Understanding The Difference Between Men And Women
For centuries, the differences between men and women were socially defined and distorted through a lens of sexism in which men assumed superiority over women and maintained it through domination. As the goal of equality between men and women now grows closer we are also losing our awareness of important differences. In some circles of society, politically correct thinking is obliterating important discussion as well as our awareness of the similarities and differences between men and women. The vision of equality between the sexes has narrowed the possibilities for discovery of what truly exists within a man and within a woman. The world is less interesting when everything is same. It is my position that men and women are equal but different. When I say equal, I mean that men and women have a right to equal opportunity and protection under the law. The fact that people in this country are assured these rights does not negate my observation that men and women are at least as different psychologically as they are physically.
None of us would argue the fact that men and women are physically different. The physical differences are rather obvious and most of these can be seen and easily measured. Weight, shape, size and anatomy are not political opinions but rather tangible and easily measured. The physical differences between men and women provide functional advantages and have survival value. Men usually have greater upper body strength, build muscle easily, have thicker skin, bruise less easily and have a lower threshold of awareness of injuries to their extremities. Men are essentially built for physical confrontation and the use of force. Their joints are well suited for throwing objects. A man’s skull is almost always thicker and stronger than a women’s. The stereotype that men are more “thick-headed” than women is not far fetched. A man’s “thick headedness”, and other anatomical differences have been associated with a uniquely male attraction to high speed activities and reckless behavior that usually involve collisions with other males or automobiles. Men invented the game “chicken”, not women. Men, and a number of other male species of animal seem to charge and crash into each other a great deal in their spare time.
Women on the other hand have four times as many brain cells (neurons) connecting the right and left side of their brain. This latter finding provides physical evidence that supports the observation that men rely easily and more heavily on their left brain to solve one problem one step at a time. Women have more efficient access to both sides of their brain and therefore greater use of their right brain. Women can focus on more than one problem at one time and frequently prefer to solve problems through multiple activities at a time. Nearly every parent has observed how young girls find the conversations of young boys “boring”. Young boys express confusion and would rather play sports than participate actively in a conversation between 5 girls who are discussing as many as three subjects at once!
The psychological differences between man and women are less obvious. They can be difficult to describe. Yet these differences can profoundly influence how we form and maintain relationships that can range from work and friendships to marriage and parenting. Recognizing, understanding, discussing as well as acting skillfully in light of the differences between men and women can be difficult. Our failure to recognize and appreciate these differences can become a life long source of disappointment, frustration, tension and eventually our downfall in a relationship. Not only can these differences destroy a promising relationship, but most people will grudgingly accept or learn to live with the consequences. Eventually they find some compromise or way to cope. Few people ever work past these difficulties. People tend to accept what they don’t understand when they feel powerless to change it. Relationships between men and women are not impossible or necessarily difficult. Problems simply arise when we expect or assume the opposite sex should think, feel or act the way we do. It’s not that men and women live in completely different realities. Rather, our lack of knowledge and mutual experience gives rise to our difficulties.
Despite great strides in this country toward equality, modern society hasn’t made relationships between men and women any easier. Today’s society has taught us and has imposed on us the expectation that men and women should live together continuously, in communion, and in harmony. These expectations are not only unrealistic but ultimately they leave people feeling unloved, inadequate, cynical, apathetic or ashamed. The challenge facing men and women is to become aware of their identities, to accept their differences, and to live their lives fully and as skillfully as possible. To do this we must first understand in what ways we are different. We must avoid trying to change others to suit our needs. The following illustrates some important differences between men and women. These differences are not absolute. They describe how men and women are in most situations most of the time.
Men and women approach problems with similar goals but with different considerations. While men and women can solve problems equally well, their approach and their process are often quit different. For most women, sharing and discussing a problem presents an opportunity to explore, deepen or strengthen the relationship with the person they are talking with. Woman are usually more concerned about how problems are solved than merely solving the problem itself. For women, solving a problem can profoundly impact whether they feel closer and less alone or whether they feel distant and less connected. The process of solving a problem can strengthen or weaken a relationship. Most men are less concerned and do not feel the same as women when solving a problem. Men approach problems in a very different manner than women. For most men, solving a problem presents an opportunity to demonstrate their competence, their strength of resolve, and their commitment to a relationship. How the problem is solved is not nearly as important as solving it effectively and in the best possible manner. Men have a tendency to dominate and to assume authority in a problem solving process. They set aside their feelings provided the dominance hierarchy was agreed upon in advance and respected. They are often distracted and do not attend well to the quality of the relationship while solving problems. Some of the more important differences can be illustrated by observing groups of young teenage boys and groups of young teenage girls when they attempt to find their way out of a maze. A group of boys generally establish a hierarchy or chain of command with a leader who emerges on his own or through demonstrations of ability and power. Boys explore the maze using scouts while remaining in distant proximity to each other. Groups of girls tend to explore the maze together as a group without establishing a clear or dominant leader. Relationships tends to be co-equal. Girls tend to elicit discussion and employ “collective intelligence” to the task of discovering a way out. Girls tend to work their way through the maze as a group. Boys tend to search and explore using structured links and a chain of command.
