Men and Women: Becoming more alike makes 'em more different. What?

BlogHer Original Post

John Tierney has written up a new research study in the New York Times with the scintillating title As External Barriers Disappear, Internal Gender Gaps Widen.

I read it over a couple of times. My head started to hurt, just a little. By the third paragraph he's bandied around the tired old Mars/Venus dichotomy twice, including to launch this shocking nugget:

It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India's or Zimbabwe's than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.

Aaaaaand... it continues in a similar vein from there. Eventually it concludes that men and women will just never understand each other! Oh well!

Science at work, people. (I had to pause and go take some Excedrin, myself.)

Over at The Swamp, the author comes up with what strikes me as a perfectly plausible explanation completely overlooked by the researchers:

An alternate interpretation is that more traditional cultures also have less variety in the employment options for people. In more modern societies, there may be a greater chance that you'll seek to set yourself apart from the other gender because there's a lot more media and advertising telling you what your gender role is. If you have the same job choices as a man, the fact that your society is more traditional won't make a difference. But if you have 500 options for jobs and you combine that with a similar pressure to do girly things, you'll have a greater gender divide.

Why, that almost sounds... logical.

The Times article also uses some sports examples to "prove" that men are always more competitive than women, for which Psychology Today blogger Paul Joannides takes them to task:

For an area where young women are out-competing and humiliating young men, we don't need to look much farther than the female-to-male ratios on our college campuses. It used to be that outside of places like Vassar and Sarah Lawrence, there were far more male than female students. Today, the opposite is true. In some colleges, women now outnumber men by 3-to-2 or more.

Now how did that happen if, as the Times tells us, men are the more competitive gender?

Oh, silly! That doesn't count, because it doesn't involve uniforms and medals, obviously.

Sheril at The Intersection isn't much impressed, either:

I'm a bit skeptical of these kind of cross-cultural tests--even when it's not hard to highlight anecdotal examples that support them. And while the data was 'crunched', a myriad of not-controlled-for, influential factors leaves me unconvinced... but interested.

After her post, her very first commenter remarks:

And why is this a surprise? If you're free to be anyone you want to be, I'd be surprised if less divergence occurred.

And then, of course, we have the folks who are just too shy to tell us what they really think of this study. Let's start with Amanda of Just Another NYC Blog, who says:

they always take these cockeyed studies and then draw whatever conclusions they want from them. oh, so gender differences are more pronounced in "civilized" countries than in "hunter-gatherer societies"? must be "the ancient internal differences being revived." that's the kind of conclusion that a ten year old would draw. it couldn't be that gender expectations actually increase more drastically in societies where there is technically more "freedom," so that people's behavior can still be kept in control.

(Nope, certainly couldn't be that.)

Or how about Salon's Catherine Price:

The article discusses a couple of arguments for why this might be (as well as counterarguments, such as the idea that people in different cultures might interpret personality test questions differently) -- including the idea that in animals, "environmental stress tends to disproportionately affect the larger sex and mute costly secondary sexual characteristics (like male birds' displays of plumage)." Wait -- so could it be that men in poor societies, struggling to survive, might be pressured into displaying the unattractive traits of being nurturing and emotionally responsive instead of allowing their sexy "emotional flatness" to shine? Sign me up for a Zimbabwe vacation!

(Oooh, baby. Show me you're a real tired old stereotype of a man!)

Echidne of the Snakes takes issue with both the conclusions and with the research field itself:

In short, I fail to see how cooperation would have become the selected-for characteristic more often in women than in men, and I also fail to see how it wouldn't have benefited both sexes to be able to be both cooperative and competitive, depending on the situation. In any case, only a guy who keeps his distance from women altogether could assume that women are not intensely competitive when needed.

What about the research that Tierney uses to back up his conclusions? I need to read all of it and then I need to read alternative research on international comparisons and what that research finds and then I need to compare the methodologies of those studies and so on. See how rigged this game is?

(I especially like the part about women and competition. She's right -- anyone who thinks differently has never seen two women vie for the same guy or even the last cookie.)

In addition to the headache this "research" gave me, I would like to submit a formal request, somewhere, that we retire the whole "Mars/Venus" labeling once and for all. It renders the discussion trite and simplistic right off the bat. Not that this particular study's conclusions would've made more sense even without those terms....

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir also blogs about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.


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