The “Nothing Box”: One Way Men and Women Are Different

As I was thinking about my most recent blog on male-female differences, I asked the female cashier at Starbucks, “Do you think men and women are really different?” The cashier said, “Yeah, of course, you know like Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.” The guy behind me in line started cracking up in a way that I knew he was thinking “Oh yes they are—if you give me a minute I can tell you ‘bout my girl; she drives me craaaazy!”

Later in the week, I asked male graduate student, “Do you think women and men are different?” He paused, and then thoughtfully said, “Well, of course they are, but the question is not are they different but why and how they are different.” A third, and important question, is what are we do to about these differences?

Too often, discussions of male-female difference are used to argue for the superiority of men over women, or vice versa. Too often, women who have some more typical masculine personality characteristics feel mis-represented when talking about male-female differences; the same goes for men with more typically feminine female characteristics.

Well, part of the reason I avoided this topic for so long is that discussions of male-female differences can easily turn into facile stereotypes and stories of wars between the sexes. I will now attempt to broach this important topic through moderation—neither exaggerating sex differences nor ignoring them. After all, the essence of virtue is to strike the mean, and if we want to learn about male-female differences the first thing to avoid is extreme stereotypes about those differences or the typical response to those extreme stereotypes—denying that any real differences exist at all.

My answer about whether men and women are really different has several parts. First, we need to understand that a combination of biology, character and society make men and women different; further, women and men differ, on the whole, in specific typical vices and virtues. Finally, being aware of these differences can be an important way to grow in the virtues, because we can learn from the virtuous people around us, both men and women.

Here is one brief example of how men and women differ.  This YouTube video rather dramatically explains male-female differences in the brain to make the point that men are quite content to think about nothing, or perhaps to just to think about one thing at a time. Women, by contrast, tend to think about multiple things at once.

To illustrate this point, this video describes quite amusingly how men’s brains are divided into boxes that never touch each other; and their favorite box is something of a mystery to women–it’s the  “nothing box.” By contrast, women’s brains are full of connectivity, everything is connected to everything, and women can jump topics extremely fast, often bewildering men.

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Last night, I watched this video with 6 women who are part of a group called Inspiring Women. For the past 2 and a half years, I’ve been meeting with a group of graduate students and other women in the Inspiring Women group to read and discuss books and articles on character, virtue and culture, among other things. As we discussed the challenges in balancing work and family, one woman talked about how both she and her husband work hard all day, but whereas she rushes to make dinner as soon as she gets home, he’s quite content to sit on the couch and do nothing. It’s not that he doesn’t want to help, she explained, but he just doesn’t think about making dinner asked to help. That’s one example of the “nothing box,” I think.

I explained that one day when I was feeling overwhelmed, I asked a male colleague how he deals with working on so many things at once, and he replied, “Well, I just think about the one thing I’m working on at the moment.” My jaw almost hit the floor. How can anyone possibly only think about one thing at time, I wondered? Hearing about how men can work in just one box at a time helped me understand what my colleague was saying.

So what do we do about these differences? One group member explained that she tries really, really hard while at work not to worry about the cooking at housework she has to do when she gets home. That attitude is the essence of virtue–most women may find the “nothing box” (or perhaps the “nothing else but what’s in front of me box”) very, very hard to climb into, but we need to try. Similarly, men can try to think ahead, plan, and make connections across boxes in their brains. Virtue is in the meaning–something in between the “nothing box” and the “everything all at once box.”

I have only scratched the surface here of this important topic. My point in discussing these differences is simply to have an open, honest dialogue through which we can all learn. I do not think that overall either sex is more virtuous, but I do think  that the two sexes in general excel in different virtues, and I think we can all learn from observing others who excel in virtues in which we don’t excel. In the end, if we aim for the best virtues generally seen in men and women, then sex differences wouldn’t matter nearly as much.

Sexual Exploitation and Religious Advocacy

Anyone who has leafed through an airline travel magazine can probably name a number of ways that they stand out from other publications. Flying just this week, I saw many of the same messages I’ve seen in the past.  Multiple advertisements promise to help professional and ‘quality’ men find the ‘quality’ women they deserve.  Other marketing materials identify the best steakhouses, the best plastic surgeons, or the newest (expensive) sports equipment.

This time around, a particular advertisement caught my eye precisely because it did not fit as well with the others.  Still targeted towards an upper-class, internationally networked, professional male population, a child’s eyes took up the top quarter of the page.  Under the image was the following caption:

I’m not a tourist attraction.
It’s a crime to make me one.

Stop child sex tourism.

