We’ve all heard since near birth that women and men are very different. Men are all macho and swagger, confident, but not too good with emotions. Women are great communicators and are outstanding at nurturing, but they lack the aggression of men.
So we’ve been told, and some choose to believe it, but science is now proving that this simple gender dichotomy simply doesn’t exist.
An article published in the February Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates that there simply are not fundamental, consistent cognitive differences between men and women, and while some traits are more likely to be found in one gender or another, everyone is likely to have some stereotypically feminine and masculine traits.
“Sex is not nearly as confining a category as stereotypes and even some academic studies would have us believe,” said Bobbi Carothers of Washington University in St. Louis, who was the lead author of the study. Carothers noted that while, on average, men tend to be better at math and women tend to be more empathetic, the study showed that it was common for men to be empathetic, or women to be skilled at math.
Carothers and her co-author, Dr. Harry Reis of the University of Rochester, studied 122 characteristics, looking at data from previous studies as well as conducting new research. While some of the studies indicated that some traits were more likely to be held by men or women, there was significant overlap between and within the two groups.
While a few activities, such as watching pornography or scrapbooking, appeared to fall along gender lines, most psychological traits, including criteria used for mate selection, fear of success and empathy, fell somewhere in the middle, with the differences minor and scattered enough that the study’s authors rejected the idea of defining these traits as “masculine” or “feminine.”
“[C]ontrary to the assertions of pop psychology titles like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, it is untrue that men and women think about their relationships in qualitatively different ways,” the authors wrote. They noted that the failure is not limited to pop psychology. “Even leading researchers in gender and stereotyping can fall into the same trap.”
They added that while there were differences in average scores on a number of personality traits, the differences “are not consistent or big enough to accurately diagnose group membership.” Additionally, they noted that having some feminine psychological traits does not preclude having other masculine ones, or vice versa.
“Those who score in a stereotypic way on one measure do not necessarily do so on another,” they wrote. “the possession of traits associated with gender is not as simple as ‘this or that.’”
The study is a direct repudiation of pop evolutionary psychology, which holds that male and female traits are hard-wired and predetermined. Contrawise, there are plenty of aggressive women and nurturing men, plenty of women who excel at math and men who excel at writing. There are also plenty of women and men who are incredibly nurturing and aggressive, or good at math and language.
Carothers and Reis note that while interpersonal problems in heterosexual relationships are often blamed on innate gender differences, there is an increasing body of evidence that shows that “gay and lesbian couples have much the same problems relating to each other that heterosexual couples do. Clearly, it’s not so much sex, but human character that causes difficulties.”
The work by Carothers and Reis is not the first to show that men and women are far more alike than different. Dr. Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin–Madison has written extensively about “overinflated claims of gender differences,” noting that men and women have similar scores on a variety of psychological measures.
Carothers and Reis agree. They note that gender identity is becoming more liberal in America, and that behavioral differences may decrease even more as the socialization of boys and girls becomes more similar.
It’s not “sexy” to say that men and women are pretty much the same. We love to hear how there’s a “battle of the sexes,” between two completely different groups of people. It’s an easy myth to fall back on, but it’s completely wrong. The truth is that, as one would expect from members of the same species, we’re not really different at all. Each of us is a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” traits. If we’re engaged in a battle, it’s with ourselves. Far better to stop the fighting and recognize that all of us, whether women, men or intersex, are capable of great things — and none of us should be limited by a stereotypical understanding of what those great things are.