Gender ‘differences’

Where did it come from, the belief that men and women are vastly different from each other? I’ve been pondering this since a serialisation of a book called The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? by Deborah Cameron (well, in reality I’ve been pondering this for years, but the serialisation put a bit more urgency onto it).

It’s so widely accepted, it’s almost impossible to fight against; I find it so frustrating to have "oh, that’s just like a woman" huffed back at me as an automatic response to something innocuous like "when are we meeting? Can we sort that out in advance?" – it’s taken as read that I’m being an anal little woman, instead of looking at the possibility that maybe I have other things to do… because that’s what women do, isn’t it; we nag and fuss and create straight-jacketed plans. That’s right. Half of the population acting the same way, only requiring one reaction. It didn’t use to be like this; five years ago I’m sure I recall having normal conversations on the same level of understanding. But somehow, when I hit my late twenties, someone slipped the invisible mantle of ‘nagging woman’ around my neck.

The gender language-split belief also doesn’t do men any favours. Let me take this bit of the book:

    ‘In a section of his book which explains how to ask men to do things, Gray [John Gray, author of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus] says that women should avoid using indirect requests. For instance, they should not signal that they would like a man to bring in the shopping by saying, ‘The groceries are in the car’: they should ask him directly, by saying, ‘Would you bring in the groceries?’ Another mistake women make is to formulate requests using the word ‘could’ rather than ‘would’. "’Could you empty the trash?’," says Gray, "is merely a question gathering information. ‘Would you empty the trash?’ is a request."

    "Gray seems to be suggesting that men hear utterances such as ‘Could you empty the trash?’ as purely hypothetical questions about their ability to perform the action mentioned. But that is a patently ridiculous claim. No competent user of English would take ‘Could you empty the trash?’ as ‘merely a question gathering information’, any more than they would take ‘Could you run a mile in four minutes?’ as a polite request to start running."

If I were a man, I would find it incredibly patronising that this myth is actually propagating the idea that I’m incapable of identifying the minutae of language. ‘Hey, guys, you’re so stupid you can’t even tell when something’s a question! You need to be spoken to like children!’ And any man who hides behind that myth as an excuse not to do any chores ("I’m sorry, dear, I really didn’t understand (ho ho ho)") deserves to be horsewhipped for going along with it. This is the springboard for all those stupid self-help books that teach women to regard men as simpletons ("you can catch your man if you follow these rules, because they are morons who are easily outwitted"); the end result of which is female contempt for men in general and the inevitable further widening of the gender divide – all because of a false starting premise.

(Deborah Cameron actually goes on to illustrate the more sinister elements of the ‘miscommunication’ myth by looking at a rape case, where the actual word ‘no’ wasn’t used but, as she points out, "You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that someone who feigns unconsciousness while in bed with you probably doesn’t want to have sex." If men are generally accepted to be unable to deal with ‘indirect’ communication, that puts all the responsibility back onto women. Ah, the joy.)

Here comes the science… I’m sure everyone’s heard of studies that ‘prove’ women talk more than men, that men interrupt less than women yadda yadda. This stuff gets picked up by the media because it fits our preconceptions and makes for an easy story, like the whole "girls are programmed by evolution to like pink" shite a few months ago, when actually the whole girls/pink boys/blue thing is a relatively recent social construction and doesn’t even remain consistent around the world. When you actually look at a range of studies examining gender communication, as psychologist Janet S Hyde did, to look aggregate outcomes, there’s very little difference at all (see the results; the second column, value of ‘d’, indicates the overall size of gender difference found. The third column tells you in words what the overall size of gender difference was, if you’re not good with numbers).

So the myth is just that – a myth. And if you stopped and thought about it for any length of time you wouldn’t need the scientific studies anyway. If men and women communicate so differently how on earth do we ever manage to work together, to form lasting relationships and bring up (relatively) psychologically-unscarred children together, to sit round a pub table together and actually talk?

And yet people buy into it. Why? It’s not doing any of us any favours by creating these artificial barriers. I’m not going to wander off into discussions of patriarchy and the idea that the myth is deliberately constructed to keep women into the ‘caring’ (ie, talky and lower paid) professions; I don’t like conspiracy theories at the best of times and I just don’t think it’s relevant here – this is more a publishing phenomenon jumped on by people looking to make a fast buck and ramped up by a gawping and unquestioning media. But it’s bollocks. Join the revolution, my friends…

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One response to “Gender ‘differences’

  1. Nick October 22, 2007 at 10:25 am

    I’m currently studying exactly this sort of thing under the guise of Anthropology and Gender Theory. Starting premise is tearing apart the whole “Men From etc.” claims and showing how they are complete and utter bollocks.
    The problem is is when inate differences are blown out of proportion and used to justify a far wider range of things that their actual effect.
    Have a look at this article: http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9762790
    You may find it interesting.

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