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Are Men and Women Really Different?

Are Men and Women Really Different? September 12, 2012

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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