Point, Counterpoint: Talking about Gender Differences

Point, Counterpoint: Talking about Gender Differences February 9, 2013

Conservatives insist that there are huge differences between the genders while feminists insist that inasmuch as gender differences exist, they are social constructs. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, conservatives insist. Or are they?

I recently stumbled upon an article by Suzanne Venker published on Fox News. The title? “To Be Happy, We Must Admit Men and Women Aren’t Equal.” Venker is on the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” side. Let’s look at her article and then turn to a study out this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

It’s time to say what no one else will: Feminism didn’t result in equality between the sexes – it resulted in mass confusion. Today, men and women have no idea who’s supposed to do what.

You see, the problem with equality is that it implies two things are interchangeable – meaning one thing can be substituted for the other with no ramifications. That is what feminists would have us believe, and anyone who contradicts this dogma is branded sexist.

But the truth must be heard. Being equal in worth, or value, is not the same as being identical, interchangeable beings. Men and women may be capable of doing many of the same things, but that doesn’t mean they want to. That we don’t have more female CEOs or stay-at-home dads proves this in spades.

Unless, of course, you’re beholden to feminism. In that case, you’ll believe the above is evidence of discrimination. You’ll believe what feminists taught you to believe: that gender is a social construct.

Those of us with children know better. We know little girls love their dolls and boys just want to kick that ball. This doesn’t mean men can’t take care of babies or women can’t play sports. It just means each gender has its own energy that flows in a specific direction. For God’s sake, let it flow.

The battle of the sexes is over. And guess what? No one won. Why not try something else on for size? Like this: men and women are equal, but different. They’ve each been blessed with amazing and unique qualities that they bring to the table. Isn’t it time we stopped fussing about who brought what and simply enjoy the feast?

There are a myriad of problems here. The idea that the lack of female CEOs is evidence that women just don’t want to be CEOs makes about as much sense as the idea that there were no black presidents before 2008 because black people just didn’t want to be president. For another thing, let me assure you, as a mother, Sally is no less interested in kicking balls than any boy her age. So no, those of us with children do not know better. And wait. Is Venker honestly suggesting that feminists don’t have children? Let me assure her, more than a few of us do! Finally, equal but different? Really? Shades of “separate but equal”?

But let me leave all of that aside. Venker’s argument is that feminists treat men and women as interchangeable and act like there’s not that much difference between the two when there actually is. Venker feels it is very, very important to emphasize that men and women are different. According to Venker, men and women have each, as a gender, “been blessed with amazing and unique qualities that they bring to the table.” Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Venker insists, and the sooner we admit that and follow that truism in our lives the better.

Anyway, I came upon Venker’s article not long after hearing about a new article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Men and Women are from Earth: Examining the Latent Structure of Gender.” Interestingly, this article examines Venker’s argument exactly. Are men from Mars and women from Venus? Or are the sexes really all that different? What did this study find?

Despite considerable popular literature suggesting a vast psychological difference between men and women, a new study suggests that gender differences are relatively insignificant.

Researchers studied a comprehensive list of characteristics ranging from empathy and sexuality to science inclination and extroversion. Overall, they performed a statistical analysis of 122 different traits involving 13,301 individuals.

Their findings rebuke prior studies that suggested character traits often vary by gender.

In the new study, the scientists were able to show that statistically, men and women do not fall into different groups. In other words, no matter how strange and mysterious your partner may seem, their gender is probably only a small part of the problem.

“People think about the sexes as distinct categories,” said Dr. Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and a co-author on the study to be published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“‘Boy or girl?’ is the first question parents are asked about their newborn, and sex persists through life as the most pervasive characteristic used to distinguish categories among humans.”

But the handy dichotomy often falls apart under statistical scrutiny, said lead author Bobbi Carothers, Ph.D.

Instead of scores clustering at either end of the spectrum — the way they do with, say, height or physical strength — psychological indicators fall along a linear gradation for both genders.

With very few exceptions, variability within each sex and overlap between the sexes is so extensive that the authors conclude it would be inaccurate to use personality types, attitudes, and psychological indicators as a vehicle for sorting men and women.

Although emphasizing inherent differences between the sexes certainly strikes a chord with many couples, such simplistic frameworks can be harmful in the context of relationships, says Reis, a leader in the field of relationship science.

In fact, Reis believes using gender as a scapegoat can lead to relationship problems.

“When something goes wrong between partners, people often blame the other partner’s gender immediately. Having gender stereotypes hinders people from looking at their partner as an individual.

They may also discourage people from pursuing certain kinds of goals. When psychological and intellectual tendencies are seen as defining characteristics, they are more likely to be assumed to be innate and immutable. Why bother to try to change?”

What is the takeaway here? Put simply, that the differences between men and women are insignificant compared to the differences between individuals. The idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus is flawed, the scholars suggest, and accepting this truism can create problems between men and women. To be clear, the scholars do not contest that there are differences in average scores on the various metrics between men and women. The point they are making is that men and women’s scores on various personality measurements are not grouped on the opposite sides of the spectrum but rather mixed across it, and also that individuals may score more toward one end of the spectrum on one trait and toward the other end in another trait. In other words, where you fall on characteristics like empathy, sexuality, science inclination, and extroversion is not determined by your gender. Men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus. Men and women are both from earth.

With this in mind, let’s go back to the last line from Venker’s article:

Isn’t it time we stopped fussing about who brought what and simply enjoy the feast?

Weirdly, self-professing feminist as I am, I kind of agree with Venker here, but then I don’t think I’m taking Venker’s statement the way she intended it to be taken. Honestly, she seems to be implying that it’s feminists who are freaking out about gender roles when it seems to me that it’s actually she and her cohorts who are the ones hung up on gender roles. See, I’d rather let people be individuals rather than typing them by gender. I’d rather let people be individuals than expecting them to fall into some sort of preconscribed roles. I’d rather we admit that it’s our individual differences that make us who we are. So yes, can we stop fussing about expecting people to be a certain way because of what genitalia they were born with and start simply enjoying people as individuals with individual abilities, desires, and characteristics?

Is that really so much to ask?

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