TBR: Same Difference

Today’s book is Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers.  It’s an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) discussion of what’s wrong with all the claims that men and women are fundamentally different — at work, at home, as partners, as parents.  They take on everyone from Carol Gilligan to John Gray, and argue that the media has totally oversold the claims for gender differences, and that these beliefs about gender differences become self-fulfilling prophecies.  They quote Sarah Blaffer Hrdy — a biologist whose research is often cited in support of such claims — as saying:

"What begins as a scientist’s cautious speculation moves rapidly into a headline in USA Today and from there becomes received wisdom that directs public policy and influences girls’ career choices."

I generally agree with Barnett and Rivers’, so I’ve been trying to figure out why I can’t summon up more enthusiasm about the book.   I think there are two problems.  First, the book is mostly about what’s wrong with other people’s studies and how they’re represented in the mass media rather than presenting any new information.  There’s only so many different ways you can say "very small non-representative sample" and "generalization" and they quickly run through all of them.  The book is thus more useful as a reference to look up the flaws in a specific argument than as a book you’d want to sit down and read all the way through.

Second, I think Barnett and Rivers’ go too far in denying the reality of differences between how men and women behave.  At times I felt like they were allowing their ideological stance to blind them to the evidence in front of their noses. 

This is particularly frustrating because I don’t think their main thesis depends on such a claim.  In fact, in other parts of the book, they do make several arguments that don’t deny that there are such differences:

  • The differences between men and women are the results of socialization, rather than biological differences.  (Barnett and Rivers offer counterexamples to the claim all other primates have similar gender roles to humans.)
  • The differences between men and women are falsely attributed to gender, when they should be attributed to differences in power.  Powerful women behave in typically "male" ways and subordinate men behave in typically "female" ways.
  • While there may be differences on average between men and women, there is more variance within each group than between groups.  In other words, the curves showing the distribution overlap significantly.  Therefore, the average difference doesn’t tell you much about the abilities or interests of any given individual of a certain gender.

I think these arguments are much more persuasive than trying to argue that there are no differences beween men and women. 

2 Responses to “TBR: Same Difference”

  1. cooper Says:

    In honor of our blog’s official “Parent Appreciation Day” I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoy reading your blog and your take on family life, parenthood and just trying to be a person. You have a wise and resounding voice, so thanks.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    Funny – I just sent an email to the MAWDAH list on a closely related theme. I get so tired of being told how “women” feel this and think that. Whenever I read such an article, I have to check and be sure I still have two X chromosomes, because I invariably sympathize more with the “male” point of view.
    What do you think of the whole Larry Summers “why women don’t become physics professors” flap? Like many of the technically educated women that have been responding, my initial reaction was, “God, I’m tired of hearing this debate.” Sometimes it seems like all the agonizing over why women don’t go into math and science just reinforces the idea that those of us who did must be some kind of aberrant personalities. Maybe we should just encourage everyone to explore all their potentials, and then to pick a path that interests them and that they’re good at. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter whether there are more women or men around them than whether there are more blondes or brunettes around them.

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