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.

What is “It All” That Slaughter Says Women Can’t Have?

Part 3 in a series on Women at Work.

Anne Marie Slaugther’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” begs the question what is “It All?” Although most of her article discusses women having it all (or not having it all) with regards to family and careers, older generations of women were taught that a woman’s place was in the home; a woman couldn’t both have a big career and raise a family. Slaughter’s generation set out to break barriers, reach top posts in universities, law firms and public office, and also have fulfilling family lives.

So, does a big career and a happy family life = “It All”? There is no doubt that many women want a career and family, especially the college-educated women, women with law degrees and women with Ph.D.s, that Slaughter was primarily addressing. My field, sociology, dedicates pages and pages of our publications to studying occupational attainment, educational attainment, family formation and family disruption. We know from the data that not nearly as many people have “It All” as Slaughter defines it as those who would like it.

That said, would those who have “It All” (defined as career + family) be fulfilled? I’m not sure. Wealth, success, and a spouse and kids at home may certainly fulfill many aspirations, but does it fulfill them all? I think not.

My research and teaching recently led me to read work, mostly from philosophy and psychology, that has broadened my definition of what “It All” is. In an advanced social theory class I taught last year, I introduced students to philosopher Martha Nussbaum and her important book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.  Cambridge University Press summarizes the objective of her book, in the following way:

“In this major book Martha Nussbaum, one of the most innovative and influential philosophical voices of our time, proposes a new kind of feminism that is genuinely international, argues for an ethical underpinning to all thought about development planning and public policy, and dramatically moves beyond the abstractions of economists and philosophers to embed thought about justice in the concrete reality of the struggles of poor women. Nussbaum argues that international political and economic thought must be sensitive to gender difference as a problem of justice, and that feminist thought must begin to focus on the problems of women in the third world. Taking as her point of departure the predicament of poor women in India, she shows how philosophy should undergird basic constitutional principles that should be respected and implemented by all governments, and used as a comparative measure of quality of life across nations.”

Whereas Slaughter was writing to women at the top of the economic ladder, Nussbaum addresses a similar question but for poor women around the world. Do women at the top of the economic ladder and women at the bottom want fundamentally different things? I think not. Nussbaum makes a great contribution in enumerating the list of fundamental capabilities that are universal–they cross class, race, and ethnicity. She rejects moral and ethical relativism, arguing forcefully that a just society can’t be relativistic about the goods people want or deserve. For Nussbaum, a feminist, moral relativism too often is used to justify why women not only don’t have “It All” by saying they simply don’t want “It All.” For example, Nussbaum argues that even if poor women don’t know that an education would be good for them, society is obligated to educate women. I couldn’t agree more.

Nussbaum and Slaughter’s works both harken back to an ages-old question addressed by Aristotle: what is the greatest good for human persons? What constitutes flourishing, a full life? Aristotle was clear that material things are necessary but not sufficient for flourishing. For Aristotle, the question is: what would people do as a good in and of itself, not just as a means to another end? In the answer to that question lies a deep truth about human persons.

Although it is certainly true that people strive for material or external things, for Aristotle, those things are really means to the end of eudaimonia, normally translated as flourishing. How does one acquire this end of flourishing? Through the rather difficult process of aligning ones internal motivations and one’s actions. Hence, for Aristotle, eudemonia is found in cultivating virtues, understood as ways of being that lead to ways of acting. He also thus breaks down a bit the means-ends disntiction in action: if the end is a virtuous life, the means must be enacting virtues.


Does that sound too lofty and philosophical, too hard to understand enough to live? If so, don’t worry. I often wonder how to translate good philosophical ideas into good social science. Thankfully, my search has turned up a few tips. The former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, published an important theoretically-grounded, empirically-based, book called Flourish that is written to be accessible to all readers and practical. As described in an excellent article about Flourish the New York Times, Seligman laments that many psychologists equate flourishing with happiness, understood as feeling good.

Seligman explains how his decades of research led him to define flourishing, or well-being, in 5 dimensions, which he calls PERMA: a) Positive emotions; b) Engagement; c) Meaning; d) Positive Relationships and e) Accomplishment.

How does this line up with Slaughter’s definition of “It All”? Slaughter seems to be focusing on positive relationships and accomplishment. Seligman’s definition of well-being comes much closer to Aristotle’s understanding of flourishing, though Seligman is clear to state that Aristotle is just one of many influences on his definition. Seligman and Nussbaum, in my view, bring back into focus the big picture: having “It All” must be much more than achievement, marriage and kids. Those things–which are undoubtedly very important–must be embedded in a meaningful life where one’s individual accomplishments are seen as part of a greater whole. Our lives need enjoyment and awe, something we can lose sight of in the quest for the perfect career and perfect family.

One virtue we can all start living is gratitude. Seligman found that people who were grateful to others, grateful to God, felt more positive emotions and had stronger relationships. I fully support those who want to strive to have “It All”, however you may define it, but along the way, let’s not forget to stop and give thanks for what we do have, right now, today, in this moment.

As my work on human flourishing and virtues continues, I hope to share more reflections from philosophy and social science to deepen our understanding of how to have “It All”, or perhaps more importantly, how to be thankful for all we have at this very moment.




Women Can’t Have it All, and It’s Better That Way

Part 2 in a series on Women at Work, in response to Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic about careers and family.


When I was in graduate school, I played in Princeton University’s summer softball league for a team named “Leviathan.” I was one of very few women regulars on any team in the league, a league of not necessarily highly athletic but nonetheless ferociously competitive graduate students. At one game, hot tempers started flaring over someone heckling my team’s pitcher, and a fight was about to break out. I ran over to the two guys about to come to blows and jumped in the middle. I figured if they had to punch each other around me—a woman—they might walk away from the fight. I grabbed my teammate by the shirt and yelled, “Don’t do it! It’s not worth it!” The gamble worked: the fight never happened, and we returned to the sidelines.