While men and women can reach similar conclusions and make similar decisions, the process they use can be quit different and in some cases can lead to entirely different outcomes. In general, men and women consider and process information differently. Women tend to be intuitive global thinkers. They consider multiple sources of information within a process that can be described as simultaneous, global in perspective and will view elements in the task in terms of their interconnectedness. Women come to understand and consider problems all at once. They take a broad or “collective” perspective, and they view elements in a task as interconnected and interdependent. Women are prone to become overwhelmed with complexities that “exist”, or may exist, and may have difficulty separating their personal experience from problems. Men tend to focus on one problem at a time or a limited number of problems at a time. They have an enhanced ability to separate themselves from problems and minimize the complexity that may exist. Men come to understand and consider problems one piece at a time. They take a linear or sequential perspective, and view elements in a task as less interconnected and more independent. Men are prone to minimize and fail to appreciate subtleties that can be crucial to successful solutions. A male may work through a problem repeatedly, talking about the same thing over and over, rather than trying to address the the problem all at once. While there are differences in the ways that men and women think, it must be emphasized that they can and do solve problems in a similar manner. There are no absolutes, only tendencies.
Women have an enhanced ability to recall memories that have strong emotional components. They can also recall events or experiences that have similar emotions in common. Women are very adept at recalling information, events or experiences in which there is a common emotional theme. Men tend to recall events using strategies that rely on reconstructing the experience in terms of elements, tasks or activities that took place. Profound experiences that are associated with competition or physical activities are more easily recalled. There appears to be a structural and chemical basis for observed memory differences. For instance, the hippocampus, the area in the brain primarily responsible for memory, reacts differently to testosterone in men and it reacts differently to changing levels of estrogen and progesterone in women. Women tend to remember or be reminded of different “emotional memories” and content to some extent as part of their menstrual cycle.
There is evidence to suggest that a great deal of the sensitivity that exists within men and women has a physiological basis. It has been observed that is many cases, women have an enhanced physical alarm response to danger or threat. Their autonomic and sympathetic systems have a lower threshold of arousal and greater reactivity than men. In both men and women, higher levels of testosterone directly affect the aggressive response and behavior centers of the brain. Increasing estrogen and progesterone in men has a “feminizing” effect. Sexually aggressive males become less focused on sexual aggressive behavior and content when they are given female hormones. On the other hand, changing estrogen and progesterone levels in women during menstrual cycles can produce a “flood” of memories as well as strong emotions. Increasing or high levels of testosterone can produce an emotional insensitivity, empathic block and increased indifference to the distress others. At the heart of sensitivity is our capacity to form, appreciate and maintain relationships that are rewarding. Even here there are important differences. For men, what demonstrates a solid relationship is quite different from that of most women. Men feel closer and validated through shared activities. Such activities include sports, competition, outdoor activities or sexual activities that are decidedly active and physical. While both men and women can appreciate and engage in these activities they often have preferential differences. Women, on the other hand, feel closer and validated through communication, dialogue and intimate sharing of experience, emotional content and personal perspectives. Many men tend to find such sharing and involvement uncomfortable, if not, overwhelming.
The Task Of Relationship Facing Men and Women
The task that faces men and women is to learn to accept their differences, avoid taking their differences as personal attempts to frustrate each other, and to compromise whenever possible. The idea that one gender can think and feel like the other if they truly loved each is rather absurd. Sure, a man or women could act in consideration of the other’s needs, but this would not necessarily be rewarding and honest. Holding the benefit of another above our own is rewarding. But from time to time, and more often for most of us, it is important to be our self and to be accepted, and not to be the source of distress and disappointment in the lives of people we love.
The Role Of Counseling and Therapy
Counseling and therapy can help a couple understand and appreciate each other, and even benefit from their differences. Understanding these differences intellectually is not enough. A counselor or therapist can help point out these differences, as they surface, and guide a couple to a greater level of relationship. Understanding that differences are not intentional and that misunderstandings are merely the result of expectations that are not realistic can make a huge difference in a relationship. The differences that can be sensed between a man and women can deepen their relationship. More importantly, when men seek to understand and appreciate that which is feminine, they come to a deeper understanding of their self. And when a women seeks to understand that which is masculine in men, they come to appreciate and understand more about their own masculinity.
