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The Myth of Mars and Venus: A new book dispelling some entrenched myths

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution .

Gender differences can play a part in conflict—both the differences themselves, and the assumptions we  make and the myths we believe about the differences between men and women. Those assumptions and beliefs may be not only about parties to a dispute but about others involved, including lawyers and ourselves. Let’s make sure we have good information about any differences.

Rewire Your Brain to Systematize, Empathize” is an article in today’s Boston Herald about “brain differences based on gender.” On that topic, the author recommends two books: The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain by Simon Baron-Cohen and The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, MD. Before you head on over to Amazon, consider The Myth of Mars and Venus, a book coming out later this month. The author is not a fan of either book.

This soon-to-be-released book was written by Oxford professor Deborah Cameron. Beginning today, The Guardian is running three book extracts. Click to read the first: “What language barrier?

In today’s extract, Cameron writes about three sources of information on gender differences. First, are the self-help and pop psych books.

Countless self-help and popular psychology books have been written portraying men and women as alien beings, and conversation between them as a catalogue of misunderstandings. The most successful exponents of this formula, such as Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand, and John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, have topped the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

The next source are the pop science books . . .

with titles such as Brain Sex, Sex on the Brain, The Essential Difference, and Why Men Don’t Iron. These explain that the gulf between men and women is a product of nature, not nurture. The sexes communicate differently (and women do it better) because of the way their brains are wired. The female brain excels in verbal tasks whereas the male brain is better adapted to visual-spatial and mathematical tasks. Women like to talk; men prefer action to words.

Cameron talks about how information in these kinds of books have become embedded in our culture.

The idea that men and women “speak different languages” has itself become a dogma, treated not as a hypothesis to be investigated or as a claim to be adjudicated, but as an unquestioned article of faith. Our faith in it is misplaced. Like the scientists I have mentioned, I believe in following the evidence where it leads. But in this case, the evidence does not lead where most people think it does.

Se also discusses the impact of the embedded information.

The idea that men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate is a myth in the everyday sense: a widespread but false belief. But it is also a myth in the sense of being a story people tell in order to explain who they are, where they have come from, and why they live as they do. Whether or not they are “true” in any historical or scientific sense, such stories have consequences in the real world. They shape our beliefs, and so influence our actions.

The third source of information she discusses are academic journals. About them, she makes this statement . . .

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.

Most people, of course, do not read academic journals: they get
their information about scientific research findings from the reports that appear in newspapers, or from TV science documentaries. These sources often feature research on male-female differences, since media producers know that there is interest in the subject. But the criteria producers use when deciding which studies to report and how to present them introduce another layer of distortion.

Cameron described some work I found fascinating. Professor Janet S, Hyde wrote an article “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis” (PDF) in which she tells about her meta-analysis of the research of gender differences. Cameron defines meta-analysis as “a statistical technique that allows the analyst to collate many different research findings and draw overall conclusions from them.”

Hyde concludes her article . . .

The gender similarities hypothesis stands in stark contrast to the differences model, which holds that men and women, and boys and girls, are vastly different psychologically. The gender similarities hypothesis states, instead, that males and females are alike on most—but not all—psychological variables. Extensive evidence from meta-analyses of research on gender differences supports the gender similarities hypothesis. A few notable exceptions are some motor behaviors (e.g., throwing distance) and some aspects of sexuality, which show large gender differences. Aggression shows a gender difference that is moderate in magnitude.

It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender
differences. Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of selfesteem problems among adolescents. Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data.

In both Hyde’s article and Cameron’s extract, you can see the meta-analysis tables of the gender difference research. Behavior researched included talkativeness, self-disclosure, and conversational interruption. Who does talk more? Self-disclose more? Interrupt more? Before you answer, I urge you to read Hyde or Cameron. Both are terrific, myth-busting reads.

Do you have any assumptions about differences between men and women?
I bet you will be rethinking them if you heed Hyde and Cameron. The
more accurate our assumptions (and it is the rare individual who is
assumption-free), the better we are at almost any human interaction,
including conflict resolution.

Oh, and about those brain differences books mentioned in this post’s
second paragraph. Read Cameron to see what she has to say about them.
More about any gender differences in brains related to this blog’s
focus in the future.

Note (added October 3, 2007, 8:20 AM Mountain): Click to read “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” the next excerpt published by The Guardian from The Myth of Mars and Venus. Click to read the third and final excerpt “Back down to Earth.”

Note (added October 8, 2007, 1:10 PM Mountain): Click to read a review of the book. And another review.


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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