When I went up to bat a few innings later, suddenly the same teammate had I pulled out of the fight yelled, “Go Mighty M!” Energized, I smashed a line drive right over the head of the left fielder who, seeing a woman at the plate, had mistakenly come in too close. My teammates cheered loudly and the nickname stuck. On the field, I often did seem mighty. I wasn’t afraid of breaking up a fight, colliding while trying to catch a fly ball, tagging someone out who is sliding, or barking at any guy who said anything improper to me. Having played high school softball, I also hit the ball harder and threw the ball harder than almost any woman in the league, earning me the respect of all the men. I proudly wore my league shirt with “Leviathan” on front and “Mighty M” on the back for many years, and enjoyed many glorious wins with my teammates followed by pizza and beer at Conti’s.

In my academic work, I often act like “Mighty M.” I’m not afraid of jumping into the middle of a passionate argument, calling someone out when they can’t support their argument, or defending myself against unfair questions or critiques. In academic sports leagues and academic conference rooms, “Mighty M” has succeeded because of her self-confidence, backed up by not so shabby amounts of knowledge and athleticism.

The hard part for me was learning that “Mighty M” is not “Almighty M.” Despite the fact that in the creed I pronounce every Sunday at Mass, I state, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” I mistakenly thought I was almighty for quite some time. I got degrees from two Ivy League schools, my early publications landed in good journals, I got an advance contract on my first book from the University of California Press, I got a great post-doc right out of grad school, and then landed a job in a top sociology department in the country.

But my academic life, my personal life, and even my physical health, have had many ups and downs. My outlook on life—my self-conception and reputation as “Mighty M”—was much more comfortable in the ups than in the downs. If we’ve been taught to think we can have it all (or we can have it all, but not at the same time) then those times when we patently don’t have it all (i.e., a publication we worked on for a year gets rejected by 2 journals, we suffer a major disappointment in our families, or we have a health problem that forces us to lie in bed for days or weeks), we will be quite miserable. Occupational success, personal happiness, and good health are wonderful. Don’t get me wrong.

But not having some of those things some of the times undoubtedly makes me a better person. Why? Acknowledging I don’t have it all makes me humble. By worldly standards, I do have more of “it all” than many people. Clearly, so does Slaughter (and I admit she has more of “it all” than I do or probably ever will). I admire Slaughter for acknowledging that when she realized she can’t have it all she also realized that for many years she felt a sense of superiority over other women who complained they can’t have it all.

Similarly, for me, thinking I had “it all” made me feel like I deserved to have it all, like I earned it all. Therefore, if someone didn’t have it all (or didn’t have what I have), they didn’t deserve it or work hard enough for it. Your article didn’t get accepted? You probably didn’t write clearly. Your relationship ended? You probably didn’t try hard enough to be understanding. You got sick? You probably didn’t eat healthy and exercise. This is precisely the mentality Slaughter criticizes, a mentality she laments in herself and many other successful women (like yours truly).

Not only is it easy for Might M to look down on others, what happens when Mighty M has downs? I take it very personally and find it hard to be happy.

It is only more recently that I’ve come to see my losses as equally important as my successes. My losses have taught me that I may indeed be Mighty M but I most definitely am not Almighty M. No matter how might we are, no mortal is almighty—maybe the reason we say God is Almighty in the Apostle’s Creed is that we need to remind ourselves constantly of it.

At the end, I’ve learned that it’s just as much a part of the human condition to want it all as it is not to get it all. The highest human virtue, the true human happiness, comes in finding happiness by striving for it all while being grateful for whatever comes and does not come. It’s often in not having it all that we come to see the value of what we do have.

Looking back on my life, there were things I wanted that I didn’t get and was terribly disappointed but later on realized that what I wanted at that moment would not have been best for me. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want things, or want them ardently, but the trick is knowing how to want things ardently yet be happy either if we get them or we don’t get them. This is what Saint Ignatius of Loyola called holy indifference. It’s not complete indifference, because we must cultivate our desires, do our best to achieve them, and then let things evolve. We are not Almighty, and our vision of what is good for us at any point in time is limited. Not getting things is often part of a much bigger and a much better plan.

That’s why even if I don’t have it all, it’s better that way. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Women Can’t Have it All, but We Could Have it Better

I congratulate Princeton Professor and former Dean Anne Marie Slaughter for her frank piece published in the Atlantic entitled “Why Women Can’t Have it All.” Talking about what keeps people from realizing their dreams of successful careers and joyful families is often taboo (see my previous post on women’s vocation in the world), but Slaughter provides an important personal and sociological reflection on what influenced her to want to spend more time with her family. She also provides useful advice for the generation of women behind her facing similar challenges.Though I don’t have time here to review everything she wrote, as I pondered her piece, I sketched this chart showing things we should not do if we want to have a good work family balance and this we should do.

Of course, Slaughter’s article is much more complex than this chart shows, and I recommend you read it in full. But I have found that making charts like this help me organize ideas, and can serve as handy reminders for my resolutions. So here you go.

In the near future, I hope to post my own reflections on Slaughter’s piece. Those responses would tentatively be entitled “Women Still Can’t Have it All, And It’s Better that Way”. I don’t have it all in my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As I complete yet another marathon of weekend and weeknight hours working on top of my regular schedule (this time preparing my tenure file), I’ll just end this by saying, “Women Still Can’t Have it All, But this Life Probably Isn’t so Bad.”  When I hand in my tenure file later this week, I leave for a two-week research trip to Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Giving up a weekend and a couple of weeknights to be able to go to beautiful places and do fascinating research on migration, tourism and the environment probably isn’t such a bad tradeoff.