THE SOCIAL ROLES OF MEN AND WOMEN
In all societies the obvious biological difference between men and women is used as a justification for forcing them into different social roles which limit and shape their attitudes and behavior. That is to say, no society is content with the natural difference of sex, but each insists on adding to it a cultural difference of gender. The simple physical facts therefore always become associated with complex psychological qualities. It is not enough for a man to be male; he also has to appear masculine. A woman, in addition to being female, must also be feminine.
However, once the contrast between men and women has been increased and accentuated in this fashion, it is usually taken as a further manifestation of biological differences which confirm the need for different social roles. Or, to put it another way, sex differences are used to create gender differences which are then explained as sex differences which, in turn, require gender differences, and so on. This may be no more than circular reasoning, but it is socially very effective. For example, in our own patriarchal society males enjoy a socially dominant position. Thus, from an early age, boys are helped to acquire a masculinity that allows them to assume and maintain that position. By the same token, girls are taught to cultivate a submissive femininity. The resulting difference in the male and female character is then described as inborn and used to defend the existing power arrangement. Only those who accept it are normal, and only they can expect to succeed. The male social role is designed to reward masculine men, while the female social role offers its relative advantages only to feminine women. (The aggressive man will run the bigger business; the pretty, agreeable woman will find the richer husband.) In other words, masculinity and femininity are gender qualities which are developed in response to social discrimination. However, once they have been developed, they justify and cement it. The masculine and feminine gender roles mutually reinforce each other and thereby perpetuate the inequality on which they are based. Obviously, this psychological mechanism can operate only as long as the behavior of men and women does not transgress the generally accepted limits. Every society tries therefore to prevent such transgressions by calling the socially defined gender roles “natural”, eternal, and unchangeable. Any person who refuses to accept them is persecuted as a deviant and punished as an offender not only against society, but against “nature” itself. An historical example of such deviance is the case of Joan of Arc who, as a young girl, not only led the French army to victory over the English, but also wore male clothing. In her later trial she was promptly accused of having thus violated the laws of nature.
Over the centuries, many people have, of course, wondered why allegedly “natural” roles should need such rigorous social enforcement. After all, if they were truly natural, they would “come naturally” to both men and women. However, it is noteworthy that the advocates of the so-called natural inequality of the sexes resent nothing more than letting “nature” take its course. Yet, if their arguments were true, there would be no need to deny women equal opportunities, since they would be unable to compete with men. If women were “naturally” inferior, men would have nothing to fear. Therefore, the fact that many men do fear such competition raises sufficient doubt as to the validity of their claim.
The truth is that human desires and capacities have a tendency to go beyond the narrow limits of our traditional gender roles. Indeed, it takes a constant combined effort by all social authorities to keep this tendency under control. Such social control appears not only externally, in the form of parental guidance, peer-group pressure, and law enforcement, but also internally in the form of concepts and values which determine the self-image of every individual, and it is in the individual mind where the confusion of sex and gender can create the most serious problems.
For instance, men and women who feel that they do not fit the masculine and feminine stereotypes, or who resent them as too restrictive, may also develop ambiguous feelings about their biological sex. They may begin to wish for different bodies which would allow them to play a role more to their liking. Or, to take another example, since men have been told that women are socially and sexually passive, they are usually gravely disturbed by encountering a woman who is socially aggressive and who takes the initiative in sexual intercourse. Confronted with this “lack of femininity” in a woman, a man may feel tempted to dispute her womanhood. If this contention does not hold up in face of the evidence, he may instead begin to doubt his own masculinity and become sexually dysfunctional. Conversely, a handsome, gentle, and passive male may invite ridicule and may be denounced as a “pervert” or “queer”. “Real women” may regard him as less than a “real man” and therefore reject him as a sexual partner.
However, the confusion goes still further. The notion that in every sexual encounter there has to be one active (masculine) and one passive (feminine) partner is so persistent that it not only ruins many heterosexual relationships, but also influences the behavior of certain homosexuals who feel compelled to model themselves after these stereotypes. By doing so, they give support to the curious belief that even in sexual relationships between members of the same sex, there always has to be one to play the “man”, while the other must assume the role of the “woman”. There is, in fact a general impression that every homosexual couple (whether male or female) consists of one active, masculine and one passive, feminine partner. People who hold this belief are, of course, at a total loss to explain phenomena like the famous homosexual elite troops of ancient Greece, which consisted entirely of male lovers.
