Men and Women: Still Both From Earth

Posted on 15 January 2012


Joan Williams

[co-written with Rachel Dempsey]

A few weeks ago a group of European scientists published a study claiming that sex differences between men and women are much larger than we previously thought. The study found a very small overlap between men and women for personality traits such as sensitivity and warmth (much stronger for women) and emotional stability and dominance (much stronger for men).

These results are being used as proof that men and women’s brains are fundamentally different, but what’s important is what the study doesn’t measure.

It doesn’t measure differences in brain structure. It doesn’t measure any sort of inherent difference at all. The differences are based on a survey in which men and women self-reported answers to a series of personality question based on the 16PF model. In other words, the study measures responses that fully-developed adults give when measuring themselves on traits that are socialized along a distinct gender binary.

The results can’t possibly come as a surprise to anyone who has ever walked into a toy store, or turned on the television, or, you know, left their house. Humans are taught literally from birth what is appropriate behavior for a woman and what is appropriate behavior for a man, and the fact that fully grown men and women have learned to exhibit different behaviors isn’t exactly groundbreaking news. Little girls are given dolls and called pretty, little boys are given trucks and called strong. In fact, in her book “Delusions of Gender,” psychologist Cordelia Fine points to a study of how pregnant women described the movement of their fetuses in the last three months of pregnancy. Male activity was described as vigorous, while female activity was “not violent, not excessively energetic, not terribly active.” Gendering, it seems, actually starts in the womb. (For more gendered fun, see the website Sociological Images. They keep an exhaustive — and exhausting — list of pointlessly gendered products; see also Riley on Marketing).

The study has generated sensationalizing headlines like “Men and women really are living on different personality planets” and “Gender wars: Men, women more different than thought.” And the researchers that conducted the study haven’t exactly been helping — one of them was quoted on this website saying the results show men and women might as well be “different species.” (Not only is that statement irresponsible, it also does nothing to increase the scientists’ credibility. Neither Rachel nor Joan is a scientist by any means, but we both took ninth-grade biology, and that’s enough to know that the definition of a species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding. Which usually involves both a male and a female.)

We propose a different interpretation of the study’s results. Regardless of gender, humans are extraordinarily good an internalizing social cues, and their behavior as adults reflects decades of learning about “how men are” and “how women are.” If we take that fully plausible interpretation of the study as fact, it’s great news for equality advocates. Overcoming stereotyped gender binaries is as simple as socializing people from birth to see personality traits from warmth to liveliness to emotional stability as human rather than as male or female.

Okay, so maybe that won’t actually be that simple. Our stereotypes run pretty deep. But studies like this one don’t justify these stereotypes; they reinforce them. That’s not science. Let’s not make it more complicated than that.

Posted in: brain, gender gap, men, women