Stereotyping male and female traits is dangerous as it leads to discrimination and oppression

You’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t heard about American psychologist John Gray and the industry he has created around his basic postulate that Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars, centring on the belief that women and men are so psychologically different that they may well be considered to have originated from different planets.

A whole series of books, workshops and training courses have been made available to ensure that, for as long as they are living on Earth, Martians and Venusians learn to understand each other and their respective vagaries, eccentricities and specificities in order that they may communicate effectively with each other and co-habit in relative comfort. Most relationship difficulties between the genders have been posited to exist on account of the consequences of an unbridged Mars-Venus divide.

There also exists a fairly large volume of bestselling self-help literature (as for instance the series on Why Men Don’t Listen and Why Women Can’t Read Maps by the high profile Australian couple, Allan and Barbara Pease), that has also captured the public imagination by offering ‘scientific’ explanations for differences between the two genders.

As a result, it is today considered axiomatic in many circles that men and women are fundamentally different and have to work hard at understanding each other. However, the academic community has never been comfortable accepting this hypothesis in its entirety and there have been periodic attempts by researchers to debunk it.

In recent times, one of the better-known voices articulating this has been American psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde from the University of Wisconsin at Madison who, in 2005 proposed her “Gender Similarity Hypothesis”. She reanalysed data published in several different research studies on the subject using certain clearly defined parameters and statistical techniques (a method known as meta-analysis) and found that men and women were more similar than different, and that the perceived differences had more to do with stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that we all carry in our minds.

In the last fortnight, the debate on the subject has escalated owing to reports of a study emanating from the University of Rochester in New York state, which has helpfully been put out by the University itself on its website highlighting the findings of the research paper provocatively titled, ‘Men and Women Are From Earth: Examining The Latent Structure of Gender’. The propriety of a university releasing findings from one of their departments to the world certainly merits consideration in a future column, but the story has been widely circulated through the Internet, and has resulted in a perception in some quarters that the Mars-Venus hypothesis stands clearly debunked.

When I went through the journal article, I realised that this was not at all the case. Although the lead researchers Bobbi Carothers and Harry Rice have titled their article in an oblique reference to Gray’s catchphrase, the whole point of the research was to examine whether men and women are taxonically different or only dimensionally different. Put differently, are they completely distinct from each other physically and behaviourally like say dogs would be from cats (or Martians from Venusians)? Or can their differences be explained as ones of degree, as, for instance, a tiger may be a larger cat, but is still a cat. So the researchers didn’t dispute that men and women were different; they just wanted to see whether the difference was fundamental to the gender or whether it was more due to stereotypical role behaviour. Whether a particular behaviour will be found only in one gender and in all members of that gender, or whether it could exist, if circumstances dictated, in members of the other gender as well.

Predictably, they found, by using sophisticated and complex statistical procedures that certain physical attributes were uniquely distinctive, but hardly any psychological attributes were (except, absurdly, scrapbook keeping and affinity for cosmetics in women and interest in boxing and pornography for men, all of which don’t seem to be fundamental attributes, but culture-related). However they also concluded that ‘average differences’ between men and women do exist, by which they mean that on a certain parameter like say nurturing capacity, on an average, women are more likely to be more nurturing than men, but this doesn’t mean that all women are more nurturing than men or that a man can never be more nurturing than a woman. On the balance of the existing evidence it does appear to me that men and women certainly do belong to the same species. Stereotyping male and female traits is dangerous as it leads to discrimination and oppression and should be actively discouraged. I also agree that masculinity and femininity are the ends of a continuum and most of us are somewhere between the two extremes, and blaming the Mars-Venus divide as the root cause of relationships going wrong would be short-sighted and foolhardy.

But, I simply cannot agree that men and women are not different. While I have no doubt that both men and women have equal capabilities and potential, and neither should be considered the weaker sex, I believe, regardless of what statistics say, that men and women are in their own special ways uniquely distinctive, whether as a result of culture, social environment or biology. And in truth, I’m grateful for this. Vive la diffèrence!

E-mail: vijay@vijaynagaswami.com

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