All of these views are based on a wrong conclusion drawn from a false assumption. The false assumption states that women are naturally passive, while men are naturally active. The wrong conclusion asserts that every passive person is playing a feminine role and that every active person is playing a masculine role. However, in actual fact neither sex nor gender need be characterized in this fashion. After all, in some human societies the role assignment for men and women is the reverse of our own. In short, there is nothing “natural” or definite about our sexual stereotypes. By the same token, full human equality will not be achieved until it becomes conceivable to both sexes that active and passive attitudes can be appropriate for either of them, and that even two “active” or two “passive” partners can have a rewarding relationship.
This does not mean that, in an ideal future, all human differences will disappear. Indeed, once the old stereotypes have been discarded, the differences between individuals within each sex are likely to increase. Furthermore, under conditions of social equality, these individuals may also happily continue to play different gender roles. There should be no need to point out that there is nothing wrong with gender differences as such. They can greatly enrich our lives, as long as we understand that, in human beings, “different” does not have to mean superior or inferior. In other words, those who demand equal rights for men and women are not asking for drab uniformity, but for a social climate in which variety can flourish without being exploited.
The following pages first elaborate further on the basic concepts of sex and gender and then offer a brief discussion of the different moral standards for men and women.
“Male Logic” and “Women’s Intuition”
The split in our thinking between “masculine” and “feminine” is probably as old as language itself. Human beings seem to have a natural tendency to divide things into pairs: good/bad, light/dark, subject/object and so on. It is not surprising, then, that the male/female or masculine/feminine dichotomy is used to classify things other than men and women. Many languages actually classify all nouns as “masculine” or “feminine” (although not very consistently: for example, the Spanish masculine noun pollo means “hen”, while the feminine polla is slang for “penis”). This is perfectly natural; it is part of the way categorisation works in language. This does not, however, mean that it is right. It is probably unimportant whether a table or a chair is thought of as masculine or feminine. It may not even be very important these days whether we think of the sun as male and the moon as female (like the ancient Greeks) or vice versa (like most of the German tribes). However, when we start associating abstract concepts like Reason or Nature with men and women, we run into serious difficulties.
The association of Reason with men and Nature with women is well-known, and has been widely criticised. Aristotle defined Man as a “rational animal”, and by that he really meant men, not human beings. Unlike Plato, he saw women as less able to reason, hence less “human” and more “animal”. In Europe, well into the twentieth century, women were generally seen as somehow intellectually deficient. An English woman recently became Oxford’s oldest graduate because although she had completed her degree course in the 1920’s, at that time the university did not award degrees to female students. Presumably it would have decreased the status of the university to award degrees to an intellectually inferior sex!
Nearly all societies, from hunting and gathering tribes to post-industrial nations, offer some kind of compensation to those who lose out in the status game. For example, among the practically matriarchal Zuni Indians of New Mexico, the economically powerless men were credited with the ability to make rain. Black slaves in the American South were thought to be naturally stronger (which they generally were), better at music and dancing (which they may have been) and more cheerful (highly unlikely for slaves, but a good justification for treating them badly). In the same way, women are compensated for their supposed inability to think rationally by a mysterious “women’s intuition”. Attempts were made to justify this in biological terms; women were seen as naturally more emotional and/or in touch with Nature because of their strange biology (menstruation, hormones, “vapours” or whatever). This was about as scientific as the Zuni Indians’ theory that men could make rain.
Men and women are, of course, biologically different. There are even significant differences in male and female brains; women, for example, have a thicker corpus callosum (the thing that connects the two halves of the brain). However, it is a giant leap from observing that there are neurological differences between the sexes to assuming that these differences correspond to the classic Reason/Nature or logic/emotion dichotomies. In fact, some of these differences may even indicate the opposite. The left hemisphere of the brain generally deals with linear processing, as found in language and some types of mathematics, and this hemisphere develops faster in girls than in boys. The old “11 plus” test of verbal reasoning used in British schools was actually adjusted to bring boys’ scores up to the level of girls’! Whatever the case, it is a mistake to look at people’s brains and then decide that they must think in a certain way; it would be far better to try and find out how people actually think, and then to see if this corresponds to brain structure.
When we talk about the way men and women think, we are actually dealing with not one, but at least three separate things: how men and women usually think, how men and women can think, and how we think men and women think. Usually when we think we are looking at the first or second subjects, we are actually only describing the third. Since our main guide to how people think is their language, the fact that in most cultures men and women talk in different ways, and about different things, may lead us to false conclusions about the way they think in general. Women’s conversation tends to emphasise feelings more, which may also mean that they think about feelings more. It does not, however, mean that woman are more emotional. It is perfectly possible that men are just as emotional, but for social reasons they talk (and think) about their feelings less. Similarly, the fact that in most cultures men argue more about abstract things does not mean that men are naturally more logical, it just means that the things men prefer to talk about require logical argument more than they require expression of feelings. Obviously the more you argue, the better you get at it, hence the prejudice that men are somehow biologically more logical. This would be like assuming that I am biologically better at speaking English (my first language) than Turkish (my second).
