Thursday, January 14, 2010

What's the difference between men and women? (From Emily)

For Thursday's question of the day, I want to get at a question that often gets swept under the rug in gender discussions:

What is the difference between men and women?

This question makes a lot of assumptions, many of them politically incorrect. But I'm too tired to make a list of concessions. Know that I'm aware of them, though, and that you can answer this question in whatever way seems most fit. Maybe you don't see a difference at all. Maybe you're angry that I'd even voice this question. Maybe you think men and women are two distinct species with clear-cut differences. Whatever you think, I'd love to hear it.


  1. Emily, I respectfully disagree that this question gets swept under the rug. It seems to me that it lies at the very core of most gender discussions--or at any rate, virtually all non-academic gender discussions ("Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," anyone?). I am one of those individuals that see natural gender difference as minimal, even irrelevant, inasmuch as so much of 'gender difference' is socially constructed. So from my own perspective, the appropriate question is not "what's the difference," but rather, "how is difference socially constructed?"
    That said, *of course* I would ask that question. I'm studying sociology. I know, I know.

  2. Good point, Whitney. Alas, this is what happens when I post late at night. What I meant was that this question often doesn't come up in academic discussions of gender, because those who study gender usually don't look at it as a natural binary. What's your answer to your question? And what differences do you think have been constructed? (perhaps differences exist, but they're the product of social construction... but they still exist?)

  3. It's true that in my department, at least, it would be blasphemous to make any statements that presume gender as a natural binary. Of course, how gender is socially constructed is a huge question (and one I'm actually not that well-equipped to answer), but one of the most visible examples is the media. When people call attention to Sarah Palin's wardrobe, but not Barack Obama's; when the primary concerns of the characters in "Sex and the City" are designer shoes and birth control; when commercials show men demonstrating household products, but women using them--these things create/reify scripts and norms.

    And to answer what differences are constructed (at least partially)....okay, here's an example. In my gender and globalization class today, we discussed feminist research methodology. Some tenets thereof are empathy with the research subject, and de-stigmatization of reflexivity and anything emotional. These are considered 'feminist' aspects inasmuch as empathy/emotional...ness are considered feminine traits. Arlie Hochschild's "The Second Shift" briefly discusses one way in which girls are socialized to be more "emotional" than boys (fathers tend to exhibit more of a "tough love" with their sons than with their daughters).

    Do women actually talk about their emotions more than men? Probably. Do women naturally have more feelings of caring than men do? Possibly. Are feelings of caring and nurturing encouraged more so in women than in men? Definitely.

    A favorite subject in gender difference is toys. Many parents insist that girls just want dolls and boys just want action figures/weapons and never the twain shall meet. All I can say to that is, I *loved* playing with my brothers' Legos.

  4. The only differences I'm comfortable asserting are biological in origin are the sexual ones--and I'm not just talking about the hardware. The fact that it takes the average man substantially less time to climax than a woman may or may not be purely a hardware issue as much as a software one.

    The other issues where men and women are different smack of essentialism, yet I think they may be good rules of thumb. Women think in terms of intimacy, while men think in terms of hierarchy. This may lead to the false (or is it) idea that women are more emotional than men. However, I do wonder if this means that data and information are actually processed differently in the two sexes, or at least given different weights depending on how they think things should matter.

    Of course, the "women are more emotional" myth may also have some basis in hardware, in this case the ups and downs that come with the monthly cycle. But I, being male, cannot comment on how true that is, and it will of course vary from girl to girl anyway. These are just rules of thumb, possibilities, and may or may not have basis in biology, but certainly in culture. Yet part of me wonders if the culture artificially enhances something that's already there with regard to some of these stereotypes.

    And yeah, give any boy I've ever met a stick and it's instantly a sword. Or a lightsaber, post 1977. I'm open to the possibility there are boys that won't use a stick as a weapon, but I haven't met any. Ever. And Legos are more of a gender-neutral toy. I would be more interested in what you played with them or how you played with them, which are more important questions to ask than IF you played with them, Whitney.