Archive for November 28th, 2007

Do gender differences exist?

Many people wouldn’t dream of asking this question. From puberty, if not before, the main source of most people’s identity seems to be whether they’re male or female – not just in sexual matters, but in every aspect of their lives. So, I realize that, in asking this question, I haven’t a prayer of getting out alive.

So what makes me the exception who does ask? Maybe it’s the fact that I went to school with a number of intelligent girls, or that I further confused the already confused time of puberty by reading feminist writers. Or possibly, having been dismissed as slow simply because I had a speech impediment in the first six years of my life has left me with an innate dislike of being labeled myself or of labelling others.

Possibly, too, my mental tendencies play a role. I know from other circumstances that my ability to recognize patterns is far better at detecting similarities than differences is involved. Nor is there much doubt that I’m often a contrarian, particularly where popular wisdom involved. But I’d like to think that being observant has something to do with the matter, too.

Oh, I know that men and women behave and speak differently. I’m not denying that. But how do we know that these differences aren’t only the result of circumstances?

Because we know, says the chorus of popular wisdom. The truth is, gender differences are an explanatory principle in modern industrial culture, just like gravity. When someone’s told that an object falls due to gravity, few ever go on to ask about the mechanisms of gravity. In the same way, once you invoke gender differences you no longer have to probe for deeper reasons for someone’s behavior: she gossips because she’s a woman, he likes sport because he’s a man.

The difference is, we have reliable proof of gravity and how it functions. But do we have equally reliable proof of gender differences? Differences in male and female brains have been charted, but I’ve yet to hear these differences related to mental differences, any more than scientists have explained the importance in the design differences in avian and mammalian brains.

We also have thousands of studies that purport to prove differences between male and female – or, at least, reports of such studies in the media – but most of us, including me, hear only their results. We don’t know that these studies were validly designed to eliminate the possibility of bias in their results or their interpretation, so how do we know that they are pointing to real differences? or that the weak correlations and tentative conclusions haven’t been exaggerated by sensation-minded, scientifically weak reporters?

(Because we know, says the chorus).

In any other area, this sort of sloppy thinking would soon get rejected. When the primate language studies of the 1970s showed too much bias, it took the tightly-designed studies of Irene Pepperberg and years of working with Alex, the African Gray who was her main subject, to make the study of animal language acquisition respectable. But nobody minds having their deepest beliefs reinforced, so dubious gender studies go unchallenged.

In fact, I’ve yet to hear of a single study that began by questioning whether gender differences exist. Probably, such a study would have trouble being funded. Instead, they all seem to start with the goal of articulating gender differences, assuming from the start that they’ll find some.

Personally, I’ve never been able to answer the question with any certainty. The idea that you can generalize about roughly half the population makes little sense – unless, of course, the generalizations are so high level or so qualified as to be useless. Not that this bit of logic makes any difference to any of the thousands of self-appointed experts who chatter away about male and female differences in the popular media.

All I know is that, in seven years of university instruction, I had the chance to see thousands of young male and female minds developing. I saw plenty of differences in attitude and perception in individuals. Sometimes, I observed cultural differences. But not once did I see any pattern that suggests differences attributable to gender. Behavioral differences, yes. Intellectual differences, no.

It’s not as though I’m completely disposed to say there are no differences. I simply wonder how so many other people can speak so knowledgeably and comfortable about what seem to me are exaggerations at best.

However, socially, I’m careful to keep this heresy to myself. Inwardly, I may wince when my fellow men try to drag me into a discussion of hockey, or a woman talks about how all her female friends are addicted to chocolate, but, outwardly, I’ve learned to keep my composure. I play the anthropologist trying to ingratiate his way into a strange tribe, and remain non-committal until I can change the subject.

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