Saturday, April 3, 2010

Myth of Mars and Venus

I've found myself in an ongoing discussion with a coworker on the topic of men and women that grew into a conversation on whether men and women are more similar than they are different. I've always been intrigued by this compare and contrast between girls and boys/women and men, in terms of behavior, performance in verbal or math exams, etc. It's a popular topic. Scores of studies set out to observe differences, from how men and women interact in a controlled setting to neurological studies of men's and women's brains.

No, men and women aren't completely the same but they're more similar than different. The Difference Myth examines studies that claim innate verbal ability in girls/innate math and science ability in boys and discusses issues with how experiments were carried out or that results showing differences were significantly overemphasized. It also notes that variation within each gender is far larger than differences between men and women.

I've been reading Myths of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages by Deborah Cameron. It raises thought provoking insights and Cameron argues her points mostly through evidence, though she is guilty of illustrating a few points with anecdotes. She notes an all important point -- go back and study work cited directly, whether it's from a book, an article, or TV report.

Interestingly she addresses a claim I had read in several books: That women on average speak far more words than men each day. The book The Female Brain states the daily difference as 20,000 uttered words by women compared to 7,000 by men. A professor of phonetics, a Mark Liberman, found there was no scientific basis for this or any similar claim (19-20).

I would've liked Cameron's book to have been more in depth but it did provide good breadth -- from history (western perspective) of how women and men started to be perceived as communicating differently, to studying male/female differences in various contexts and cultures to alleged explanations of these differences (brain, genetics, evolution). It's a good starting point.

It's limiting to focus on differences between sexes because it breeds expectations that in turn discriminate against what's right for women or men to pursue as a career or path. It also takes away from the influence of culture and context. Much more is at play than simply someone's gender.

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