Okay, so just to be clear from the outset, while I’m never going to say that there are no differences between the way that men and women behave, think, and see the world in all sorts of contexts, the distinction between whether these differences represent the way that men and women essentially are, as opposed to how we think men and women are, is a really important one.
But, what I can tell you is that consistent evidence from research, including meta-analyses on gender differences shows that except for a few key exceptions, men and women are actually more the same than they are different.
But, like all things in life, if we are looking for something, including differences, then we are more likely to find them.
Think of it this way… even when women and men do or think the same thing, or have similar ambitions, the way that we expect them to be will still influence how we see them. In other words, gender stereotypes, and how we expect genders to behave and think, are likely to lead people to see and treat men and women differently, even if they’re doing or thinking the same thing as each other.
Or to put it another way, your maleness or femaleness is one of the first social categories we learn to apply – even before you are born, your gender is imposed on you, perhaps unconsciously. When someone asks an expectant parent what she or he is hoping for… most people will say a boy or a girl, not a human baby or some other dichotomous category like blue or green eyes.
Even things like gender reveal parties, which happen before the kid is born for goodness sake, reinforce our need to separate the boys from the girls.
And no matter how hard some parents might want to bring up their kids in a gender neutral way, it’s virtually impossible. From the moment that you’re conceived, the social world around you happily sorts pretty much your whole life into the binary, even if you don’t it to.
So many unconscious, unnoticeable factors go into the brain-building cycle of children (and adults); things like social norms, the modelling of parent behaviour, friends, media and social interactions. Conscious or unconscious imprinting of different expectations around things like self-confidence and risk-taking, drives boys and girls down different trajectories, in relation to socialisation, career and success.
And people who argue that biology or evolution prove the differences between males and females… so things like the physical strength of men (on average) or different levels of testosterone or oxytocin in men and women are actually wrong, because it doesn’t really reflect our current knowledge.
Actual research, rather than, say dodgy books trying to reinforce your current beliefs and sell lots of copies, suggests that the division of gender roles in hunter gatherer societies is much more egalitarian than most people often assume, and that the evidence in relation to specific hormones and their effect on behaviour is not as definitive as we might think.
So, for example, while testosterone tends to be a precursor of aggressive behaviour, it can also influence prosocial behaviour and care. Another example often used to demonstrate these immutable biological differences is in relation to the social bonding hormone, oxytocin. Which is often attributed to women’s role as carers, when in fact, research shows that men and women show equal levels of increases in the hormone six months after the birth of their first child.
There’s also no evidence that mens and women’s brains are wired differently, which seems to come up a lot in popular reporting. One “brain wired differently” argument goes that women are not really less intelligent than men, just ‘different’ in how they think and work… funnily enough in a way that reinforces the status quo of gender roles. So, the argument goes, that women’s brains are wired for empathy and intuition, whereas male brains are best at reason and action.
But, again, there is just no evidence to support this. Things like language-processing is not spread any more evenly across women’s hemispheres than it is in men’s. And that oldie, but a baddie, that men’s brains are bigger than women’s is also not particularly well supported. Research shows that brain size increases with body size, and there are little to no differences observed when we compare small-headed men to large-headed women, and even if there is a small difference, it has no relationship to somebody’s hobbies, desire to go shopping, or take-home pay.
Research also shows that men and women’s cognitive performance in areas like maths, personality or social behaviours, and psychological wellbeing, is more similar than different and success in any of these fields is more likely to be an outcome of external forces, like conditioning, reward, power imbalance, social modelling and reinforcement.
But the most important thing that comes up most often in nearly all of these studies is that men and women show more significant differences among individuals, whether male or female, than between males and females as collective group.
What’s happening is that we’re so tuned in to looking for differences between men and women, we don’t notice the similarities. And the fact that we have established different societal roles and assumed positions of power for men and women has meant that we are likely to emphasise and enlarge any real differences.
In other words, we tend to find what we’re looking for.
Like I said at the beginning of this fairly long piece, of course there are differences between men and women, but sometimes our focus on this single attribute as a means of discrimination is just not useful. Humans are complex and nuanced and to think that 51 percent of the population would all think, behave and be the same is ridiculous.
Yet we persist with a simplistic notion of the exclusive differences between two groups.
And because of this, these two groups are forced to conform to these simple distinctions with the loss of the complexity of difference.
*This article was highly influenced by Janet Shibley Hyde’s “Gender Similarities and Differences”, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2014. 65:373–98. I would suggest you read this if you want to understand more about this issue.