An internal memo from a Google employee about diversity has caused a furore. An extract from our book “What Mums Want: And Dads Need To Know” attempts to shed some light on precisely how men and women differ …
Stereotypical ways of talking about men and women became popularised by the famous bestseller ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’. Writer John Gray cleverly presented some of the ways men and women differ as if we are from different planets .
There’s an element of truth to all of this. But there’s also a problem with putting all men into one box and all women into another. Not all men compartmentalise or deal with their stress by withdrawing to their cave. Not all women spin plates and charge after their husbands when fired up by a sense of injustice.
One of the best recent investigations of this comes from US social scientists Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis. Their study looked at over a hundred different ways men and women might differ. Their paper is rather ironically titled ‘Men and women are from earth’, which also gives you a pretty good clue as to their conclusion. (You can download the whole paper as a pdf here)
Imagine for a moment that men and women are all painted a different colour. Suppose that all men are coloured blue and all women are coloured red. Colour would then be what Carothers and Reis call a ‘taxon’. Whenever you see somebody wandering around who is painted blue, you can be reasonably certain that person is a man. If the person is painted red, you can be similarly confident that you are looking at a woman. So if all you know about people is that men are blue and women are red, then colour is a ‘taxonic’ difference that enables you to identify men and women. Get the idea?
So what isn’t a ‘taxon’? Although there are unquestionably stereotypes in the ways men and women tend to think differently, there is also a great deal of overlap in attitudes and behaviour.
Attitude to sex is one good example covered in the study. Men tend to think about sex more often than women and are also more likely to find the idea of sex with a stranger more appealing. Women, on the other hand, are less willing than men to have sex without love.
So if all you know about somebody is that they think about sex a lot and don’t mind having sex without love, you might be able to guess that it’s a man. However you couldn’t be at all confident about this. Attitude to sex may fit the stereotype. But it isn’t a ‘taxon’. There’s just too much overlap between the sexes.
Here are some other examples that show average differences between men and women but where there is also a great deal of overlap.
- In terms of our attitudes to finding a potential marriage partner, as well as having more relaxed attitudes to sex, men tend to put more importance on physical looks whereas women tend to put more importance on future prospects.
- In terms of the way we relate to one another, men tend to be more competitive, decisive, persistent and robust, whereas women tend to be more empathic, emotional, devoted, gentle, helpful, kind, aware of others feelings, and oriented towards caring for others.
- In terms of our attributes, men tend to be more interested in science whereas women are more likely to fear failure.
All of these differences fit with the stereotype. Yet none of them show us traits that are exclusive to either men or women. We all do a bit of both.
So are there any areas at all where men and women differ in absolute terms, where our differences can be described as a ‘taxon’ rather than just a tendency?
Carothers and Reis found two areas that distinguish men from women much more clearly .
• Physical attributes and size differ greatly between men and women. Among male and female college athletes who participated in the track events of high jump, long jump or javelin throw, there was virtually no overlap in results. So if you watched somebody jump above a certain height or distance, or throw a javelin particularly far, you could be very confident that you are watching a male athlete and not a female one. You could be equally confident if all you knew about somebody was their body measurements. A separate study of weight, height, shoulder breadth, arm circumference and waist-to-hip ratio demonstrated that men are almost always physically bigger and stronger than women. There are obviously exceptions to this. But if all you know about somebody is their strength or size, you can make a pretty good guess at whether they are male or female. This distinction definitely qualifies as a ‘taxon’.
• Sex-stereotyped activities also differ greatly. College students were asked to list activities that they liked doing in their spare time. Out of 129 activities listed, 28 showed a tendency to be stereotypically male or female. However across thirteen of these, there was almost no overlap at all. Boxing, construction, golf, videogames and porn were predominantly male activities. Taking a bath, talking on the phone, watching talk shows, and various aspects of cosmetics were predominantly female activities. So if you wander out to the golf course, you can predict with a high degree of confidence that almost all of the players you see will be men. And if you walk into a room only to discover that a member of your family is watching a chat show on TV, it’s also a fair bet that it’ll be a woman. These particular activities also count as ‘taxons’.
This is hilarious! But the conclusion is clear.
Men’s greater strength and size makes them interested in very different activities to women. As Carothers and Reis conclude in their paper, it is easy to see that men’s and women’s bodies were built to do different things.
There is of course one further difference that distinguishes between men and women. Ultimately it’s the most important difference, bringing with it a profound difference in mindset and attitude to life.
Women have babies and men don’t.
This is one difference that is absolute. Since no man has ever given birth, there is no overlap whatsoever here. If somebody tells you they are pregnant, you can be 100% certain that it’s a woman.
Apart from stating the obvious, why is this so important?
Nine months of growing a baby inside a woman unavoidably changes the way she thinks when she becomes a mother. For nine months, she is constantly aware that something, somebody, is moving around within her body, expanding her shape, affecting her moods and needs, making her self-conscious and altering the way she thinks about herself. For nine months, she has non-stop movement, heat and discomfort that she cannot ignore.
By the time she gives birth, thoughts about the baby have become completely automatic. ‘Baby, baby, baby’ dominates her thinking, pressing on her mind almost continuously. Although the relentlessness of this will soften over time, she will be unable to stop herself from thinking about her baby in the back of her mind, perhaps even for the rest of her life.
Between the two of us (Harry and Kate), we’ve run hundreds of Let’s Stick Together relationship sessions for new parents, in post-natal clinics, in children’s centres, in mum and toddler groups . We’ve spoken to several thousand new mothers about the way pregnancy makes mums think ‘baby, baby, baby’ automatically.
Every mum agreed. Not a single mum disagreed.
Extract from What Mums Want: And Dads Need To Know by Harry & Kate Benson, Lion Hudson, 2017