Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It turns out, maybe I'm not from Mars after all...

h/t: Jessica

If there's one kind of study that's likely to make me want to pull out my hair and grind my teeth into dust, it's the typical "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" studies. And they're everywhere. You can't walk through the damn grocery store without seeing magazine covers yelling at you that "women do X while men do Y!" or "learn how to think like your man!" or "25 secrets about the female psyche- what she's thinking!"

And isn't it just *so* convenient that almost every time, it turns out that the "secrets" that the study reveils turn out to reinforce the status quo? Oh, how very shocking- a study finds that women talk more than men! I know I've never heard that one, before. And, for extra points, the author of that study points out that "women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road." Thank you, Dr. Brizendine, for that completely gender-busting study.

Lucky for me, I'm a data-hound, and I stumbled upon this article in the APA website. It's about the findings of psychologist Janet S. Hyde, of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It turns out, there doesn't really seem to be that much difference between the sexes after all:
Gender differences accounted for either zero or a very small effect for most of the psychological variables examined, according to Hyde. Only motor behaviors (throwing distance), some aspects of sexuality and heightened physical aggression showed marked gender differences.

So... men are moderately more aggressive, and can throw things farther.


I mean, seriously... wow. Throwing things... that's pretty awesome. I mean, I guess that's great. I should take up bowling or something. I could get angry at the pins and use my manly throwing powers.

And perhaps the most unshocking, but shockingly ignored, aspect of studies about gender:

Furthermore, gender differences seem to depend on the context they were measured in, said Hyde. In studies where gender norms are removed, researchers demonstrated how important gender roles and social context were in determining a person’s actions.

I mean, who would have guess that gender- a socially constructed and enforced attribute- would be at all impacted by the social context within which it's being measured. I mean, you wouldn't expect to find that expressions of masculinity are different in a controlled lab with anonymous participants than in a high-school locker room, right?

I also found a great article by Deborah Cameron, called "What Language Barrier? Remember how it turned out that women speak more than men?

If we are going to try to generalise about which sex talks more, a reliable way to do it is to observe both sexes in a single interaction, and measure their respective contributions. This cuts out extraneous variables that are likely to affect the amount of talk (like whether someone is spending their day at a Buddhist retreat or a high school reunion), and allows for a comparison of male and female behaviour under the same contextual conditions.

Numerous studies have been done using this approach, and while the results have been mixed, the commonest finding is that men talk more than women. One review of 56 research studies categorises their findings as shown here:

Pattern of difference found / Number of studies

Men talk more than women / 34 (60.8%)

Women talk more than men / 2 (3.6%)

Men and women talk the same amount / 16 (28.6%)

No clear pattern / 4 (7.0%)

· Source: based on Deborah James and Janice Drakich, 'Understanding Gender Differences in Amount of Talk', in Deborah Tannen (ed.), Gender and Conversational

Whoops. Looks like women aren't necessarily all that talkitive when compared to their male counterparts.

Cameron has a number of books out, including one released last month called The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?, that I'm thinking I'll need to pick up. (I'm also very interested in some of her other books: Verbal Hygience sounds interesting, and The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader or Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Oh, and The Lust to Kil: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder).


Sugarmag said...

Wow. "women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road" I don't know how someone could say that with a straight face. That is so insulting to men, and just not true. Also, anyone who regularly has conversations with men can tell you that men talk a lot. Duh.

Cool post, I just discovered your site via someone else, but now I'll add you to my list of blogs I read.

Sunflower said...

I love seeing these things deconstructed. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I must be chopped liver from outer space, 'cause I never match what those tropes claim women are/do/think/say.

Like Sugarmag, I just discovered you via someone else (Figleaf in my case; I can't speak for Sugarmag) but am impressed enough - not just by this but by other posts - that I'll be reading regularly.


Virago said...

