Are Men and Women Really Different?

Does part of self-actualization or self-knowledge have to do with pondering, at least  every once in a while, whether men and women are really different?

My parents bent over backwards to give me all the same opportunities as my three older brothers. I can’t count how many times my dad told me, “You can do anything the boys can do.” I believed him then, and other than realizing the hard way (i.e., many childhood injuries from playing with boys) that I’ll never match men’s physical strength, I still believe now that I can do anything boys can do. As I’ve written before, my parents gave me the self-confidence where I thought of myself as Mighty M, my graduate school softball nickname.

As my responsibilities as a teacher, mentor and scholar grew, however, I began to wonder if I wasn’t missing something important by considering whether men and women are different psychologically. Talking about whether men and women are different can often be a delicate subject because it’s easy to stereotype or exaggerate the differences between the sexes. It’s also hard to talk about sex differences without implying a value judgement–such as that the masculine way of being is better than the feminine way of being, or vice-versa. Because of these pitfalls, for a long time, I put aside questions of differences between the sexes and  I tried to treat everyone the same.

However, as I’ve noted in a previous blog post on the dignity of women at work, I slowly realized that women colleagues and women graduate students seemed to suffer more from the social isolation inherent in so much academic work. Sex differences, I slowly realized, don’t stop at physical strength, sex differences can also be seen in our psychological makeup as men and women.

In terms of professions, I still believe what my parents told me: I can do any profession a man can do. As I’ve written about before on BW&G, Edith Stein’s writings on professional women have greatly inspired me to fight to keep my place in academic and to do my work as a woman–by which I mean acknowledging that part of my makeup as  woman makes me more nurturing and relational than most of my male colleagues. I see women’s ability to nurture as one strength we bring to the workplace and our interactions with students.

Recently, I got up the guts to tell a  male professor who has been one my mentors for nearly 8 years about my thoughts about men and women being different. I think that because sex differences are often used to keep women from getting ahead, I had encountered a lot of resistance–mostly from women–to talking about sex differences. At the same time, however, many other women were so excited to have this conversation, as they sensed they were different than men but didn’t know how to express it.

This male colleague told me, “You know, we have to get beyond the whole nature versus nurture debate about men and women. Clearly it’s both.” So clearly I’m not saying that all the differences we see between men and women are rooted in biology; nor am I saying that biology is destiny.

But I am saying that having an open discussion about differences between men and women will be productive. Why? First of all, acknowledging that I’m a woman, not a man, has helped me live my role as a professor. If, as I have realized over time, students expect me to be more understanding and compassionate than a man 30 years older than me, I can use that opportunity to nurture.

In my discussions with that same male colleague he said, “Gee, I want to be nurturing but I need to be around women so they can show me how!” This comment reflects a positive approach towards gender complementarity–men and women can and should learn from each other.

In my replies to Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic about professional women and families,  I reflected on what it might mean to have it all. Knowing what we want, knowing what will make us happy, I think, requires knowing something about our particular sex. In upcoming posts, I’ll explore this issue by reflecting on some readings and discussions I have had with other women in recent years.

For example, do men and women have particular strengths and weaknesses, or particular virtues and vices? Although I’ve noted that women often lack self-confidence in the workplace, they can also have incredible courage.

Do men and women have different communication styles? Men often engage in what Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen calls report-talk, whereas women tend to engage more often in rapport-talk. In other words, men’s communication tends towards relating facts whereas women more often express feelings in their conversations.

Speaking of conversations, I hope this conversation with my readers about whether men and women are really different is a helpful one. I realize not all of us will agree, but it’s often by expressing our differences and engaging with others who think differently that our own thinking can progress.

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  • George Yancey

    This is a difficult conversation for us to have. I do believe that men are different than women in more than the physical but do not want such beleifs about difference to hold women back. It can be real dangerous for individuals to use information that men and women differ to discriminate in a situation where those differences are not relevant or where the woman or man is an exception to that difference. On the other hand if men and women are truly different then we have to reconsider expectations that in an egalitarian society that one group or the other will not be underrepersented in certain social positions. Because we have been so afraid to discuss this subject we do not have reasonable expectations about men and women which can create problems. But I hope that in time scholars can have such a conversation in an open and nonthreathening way. Thanks for addressing this topic which I know is hard to write about.

    • Thanks, George. I totally agree that ideas about differences between men and women can sometimes be used to hold women back. But I finally realized that to ignore that some differences are real is also not the way to go. I do find this hard to write about because I’m so afraid of being mis-intepreted or critiqued, but I hope that we can have an open, honest and productive conversation as you say.

  • Ted Seeber

    I am convinced that the DSM-IV and the DSM-V have inappropriately labeled some stereotypical male behavior as autistic.

    That is not to detract from my own diagnosis of High Functioning Autism (aka Asperger’s Syndrome). But it does explain why more male children are often labeled ADD, ADHD, and HFA. And also why, in the end, only 40% of Bachelor’s Degrees are earned by men.

