ח []
  4. שבת ריש נז:‏ []
  5. חסדי דוד (חלק שני) שם פרק ד’ (עמוד לג.) ד”ה השוכר את החמור להרכיב איש []