Problems also arise with the actual words we use: logic, reason, intuition and emotion. Logic is simply a set of principles for getting from something we already knew, to something we didn’t. If we know that all cows eat grass, and we know that Daisy is a cow, we can use very simple logic to say that Daisy eats grass, even if we have never seen her eat anything. The more complex logic that we use in constructing philosophical arguments or designing computers is really only doing the same kind of thing. The word “rational” is a little more problematic, since it involves an assessment of aims and actions. If our aims are consistent with each other and our actions achieve our aims, then we can fairly say that we are behaving rationally. If we act in a way that prevents us from realising our aims, then we are behaving irrationally, or in other words, stupidly. For example, if I know that I will have a better relationship with my wife if I don’t shout at her, but I still shout at her because I am in a bad mood, my problem is not that I am being emotional, it is that I am being stupid.
The opposite of “rational” is not, then, “emotional” but “irrational”. If we set up a pair of opposites, rational/emotional, we are likely to make the assumption that women are more emotional and therefore irrational, which is a polite way of saying that women are stupid. While having strong emotions can sometimes interfere with your thought processes, this is not automatically the case. For example, I often get quite excited when I am working on a new theory or project, but this usually makes my thinking better, not worse. Strong “negative” emotions such as rage, jealousy or depression are usually the result of irrational thinking as much as a cause of it, and men are just as vulnerable to this type of stupidity as women.
“Intuition” is an even trickier concept. We usually say that we arrive at an idea or solution to a problem “intuitively” when we know something without knowing how we came to know it. A scientist may arrive at a new theory because the idea just “pops into” his or her head, or even turns up in a dream. You may get an “intuitive” feeling that a person is dishonest without actually having heard them say something you know to be untrue. In both these cases, what seems to be happening is that the mind stores and sorts information unconsciously, providing us only with the end result of this process. There is no guarantee, of course, that this conclusion will be true; a scientist would still have to perform experiments to prove their intuitive theory, and you would probably want some hard evidence to prove that the person you feel is dishonest really does tell lies.
There is therefore nothing particularly strange or mystical about intuition; it is something we do all the time. Why, then, do we talk about “women’s intuition”, as though men never arrive at a conclusion without consciously following all the stages that were necessary to reach it? Again, the answer is probably linguistic. As we have seen, traditionally women’s conversation is less formal, less argumentative, and more concerned with feelings than men’s conversation. Intuitive conclusions are therefore more acceptable in an all-female group. Men, on the other hand, are expected to argue more, and to argue more logically, presenting evidence in a systematic way to back up their conclusions. It is less socially acceptable in an all-male conversation (or a conversation where the men are doing most of the talking) to say “Well guys, I don’t know why, but I just get this kind of feeling that e=mc2.”
We can see, then, that these pairs of opposites, logic/intuition and rational/emotional, are not only false, but also damaging, particularly to women. It therefore surprising that some feminists actually support a version of this patriarchal nonsense. Particularly at the more “spiritual” end of the Radical Feminist community, there is a tendency to glorify women’s “intuition” and “closeness to Nature”, and to avoid “logic” as somehow “male”, as though it were a psychological problem resulting from too much testosterone. The fact that men often use logic, or at least logical-sounding arguments, to “put women in their place” is not a fault of logic, it is the fault of those men’s sexism and lack of social skills. More innocently, men are often accused of being too “cold” and “logical”, not because there is anything wrong with their ideas, but because they do not understand the unspoken rules of female conversation, in the same way that women are often accused of being “illogical” or “emotional” because they do not argue using the same language as men.
If women reject logic and rely solely on feelings, they are left in the weak position of having to argue with feelings. Feeling that something is true does not make it true, and it will not convince anyone else that it is true either. You can say, “I feel X”, but the person you are arguing with can just as well reply, “Well I don’t.” The result is that the argument usually goes nowhere. This is particularly damaging in arguments between men and women, since both sides are likely to go away with their prejudices strengthened; the men think women are subjective, emotional and illogical, and the women think men are impersonal, cold and over-intellectual.
To justify their feelings of hurt at being “beaten” in an argument, the women concerned may go further and dismiss the whole thing as “male logic”, as though there were two types of logic, on for men and anoth
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