They Just Don't Get It 

Gender gurus' junk science keeps us mired in sexist thinking

Gender gurus' junk science keeps us mired in sexist thinking

Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs

By Rosalind Barnett and

Caryl Rivers (Basic Books, 289 pp., $25)

In the early 1980s, I was a student at Mt. Holyoke College, which, as its development office never tires of noting, is the oldest college for women in the United States. During my sophomore year, a prominent history professor publicly stated that the school ought to go co-ed because the all-female classes were just too genteel and intellectually passive. The place needed some guys to mix things up and raise the level of discourse. He insisted this would only benefit the women, who were being academically stunted in their cloistered environment.

His suggestion would have been greeted with much hissing and spitting any time, but he happened to mouth off just as Carol Gilligan's book In a Different Voice was coming to prominence. Here was the work of a scientist—from Harvard, no less—whose research proved that women's minds really do work differently than men's, and that our lack of assertiveness and seemingly fuzzy reasoning arise from our uniquely female wiring. According to Gilligan, it is the hyperaggressive, patriarchal culture that devalues our caring behavior as "passive." Her work was the subject of much happy discussion both in and out of the classroom. Needless to say, the historian found few supporters and shortly took himself away to the University of Georgia, where an excess of gentility was apparently not a problem.

Now 20 years later, two well-known feminists, psychologist Rosalind Barnett and journalist Caryl Rivers, have come out with a book that skewers Carol Gilligan and systematically debunks theories of gender difference from feminists and anti-feminists alike. The book makes no distinction between testosterone fans such as Lionel Tiger and Desmond Morris, who argue that male biology shaped by evolution makes men better at everything from truck driving to calculus, and feminists like Gilligan and Deborah Tannen, who seek to recast female "weaknesses" as the product of a fundamentally more loving, empathetic nature. Both schools of thought harm men and women by providing justification for a sexist social order, and by discouraging individual efforts to transcend it.

The authors devote a good portion of the book to illustrating how these myths damage personal lives. They have a particular enmity for the ideas of John Gray, author of the wildly popular Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus series. Far from improving understanding between the sexes, Rivers and Barnett argue, Gray's paradigm creates guilt and barriers to intimacy: "Gray's prescriptions leave a woman with only one solution to problems of communication with a man. She has to be the caring, sacrificing, ethereal 'Venusian,' completely tuned in to the wants and needs of others while denying her own. A Venusian can't get angry. She can't criticize. She can't offer to help if he has a problem. She can't ask him to change his behavior. When he withdraws, she can't object. And if she isn't feeling 'loving,' she can't even talk to him."

Same Difference explores the ways in which popular media have trumpeted the marginal research that supports the idea that men and women are essentially different, and ignored a large body of solid science that says quite the reverse. For example, a single study in 1990 by the American Association of University Women purportedly found that young girls suffer a dramatic drop in self-esteem between the ages of 9 and 15. The study, though flawed and never submitted for peer review, garnered tremendous publicity and led to a best-selling book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Putnam, 1994) by psychologist Mary Pipher. Programs sprang up all over the U.S. and Canada to address the "crisis" of poor self-esteem in adolescent girls. Little media attention was given to two much larger, more rigorous studies that found only minor differences in the self-esteem of teen girls and boys. Certainly, many teen girls are troubled and self-destructive, but there's no evidence that boys are less so—yet the Ophelia theory casts girls as special victims of adolescent angst.

Rivers and Barnett take on the whole range of gender myths—girls hate math, boys are less relational, women are less violent, men are incapable of monogamy, etc.—and carefully lay out the sound but little-publicized studies that disprove them. The scope of their research is impressive for a book that is clearly intended for a general audience. All the data combined with a somewhat chatty, anecdotal tone makes for an uneven read, but this book would be handy to have around as ammunition against the casual sexist remarks that tend to find voice at office parties, holiday dinners and wherever else humans gather.

If men and women are really far more alike than not (and Rivers and Barnett make a good case that they are), why are we working so hard as a culture to believe otherwise? I know I was not the only one among my classmates who quietly thought Gilligan had credited her subjects with a special kind of reasoning ability when they were just being dim; yet somehow we all persuaded ourselves that being unable to think one's way out of a wet paper bag might be a virtue. Rivers and Barnett look to history to explain this tendency, noting that periods of social upheaval have always been marked by a resurgence of gender myths: "Today, in a world of the 24/7 work week, at a time when we can't escape our cell phones, pagers, email, and faxes, when our jobs may disappear overnight to some place we've never heard of halfway around the world, we once again mourn the loss of caring and connection.... And voices rise through this din saying that when each sex takes its place—men making money, women changing diapers—we can return to the human virtues we so cherish. But of course that is impossible."

Apparently, it was ever thus. "The courage of a man is shown in commanding; of a woman in obeying"—that's Aristotle, not John Gray. The book's waiting to be written on why these myths, so destructive to both sexes, run so deep in human culture.

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