Don’t believe the hype

// 9 October 2007

Deborah Cameron has written a book entitled The Myth of Mars and Venus, published last week by Oxford University Press. As she explains in an interview in The Times today, men and women are all from Earth, but perhaps John Gray is from Uranus.

Extracts from this book appear in The Guardian. I was going to provide lots of choice quotes, but it’s all so fascinating, insightful and comprehensive that I felt like quoting all of it, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself. The basic premise is, women don’t talk more than men – just more than the patriarchy would like them to.

This table presents a realistic picture of what scientific research has actually discovered about the differences between men and women, where ‘d’ is the value of overall gender difference: minus values indicate that women are ahead of men and plus values indicate that men are ahead of women. As Cameron points out, the only reputable studies that have revealed significant differences between the sexes have measured athletic prowess and aggressiveness, at which men outperformed women. In other words, this is what you would expect from differences in muscle mass and testosterone levels, with little or nothing to do with the manner in which male and female brains are ‘wired up’.

Of course, the stereotype of the grunting, knuckle-dragging buffoon is pretty insulting to men:

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!”)?

From The Guardian

An unfortunate side-effect of these patronising gender stereotypes however is that they can excuse loutish, petulant behaviour in men. As Cameron explains, this can have serious consequences:

Cameron cites one rape trial in Canada in the 1990s where the female complainant is asked: “Did it occur to you through the persistent behaviour that maybe your signals were not coming across loud and clear”, while the male complainant states simply: “She said that she was tired but she never said like ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t’.”

Cameron argues that both men and women are perfectly capable of understanding what a woman saying ‘I’m tired’ and feigning unconsciousness means, but no one thinks to ask why the defendant is being so obtuse. The complainant, on the other hand, is roasted for not being direct enough. The myth of Mars and Venus bolsters a great escape route for the defendant: miscommunication.

From The Times

So, big up to the Deborah Cameron massive. But the one major beef I have with all of this is that nobody seems to be tackling the commonly-held belief, often backed up in the same manner by dodgy sensationalist ‘studies’, that women can’t read maps and have poor sense of direction and spatial awareness. If Cameron manages to debunk the myth that men are useless neanderthals who can’t communicate but people continue to believe that women can’t navigate their arse from their elbow, we could end up in a nasty situation whereby we swap rigid, equal-but-different gender stereotypes for perceived male superiority.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that all of these differences between the sexes are minute, with far more variation between people regardless of gender than between the genders themselves. But as Cameron explains, “A book called Men and Women Understand Each Other Pretty Well Most of the Time isn’t going to sell too many copies, is it?”

Alas, Deborah, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

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