Tuesday, 9 October 2007

'Studies have shown' precisely sod all

Deborah Cameron has written a book entitled The Myth of Mars and Venus, published last week by Oxford University Press. As she explains in an interview in The Times today, men and women are all from Earth, but perhaps John Gray is from Uranus.

Extracts from this book appear in The Guardian. I was going to provide lots of choice quotes, but it's all so fascinating, insightful and comprehensive that I felt like quoting all of it, so you'll just have to read it for yourself. The basic premise is, women don't talk more than men - just more than the patriarchy would like them to. This is what I've always suspected and it's great to see it in print.

This table presents a realistic picture of what scientific research has actually discovered about the differences between men and women, where 'd' is the value of overall gender difference: minus values indicate that women are ahead of men and plus values indicate that men are ahead of women. As Cameron points out, the only reputable studies that have revealed significant differences between the sexes have measured athletic prowess and aggressiveness, at which men outperformed women. In other words, this is what you would expect from differences in muscle mass and testosterone levels, with little or nothing to do with the manner in which male and female brains are 'wired up'.

Of course, the stereotype of the grunting, knuckle-dragging buffoon is pretty insulting to men:

The literature of Mars and Venus, in both the self-help and popular science genres, is remarkably patronising towards men. They come off as bullies, petulant toddlers; or Neanderthals sulking in their caves. One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced; why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo ("Hey, wait a minute - I think he's trying to tell us something!")?

From The Guardian


An unfortunate side-effect of these patronising gender stereotypes however is that they can excuse loutish, petulant behaviour in men. As Cameron explains, this can have serious consequences:

Cameron cites one rape trial in Canada in the 1990s where the female complainant is asked: “Did it occur to you through the persistent behaviour that maybe your signals were not coming across loud and clear”, while the male complainant states simply: “She said that she was tired but she never said like ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t’.”

Cameron argues that both men and women are perfectly capable of understanding what a woman saying ‘I’m tired’ and feigning unconsciousness means, but no one thinks to ask why the defendant is being so obtuse. The complainant, on the other hand, is roasted for not being direct enough. The myth of Mars and Venus bolsters a great escape route for the defendant: miscommunication.

From The Times


So, big up to the Deborah Cameron massive. But the one major beef I have with all of this is that nobody seems to be tackling the commonly-held belief, often backed up in the same manner by dodgy sensationalist 'studies', that women can't read maps and have poor sense of direction and spatial awareness. If Cameron manages to debunk the myth that men are useless neanderthals who can't communicate but people continue to believe that women can't navigate their arse from their elbow, we could end up in a nasty situation whereby we swap rigid, equal-but-different gender stereotypes for perceived male superiority. Perhaps there's another book in the pipeline. I hope so.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that all of these differences between the sexes are minute, with far more variation between people regardless of gender than between the genders themselves. But as Cameron explains, "A book called Men and Women Understand Each Other Pretty Well Most of the Time isn’t going to sell too many copies, is it?”

Alas, Deborah, you've hit the nail on the head. Newspapers, magazines, books and documentaries don't tell you the truth. They tell you what you want to hear. And people want to hear that women can't read maps and men need to be more 'in touch with their feelings', whatever that means. I work in the media. I know how this works. You go for the most exciting stories, which doesn't necessarily correlate with the most accurate representation of what's actually going on. And if someone's produced a bollocks study, for example, deciding that the female love of pink is genetically hardwired by asking 208 people what their favourite colours are, this is the sort of thing that readers will salivate over. The media ignores the thousands of other, more reputable studies that prove that there's not much difference between the sexes because it's not what the readers want. That's not what sells papers or improves viewing figures. Nobody wants to read that women are capable of parallel parking or that men are capable of picking up their own dirty socks. Actual news is a different matter, but when it comes to features and fluff pieces, most people want to read nice, comforting drivel that confirms their own opinions, which of course were formed by such drivel in the first place.

And then people actually start living it. Who has ever been in a room full of women actually boasting about how bad their maths skills are, presumably because it somehow asserts their femininity? Likewise with men claiming not to understand anything but the clearest of entirely verbal cues. Most people who don't happen to be completely useless in the areas in which the patriarchy tells them they're supposed to be completely useless suppress their strengths. I was the only girl out of 25 in my A level maths class, and everybody at school thought I was a lesbian. Not because I displayed any 'dykeish' behaviour but because the only possible explanation for my greater aptitude for maths and science than humanities was that I was a raving carpet-muncher. Apparently heterosexual girls just didn't do maths.

Even when people genuinely want to be good at things that don't correlate with their gender roles, it's difficult. Society has been shaping their self-image since they were tiny children. Most women really do think that they can't read maps. Most men really do think that they're insensitive slobs. In some cases this is true and that's fine. But it's not fine that millions of people find it difficult to fulfil their potential because we all feel the need to pigeonhole each other.

1 comment:

justin said...

Note that professional and academic linguists have known for years that there are no statistically significant differences between male/female language use, aside from voice pitch which is dictated by vocal fold formation (and thus has to do with sex, not gender).

Similar linguistic myths include parrots fluent in English, “Eskimos” having 500 words for snow, the authority of prescriptive grammars, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the idea that Dan Brown books are good.

While Cameron’s efforts to debunk such myths in the public eye are laudable, the problem remains that belief in bogus gender differences (as espoused by false authorities) is symptomatic of a deeper form of irrationality, superstition and anti-intellectualism pervading modern society.

A more general and comprehensive advocacy of critical and scientific thinking in general is desperately needed. This would treat the cause, not the symptoms, and prevent other false and ridiculous notions from rearing their ugly heads.