A draft I’ve had hanging around since last month: I’m trying to get these things out for some discussion even if I haven’t been able to wrap a bow around them to my entire satisfaction.
Via Samara at The F-word Blog, comes a book extract in the Guardian by Deborah Cameron taking on the Mars-Venus gender essentialists and their ilk, i.e. those who write the comforting self-help manuals about how to understand the oh-so-different opposite sex, and how to be happy and contented by accepting the “natural order” of different gender aptitudes:
The literature of Mars and Venus, in both the self-help and popular science genres, is remarkably patronising towards men. They come off as bullies, petulant toddlers; or Neanderthals sulking in their caves. One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced; why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (“Hey, wait a minute – I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)?
Perhaps men have realised that a reputation for incompetence can sometimes work to your advantage. Like the idea that they are no good at housework, the idea that men are no good at talking serves to exempt them from doing something that many would rather leave to women anyway. (Though it is only some kinds of talking that men would rather leave to women: in many contexts men have no difficulty expressing themselves – indeed, they tend to dominate the conversation.)
This should remind us that the relationship between the sexes is not only about difference, but also about power. The long-standing expectation that women will serve and care for others is not unrelated to their position as the “second sex”. But in the universe of Mars and Venus, the fact that we (still) live in a male-dominated society is like an elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to notice.
Samara neatly summaries Cameron’s outline of the comprehensive debunking of that oft-cited factoid from a few years ago, that women allegedly speak 20,000 words daily compared to men’s 7,000, as “women don’t talk more than men – just more than the patriarchy would like them to”. (Cameron demonstrates that actual recordings of both sexes in a single interaction, with their respective contributions quantified systematically, generally show that men speak more than women.) The reason that utterly fabricated factoid was so readily accepted was that it fed into people’s predispositions, their expectations of gender differences according to stereotypes.
Psychologists have found in experimental studies that when interpreting situations people typically pay most attention to things that match their expectations, and often fail to register counter-examples.
It is not hard to see how these tendencies might lead readers of Mars and Venus books to “recognise” generalisations about the way men and women use language, provided those generalisations fit with already familiar stereotypes. An anecdote illustrating the point that, say, men are competitive and women cooperative conversationalists will prompt readers to recall the many occasions on which they have observed men competing and women cooperating – while not recalling the occasions, perhaps equally numerous, on which they have observed the opposite. If counter-examples do come to mind (“What about Janet? She’s the most competitive person I know”), it is open to readers to apply the classic strategy of putting them in a separate category of exceptions (“of course, she grew up with three brothers / is the only woman in her department / works in a particularly competitive business”).
In relation to men and women, our most basic stereotypical expectation is simply that they will be different rather than the same. We actively look for differences, and seek out sources that discuss them. Most research studies investigating the behaviour of men and women are designed around the question: is there a difference? And the presumption is usually that there will be. If a study finds a significant difference between male and female subjects, that is considered to be a “positive” finding, and has a good chance of being published. A study that finds no significant differences is less likely to be published.
Over and over, we see that when gender differences in anything other than the basics of reproduction are examined, that there is more difference between the extremes of the sexes than there is on average between women and men. Yet the stereotypes persist.