I am so glad you posted this. I have been in countless arguments with people about the 'women can't park/read maps/focus on one thing for more than 30 seconds' bullshit since seemingly the beginning of time. Since the start these theories have caused my bullshit-o-meter to go off the chart because it's always the case that women can't do positive, active, practical MAN stuff like read maps, park cars and thus are crap, and men can't do irrelevant, useless girly stuff like pack a suitcase or feel emotion or commit, and thus are great.

Sounds like a whole load of patriarchal nonsense to me. I can parallel park, my partner can pack better than I can and the fact of the matter is that our potential is up to us individually to develop, not for society to dictate via the contructs of gender.

Anonymous said...

That study doesn't say what you think. All it really says is men talk more than women in a 1-to-1 woman-man chat. Still that's informative if not shocking.
As for male-female diffs besides the(small) ones you list another one is that men usually find it easiet to rotate shapes mentally. Which is totally swoon-worthy.

Roy said...

That study doesn't say what you think.

Actually, given that I quoted it, it still looks like it said exactly what I thought it said.

If you had followed the link and read the article, you'd have noticed that the article talks about a wide range of differences. Janet Hyde compiled the results of dozens of studies and attempted a meta-analysis of the data. You can see the results of her analysis here.

All it really says is men talk more than women in a 1-to-1 woman-man chat. Still that's informative if not shocking.

Why should that be shocking?

And, really, that's was only one part of the larger analysis, and was the part that I was most interested in, yes. Of course, there's also the part where professor of phonetics Mark Liberman discovered that the claim made in The Female Brain, that women utter an average of 20,000 words per day while man utter only 7,000 was, in fact, based not on research, but on a claim made in a self-help book. Liberman was unable to find any reputable studies that had attempted to discover how many words men or women use in a day.


As for male-female diffs besides the(small) ones you list another one is that men usually find it easiet to rotate shapes mentally. Which is totally swoon-worthy.

Sure... how much better? A little bit better? Significantly better?

Let me help you out. According to Dr. Michael Peters, Professor of Psychology at University of Guelph, the effects are insignificant at the individual level, "Lots of factors affect how well people score, so you can't guess how well one person would do by their gender of sexual orientation."

And, again, the problem with this kind of research is that it doesn't really tell us whether this is innate, or socio-cultural conditioning at work. Are men generally a little better at this because they're men, or because the way we treat boys encourages the development of spatial reasoning skills?

And, ultimately, one of the things that almost every study will show is that the difference within the sexes is greater than the differences between the sexes.

Anonymous said...

First, mistakes. When I said "that study" I in fact meant the article by Deborah Cameron in which she talked about generalising male and female chattiness ratios with a 1:1 male-female chat. While the pretty ambiguous findings COULD mean that "men talk more than women" (and probably does) there's a logical fallacy at work. If statement A is "men usually talk more than women in a 1:1 chat" and statement B is "men usually talk more than women" then if A is true it doesn't necessarily follow that B is true. I see now from her writing that Cameron meant IF we are going to generalise instead of saying we ARE going to generalise. This kind of generaliation struck me as odd coming as it did from a study that looked at a small subset of possible interactions. After all, it's possible men talking to more are a chatty bunch or are very dour, or likewise in large groups of men and women, or in 1:2 chats or what have you. A bit like physicists saying "the Big Bang is too complex so we're going to look at this single particle that was involved in it and make sweeping conclusions from that" instead of what she actually meant: "If people want to know by and large what the Big Bang was about let's look at this very important particle that we're reasonably sure did this."
My mistake.
"All it really says is men talk more than women in a 1-to-1 woman-man chat. Still that's informative if not shocking."
You misread this but that's fair enough since I miswrote it. Here's what I actually meant:
"Still that's informative BUT not shocking."
As for your last rebuttal I was being facetious. Without the stats to hand and no way of retrieving them (they came from an article in the Economist) but still finding it a fun fact I thought I'd put it in with the subtext of "wow, look at those big men with their rotation skills". "Usually" was to succinctly and implicitly state all that you mentioned; that nurture is a greater determinant than nature and so on. I thought it came out in my tone but so should have Cameron's intent in the article I misread.
Don't be so pissy when you're rebutting, though. I don't need you to "help me out".