Gender differences

Men and women are from Earth

I never much liked John Gray’s now famous book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.  I understand that it has been helpful to many, in the way it enables people to accept and work with differences.  I’m also sure it has helped many people’s relationships.  But I’ve always felt it’s core premise  is an insult to both genders.  It’s just too easy to opt out of critical thinking and say “all woman/ men are like that, it’s their biology/ genes/ brain”.  And too often this deterministic stance is utilized to justify discrimination, whether it be the emotionality of women, or the insensitivity of men.

Mark Sainsbury and I talked this week about some fascinating new research that shows that in fact gender differences may be much more “nurture” than anyone previously thought.  (Click here for audio of the interview)

One thing everyone can agree on, is there are differences, and these differences do tend to reflect some of the more traditional ideas about men and women.  Some very recent brain scan research have shown clear “wiring” differences and these neuronal patterns line up with well known skill differences, for example women on average are better at encoding memories, have better social skills and the old cliche: better at multi-tasking.

Nature based theories however have tended to just accept these differences, and in so doing reinforce gender stereotypes.  The unfortunate end point of this thinking was recently shown in this story from the UK:

“The drive to push more girls into traditionally male-dominated subjects such as engineering, physics and computing should be scrapped, said Dr Gijsbert Stoet, a reader in psychology at Glasgow University… …He said the nation probably needed to “give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses”. (Click here for the whole article)

However a recent, very well designed study, suggest that Dr. Stoet might be wrong and that a larger proportion of the differences in cognitive abilities between the genders is down to nurture…

“As countries improved in RDI terms,[“Regional Development Index” an economic measure developed for this research]  the cognitive performance of the whole population was raised. Northern Europe rated highest across all age groups, followed by central and southern Europe. Unexpectedly, the study found that the better developed a country, the higher the rate of increase in women’s cognitive abilities… …Quite why women benefit disproportionately from societal improvements is not known… …Whatever the reason, this study indicates that cognitive differences between men and women are not solely inherited. It suggests that, to a degree hitherto unacknowledged, they are learned from the roles a society expects males and females to perform, and that those differences can change as society changes.” (Click here for the whole article)

In essence, when we have more equality, better education and more resources, women “catch up” to men and a large chunk of gender differences disappear.  Men and women may be different, but the more we can understand how these differences are created out of our cultural judgements and prejudices, the better off we will all be.  For example the ” #likeagirl” video that went viral recently might not be research, in fact it’s a very well crafted advertising campaign, but I reckon this video says all that needs to be said about how gender stereotypes can (and should) be smashed..



Leave a Comment

  • tboni August 11, 2014, 5:20 pm

    Great comments.

    See cognitive neuroscientist. Cordelia Fine
    “Delusions of Gender”
    “The Real Science Behind the Sex Differences”

    On the other hand there is a tendency to use “The Latest Cutting Edge Research” to justify and explain just about any stance one might take with respect to just about anything and everything whatsoever.

    • Kyle MacDonald August 11, 2014, 5:25 pm

      I agree Tony, truth is we don’t really know, but I’d be willing to bet my bottom dollar it ain’t just “in our genes!”

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