    • I’m not an expert in the exact issues you raise, but it is important to be cautious in applying diagnoses like ADD, etc.

  • Kev

    There are differences between men and women. I’ll start with a couple of anecdotal stories.

    First, there’s my son. While my wife (a stay-at-home mom) spends the most time with him, and when my in-laws and my parents visit, it’s usually his grandmas who spend the next most time with him, he still gravitates towards the men. He is a daddy’s boy and 2nd most favorites are his grandpas. When he plays, even with girls, he plays a certain way. Some of it is that men tend to be hierarchical — we talk about winning, losing. Who is better (even if it’s just our sports teams). Who is the top dog, who is the boss, who’s in charge. I understand that women are much more egalitarian amongst each other. My daughter also gravitated on colors (she preferred the purples and pinks — like “I won’t wear it unless it’s purple or pink”) even by age 1 much and my son picked up on these when he was more like 5 or 6.

    The previous president of Harvard, Larry Summers, tried to talk about gender differences and science. Unfortunately it was interpreted by some to keep women back, or to hold them down, when he merely pointed out gender differences. He told the story that he tried to be “gender neutral” when raising his daughter, giving her trucks as well as dolls; yet she would talk about “mommy truck” and “daddy truck” and “baby truck.”

    There are some marked differences about being men and women. Even in our nightmares or the things that worry us. When I was first married, I had heard that a common thing that men worry about is how to provide for their families — like REALLY makes them worry. And it comes across that they might be more fixated on money or wanting to sell things rather than give them away.

    Another point of data is from Emerson Eggerich’s book “Love and Respect.” Husbands and men really want to be respected. Sometimes they assume that everyone else is that way. I remember my dad would be furious if I was disrespectful towards my mother or relative. On the flip side, wives and women really want to be loved and cherished.

    I’ll copy and paste some notes I took a decade ago on some inherent differences in worldview.

    Male Worldview: Competitive
    World as hierarchy
    Implicitly believe they are either one-up or one-down vs. others, so jockey for status (eye each other’s status, if you don’t accept it, you’re not respected)
    Conflict is inherent in jockeying
    Use conversations to:
    Negotiate for status
    Gain/maintain the ‘upper hand’
    Gain/maintain independence
    Failure is in being wrong: you succeed/fail in the task
    Relationships are competitive – and therefore likely full of conflict – but are not necessarily adversarial
    Compartmentalize well: can compete fiercely at work (without conflict), but be friendly outside without any integrity issues. (Or can fight in the rink but get along in person.)

    Female Worldview: Relational
    World as community (web vs. rank)
    Implicitly believe it is important to connect (known and be known, to be liked)
    Converse to forge relationships, seek and give support, avoid isolation
    Women: because competition and hierarchy are not the default:
    Competition and conflict are adversarial and deliberate
    One would only compete to put others down
    Failure can be found in the task and in relationships (being wrong and being isolated are equally terrible) — Must succeed in both task and relationship.
    Thus they see conflict as failure
    Seek ways to be right without the other being wrong: “Both saying the same thing.”
    Do not compartmentalize well: see an integrity issue in conflict and competition at work and being friends outside
    Women more likely to side-channel (= gossip) to “preserve relationships” (good motive)

    • These are interesting ideas, and many of them resonate with Deborah Tannen’s work in her book on male-female differences in “You Just Don’t Understand! Women and Men in Conversation.”

    • buddyglass

      Summers did get unfairly criticized IMO. People can’t stand the idea that, like physical strength, women might be (on the aggregate) less “strong” in some cognitive areas than men are (on the aggregate). Conversely, men might be less “strong” in other areas.

      Here’s another humorous anecdote about males and females. This time of the canine variety. I read somewhere that something like 92% of all dog attacks are committed by male dogs, and 92% of those are by male dogs that haven’t been neutered. That’s testosterone for you.

      • buddyglass

        I should clarify: Summers didn’t actually argue that women are (on the aggregate) weaker in certain cognitive areas. He just argued (among other things) that the spectrum of ability among women is less variable than among men, which could account for the uneven ratio of men to women at both the “high” and “low” ends of ability.

        • I think the distinction you make here is important: looking at aggregate differences between men and women often obscures that some men think or act in more feminine ways in certain areas and that some women think or act in more masculine ways in others. Does that mean we should never talk about aggregate differences between men and women? I would say not; but when we do so, we should always recognize that these aggregate differences don’t hold for all men and all women, as you do in your comment here.

          • George Yancey

            In my classes I use hieght. We know that in the aggregate that men are taller than women. But clearly not all men are taller than all women. I do this to illustrate that differences in general are not absolute and do not tie it to sex differences. But I am pointing out a sex difference that it is socially acceptable to acknowledge. The challenge is when research may indicate an innate difference that it is not socially acceptable to acknowledge.

  • Margarita,
    Thank you so much for bring up this topic for discussion. From my experience I did grow up in a way that promoted my self to be able to do anything that a man can do. Now in hindsight I realize that I neglected or suppressed many things that are a part of me because I am a woman. I look forward to your future posts.