Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Men And Women: Not Exactly From Mars Or Venus

February 24, 1997

Are men and women different? Of course they are. Are they the same? Of course they are. The important questions to ask about are how are they the same and how are they different?

Some popular myths about differences need debunking. These myths are a disservice to both genders. Some differences between men and women are trivial. In social psychologist Carol Tavris's book, "The Mismeasure of Woman," she reviews research findings that contradict popular ideas about gender differences.

These notions of differences were based on faulty research and overstated conclusions. Once a myth gets started, it enters popular folklore and is assumed to be true. Myths also serve a purpose in maintaining the status quo. See if you aren't a little surprised by the following:

  • Men are not smarter then women when it comes to math. If you take away the small percentage of males who are math prodigies, the distribution of scores between males and females is identical.
  • Men and women do not differ in right brain, left brain functioning. There are no significant gender differences in brain functioning for verbal abilities, spatial abilities or lateralization - the communication between the two sides of the brain.
  • Women are not more empathic than men. Men, when placed in care-giving roles, have as much ability to nurture, listen and sooth as women. Women are more likely than men to be caretakers and monitors of relationships and thus have greater opportunity to refine this skill. When actual physical reaction to another's suffering or unhappiness is measured, men and women come out the same. The same is true for actual acts of good deeds.

There is one difference however. On average, women are better at "reading" men and interpreting male behavior than men are at reading women and interpreting female behavior. This is because females need to predict male behavior for their own security and safety. Take away the power difference and the sex gap fades. Both genders, when placed in a subordinate role, are more adept at reading emotional cues than the person with power in the relationship.

  • Men and women do not differ in their willingness to go to war. They differ in their reasons for going to war. Ideology and economics override gender in the voting booth. In wartime, women are as just as willing to depersonalize the enemy.

Women are not naturally less submissive and unaggressive. Studies show that under some conditions, they are less likely than men to behave aggressively. It is a matter of degree. The research suggesting that men have a justice-based morality while women have a care-based morality is also faulty.

  • Male violence is subject to cultural influence. In societies where the sexes are mutually dependent and work cooperatively as husband -and-wife teams, sexual antagonisms are lower. However, when work is organized along same sex lines and men control most of the resources, men are more violent.

Male dominance and violence are more likely in societies that are undergoing environmental stress. These include unreliable food supply, warfare, chronic hunger, rapid industrialization and the migration of males because of work or war.

  • Men value intimacy and closeness just as much as women. Both sexes want a secure, committed and sexually exclusive relationship. Men have the same needs for dependency, love and attachment as women.

The main difference between males and females on intimacy is that females have a greater need to express themselves about relationships and intimate ties. Men experience the same range of emotions as women.

  • Conditions of employment, not a gender outlook, determine what most people value about their work. Women value autonomy, self determination, need for achievement and self-development as much as men. When men and women are in dead-end low paying jobs, both tend to focus on the aspects of the job that are most rewarding, namely relationships with others.

According to researcher Moss Kantor, "Men with low opportunity look more like the stereotype of women in their orientation toward work... they limit their aspirations, seek satisfaction in activities outside of work, dream of escape, interrupt their careers, emphasize leisure and consumption, and create sociable peer groups in which interpersonal relationships take precedence over other aspects of work.

  • Women are not more moody. Tavris explains how the "PMS syndrome" and heightened emotions during menopause are not sustained by research.
  • There is no inherent difference in male and female capacity for sexual pleasure, interest and desire. Sexual expression is subject to culture, age, learning, habit, fantasies, worries, passions and the relationships in which they take place. Are women more or less sexual than men? The answer is yes, no, both and sometimes.

Tavris reminds us that thinking of ourselves as opposites doesn't serve either sex well. The myths of differences keep men and women apart and judgmental of one another. We are more similar than different. We have common goals and needs. We can combine our talents and outlooks so that relationships, work, children and our society can flourish.

However, the differences are more interesting and fun to talk about. Ah yes? Vive la difference! Mars and Venus, get ready for a visit.