On the sex / gender watch

On the heels of my little note on “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words” (a comment from John Baker notes that this is “the motto of the Calvert family “Fatti maschii parole femine” loosely translated [from Italian] as “Manly deeds, womanly words” ”) came two more items on male/female differences: a piece in the NYT Sunday Review on the 21st (“The Tangle of the Sexes” by Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis); and an Alex cartoon in the London Telegraph on men as rational, women as emotional.

Carothers and Reis take up a topic that Mark Liberman has been posting about on Language Log, repeatedly, for years:

Men and women are so different they might as well be from separate planets, so says the theory of the sexes famously explicated in John Gray’s 1992 best seller, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”

That men and women differ in certain respects is unassailable. Unfortunately, the continuing belief in “categorical differences” — men are aggressive, women are caring — reinforces traditional stereotypes by treating certain behaviors as immutable. And, it turns out, this belief is based on a scientifically indefensible model of human behavior.

As the psychologist Cordelia Fine explains in her [2010] book “Delusions of Gender,” [subtitled “How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference”] the influence of one kind of categorical thinking, neurosexism — justifying differential treatment by citing differences in neural anatomy or function — spills over to educational and employment disparities, family relations and arguments about same-sex institutions.

Before I quote from Carothers & Rice on their research, let me recommend Fine’s book and appreciate her coinage neurosexism. (And also recommend Lise Eliot’s 2010 Pink Brain, Blue Brain (subtitled “How small differences grow into troublesome gaps — and what we can do about it”).) Now back to C&R:

The alternative [to categorical thinking], a dimensional perspective, ascribes behavior to individuals, as one of their various personal qualities. It is [then] much easier to imagine how change might take place.

But what of all those published studies, many of which claim to find differences between the sexes? In our research, published recently in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we shed an empirical light on this question by using a method called taxometric analysis.

This method asks whether data from two groups are likely to be taxonic — a classification that distinguishes one group from another in a nonarbitrary, fundamental manner, called a “taxon” — or whether they are more likely to be dimensional, with individuals’ scores dispersed along a single continuum.

… Across analyses spanning 122 attributes from more than 13,000 individuals, one conclusion stood out: instead of dividing into two groups, men and women overlapped considerably on attributes like the frequency of science-related activities, interest in casual sex, or the allure of a potential mate’s virginity.

Even stereotypical traits, like assertiveness or valuing close friendships, fell along a continuum. In other words, we found little or no evidence of categorical distinctions based on sex.

… Just to be safe, we repeated our analyses on several dimensions where we did expect categorical differences: physical size, athletic ability and sex-stereotyped hobbies like playing video games and scrapbooking. On these we did find evidence for categories based on sex.

(Note that even for “taxonic” distinctions, there is likely to be some overlap; the taxa will not necessarily be mutually exclusive. The question is the degree and nature of the overlap.)

Then to the Alex cartoon, sent to me by John Baker yesterday:

(Click on the image to embiggen it.)

The Alex strip was new to me. Baker explained in e-mail that

it runs weekdays in the London Telegraph and is, as far as I know, the only comic strip whose protagonist is an investment banker. The characters in this particular strip have not been seen before, except for the woman, who is Alex’s wife, Penny. This strip is typical of Alex in that it sets up an expectation (in this case, that women are the subjective and emotional sex), then subverts it in the final panel.

On the strip, from Wikipedia:

Alex is a British cartoon strip by Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor. It first appeared in the short-lived London Daily News in 1987. It moved to The Independent later that year and then to the Daily Telegraph in 1992.

… The humour in the strip derives from wordplay and twist endings related to Alex’s world of yuppie values, right-wing politics, obsession with appearances, displays of wealth and schemes to stay one up in the world of international finance.

Peattie and Taylor are reputed to work closely with a variety of London financial contacts to ensure that their strips accurately reflect the recent scandals and rumours which pass around the City. Much gossip has circulated as to the likely inspiration for some of the characters.

… The most common kind of joke features a conversation between the characters, where in the final frame a twist ending becomes apparent – the context of the conversation was not what the reader had supposed, usually reflecting on the protagonists’ materialistic values and priorities.

… Another kind of strip which appears occasionally consists of only two large frames, showing two different characters, or the same character in two different situations, giving a monologue composed of almost exactly the same words, but which, in the different situations, have very different meanings.

Summing up: action vs. talk; assertiveness vs. affiliation (related to competition vs. collaboration) and other putatively gender-related attributes; and rational objectivity vs. emotional subjectivity. All dubious dichotomies.

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