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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Men are from Mars; Women etc etc


A few years ago, I was reading a map, navigating through the side streets and alleys of Seville, in search of a place to stay that wouldn’t break my €15/night accommodation budget, and I thought “hey I’m not supposed to be able to do this! Women can’t read maps!”. I started to think about what super map-reading abilities men must have that I might lack, before realised how stupid that was. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience – perhaps you’re a man, who has comforted a friend but thought you probably didn’t do it very well because, as everyone knows, men just aren’t that empathetic.

It seems that as a society we are obsessed with the differences between the genders – studies showing that men are more likely to X, while women are more likely to Y are as headline grabbing as those “drinking tea prevents cancer!” and “drinking tea causes cancer!” ones.

Let’s take our cue from the newspapers and ignore for the moment the fact that not all people can be comfortably allocated into the ‘woman’ group or the ‘man’ group. The way in which studies showing gender-differences are interpreted and discussed in the popular media is often anything but scientific.

What a lot of these newspaper reports fail to highlight is that these type of studies show differences between genders as groups – not individuals.

To illustrate what I mean, think of the statement “men are taller than women”. Does it ring true to you? Of course, what it means is that as a group, or, on average, men are taller than women. You probably know men that are shorter than many women, and women that are taller than many men. If you lined the world’s population up by height, there wouldn’t be a stark separation between men and women, but a mix of men and women in the line, with more men towards the tall end of the line, and more women towards the short end. There is variation in height within the genders, as well as between the genders.

This might all seem rather obvious to you, but there are three important points here: the first is that given a man and a woman at random, you cannot say with certainty that the man is taller than the woman. The second is that the attribute ‘height’ is a continuous one rather than a discrete all or nothing. The third is that given a person at random, you cannot, with certainty, label that person ‘short’ or ‘tall’ based solely on the person’s gender.

With regards to the first point, you might think I’m being a bit pedantic – given a man and a woman, if you have no other information, it would be a good strategy to bet that the man is taller than the woman. However, when it comes to the way that people think and behave, between-group differences are usually much smaller than between-group differences for physical attributes like height, and the between-group difference for a given behavioural trait is usually eclipsed by the within-group difference. Which means that, although on average, women might score more highly on some ‘empathy’ scale, that does not mean that given a random woman and a random man, the woman is more empathetic than the man – and she’s probably far less likely to be more empathetic than the man is likely to be taller than her.

The second and third points provide us with a good reminder that just because you hear that men are better at reading maps than woman, doesn’t mean that if you’re a woman you should relinquish map-reading duties to a man, and doesn’t mean that if you’re a man you should let her.

Another important question that rarely gets a mention in the “women can’t do math and men are incapable of feeling!” type of article is how much these differences can be explained by biology, and how much can be explained by social and environmental factors (and what sort of influence these factors have on each other). A woman’s preference for pink might say something about how well she conforms to social expectations, but doesn’t offer evidence for some sort of inherent preference for the colour written into her biology. It is worth noting that only a century ago baby boys’ nurseries were painted pink, and girls’ blue, because pink was regarded as a stronger, masculine colour.

Why are we so obsessed with the differences between men and women? After all, we’re the same species and far more similar to each other than we are different. Psychologists and cognitive scientists have studied our tendency to organise the objects of the world into categories, to develop beliefs about the attributes of the members of the categories, and to seek confirmation for those beliefs while ignoring or minimising information that contradicts these beliefs.

As usual, a bit of knowledge brings us enlightenment. Back in those windy alleys of Seville I shook myself out of my ‘women can’t do this’ self-doubt and found a suitably crappy hostel for the night. So don’t give up on your dreams because of what some newspaper report says you can’t do – and you too will find your own cheap and crappy accommodation for less than €15 a night.


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