The Guardian has published a wonderful extract from Deborah Cameron’s new book, The Myth of Mars and Venus. In it, she first takes issue with all those writers who claim to be bucking the trends of political correctness by boldly daring to state that there are huge psychological differences between men and women, pointing out that they are in fact stating something overwhelmingly widely believed. The book is devoted to making the case that most of these claims are indeed myths– not just in the sense of being false, but also in the sense of being fictions that people tell themselves to make sense of their lives. It’s a great article, which makes me really want to read the book. One particularly nice feature is the way that Cameron shows the myths to be damaging to both women and men. One extract:
Baron-Cohen classifies nursing as a female-brain, empathy-based job (though if a caring and empathetic nurse cannot measure dosages accurately and make systematic clinical observations she or he risks doing serious harm) and law as a male-brain, system-analysing job (though a lawyer, however well versed in the law, will not get far without communication and people-reading skills). These categorisations are not based on a dispassionate analysis of the demands made by the two jobs. They are based on the everyday common-sense knowledge that most nurses are women and most lawyers are men. If you read the two lists in their entirety, it is hard not to be struck by another “essential difference”: the male jobs are more varied, more creative, and better rewarded than their female counterparts.
The literature of Mars and Venus, in both the self-help and popular science genres, is remarkably patronising towards men. They come off as bullies, petulant toddlers; or Neanderthals sulking in their caves. One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced; why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (“Hey, wait a minute – I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)?
Cameron wonders why men put up with this, but I think the first quote explains it. We can handle a little insult while we’re being praised for more important things, and there’s a very real sense in which those abilities associated with women are considered less important. Sure, talking is considered important– but talking the way women talk? Not so much. Cameron also does a great job on the data, arguing that it really supports what’s been called The Gender Similarities Hypothesis– a truly unfashionable view these days. More Cameron extracts here and here. Cameron also edited the excellent The Feminist Critique of Language and wrote the excellent Feminism and Linguistic Theory, two books of which I’m a huge fan..