Although the audience was the same, this advertisement, sponsored by World Vision International (WVI), with support from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, speaks a very different message.  It is part of a broader initiative to combat the growing problem of exploitation, enabled in part by the power this magazine’s audience holds.

Sex trafficking and forced sexual labor is a growing problem.  Along with other forms of forced labor, it is an issue that evangelicals and other faith-based organizations are increasingly protesting.  Recent statistics released last month from the International Labor Organization suggest that approximately 20.9 million people globally are victims of forced labor. 4.5 million of those are exploited for their sexual labor.  If we consider the millions of other sex workers who “voluntarily” chose the trade, often with little real choice, the numbers rise significantly. Evangelicals, alongside of feminist groups and other concerned about human rights, have worked together in coalitions (such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women) to support legislation and lead campaigns aimed at ending sex trafficking and forced sexual labor. The International Justice Mission is one organization that has galvanized attention in the evangelical community to this problem; they work to change structures, and hold accountable those committing and enabling the abuse.

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The location of this particular advertisement speaks to the larger context in which forced sexual labor occurs.  The audience for this magazine is the opposite of the image in the advertisement.  The picture is of a presumably non-Western girl.  We know that children and women who are predominantly the victims of trafficking; further, it is the ‘other,’ the foreigner, that is often trafficked. Although discussing the commercial sex industry more generally, Kevin Bales notes how power differentials play into the growth of sex trafficking, specifically in Thailand (“Because She Looks Like a Child” in Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, Harry Holt Publishers, 2002):

Commercial sex is a legitimate form of entertainment and release.  It is not just     acceptable: it is a clear statement of status and economic power.  Such attitudes reinforce the treatment of women as mere markers in a male game of status and  prestige (216).

I have been encouraged by religious actors’ responses to the devastating problem of forced sexual labor.  Teaching at Wheaton College, I see some of the consequences of this engagement: many of my students are committed to working for social change in this area.  They see the responsibility for the church to mourn with the victims of sexual violence, and to struggle for their justice.

At the same time, my hope continues to be that the issue of sex trafficking will also draw attention to the problem of sexual violence and sexual commodification committed in less egregious ways, but ones that still strip women (and children) around the world of their dignity.  Sexual violence is an issue that plagues the church.  While some religious communities give significant attention to these issues, many do not. Scholars consistently try to correct the myths surrounding the violence: that it exists only in certain communities, that victims are somehow responsible, that is is mainly due to alcohol or drug abuse.  Instead, they point to ways such violence is made possible through the power dynamics at work (as highlighted by Bales above).

The work of groups like WVI, IJM, and many others in the faith community to combat sex trafficking is important and necessary. There still remains, however, a need to reflect more on the norms that also contribute to a demand for human trafficking.

Women are for the consumption of men.

Sexuality is something to be taken, or something that can be bought and sold.

Those who are foreign, or racially and ethnically different, are less human.

Men are naturally sexually deviant.

While few might fully endorse the statements above, these norms are present are various levels throughout our culture–unfortunately, even in the church.  Continuing to address them is vital in struggles not just against sexual trafficking, but also other forms of sexual exploitation and violence.

Faith, Race and Gender: An Historical Look at The Bowery Mission in New York City

New York is the largest city in the United States, so it should not be surprising that there’s plenty of religious organizations that do all manner of charitable work for the downtrodden. Much of this goes unnoticed (charitable organizations often don’t have advertising put in their budgets). However the folks over at “A Journey Through NYC Religions” have included an online photobook of the Bowery Mission (“mission” is one word used by Christians to describe some of their charitable work and organizations).

I’m always keeping an eye out for material related to the Asian American religious experience and I was pleased to see that page 12 includes a short description of the charitable work among some Chinese immigrants back in 1909 (it’s a little blurry but the date is at the top; minor aside: my wife informs me that her great-grandfather was in this part of the country around the time that this story was reported-amazing what things I learn from editing a blog post!). [Read more…]

Women’s Dignity in the Workplace

Do women have to act like men when they enter the professions?

The person who has most helped me to ponder this question is Edith Stein: an intellectual and a woman of deep faith who worked in philosophy and education. Stein was raised Jewish in Germany, became atheist, converted to Christianity and became a Carmelite nun, and then was killed in WWII for her Jewish heritage. She was canonized a saint in 1998.

Although she points out that women’s temperament will likely lead them in greater proportion to certain professions like art, history, and the humanities, Stein insisted that some women will also shine in physics, medicine, politics, and diplomacy. Stein is right on when she says “there is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman” (Woman, p. 47).

But beyond saying that women can shine in every profession, Stein calls women to exercise their professions as women: “The participation of women in the most diverse professional disciplines could be a blessing for the entire society [Read more…]