What's the Difference Anyway?
"Tell me, how does the other sex of your race differ from yours?"
He looked startled and in fact my question rather startled me; kemmer brings out these spontaneities in one. We were both self-conscious. "I never throught of that," he said. "You've never seen a woman." He used his Terran-language word, which I knew.
"I saw your pictures of them. The women looked like pregnant Gethertians, but with larger breasts. Do they differ much from your sex in mind behavior? Are they like a different species?"
"No. Yes, No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one's life, is whether one's born male or female. In most societies, it determines one's expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners— almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. Women... women tend to eat less.... It's extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child-rearing...."
"Equality is not the general rule then?... "
—The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
In her award-winning science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin describes the planet Gethen, where all the people are hermaphrodites capable of both fathering and mothering a child. The people of Gethen cannot comprehend the difference between male and female. When the Terran ambassador, Genli Ai, visits Gethen, he must negotiate with people who have never experienced gender. As a result, he is forced to examine all the preconceptions he carries with him, as a man from a world in which people definitely do have gender.
The question that Genly Ai tries to answer is one that we all grapple with: How do men and women differ? Although fascinating, this question raises many scientific and political controversies on our own planet Earth. Throughout recorded history, men and women have often been seen as different. However, different has rarely been considered equal. Cultural stereotypes have held that men are more intelligent, logical, courageous, mature, and moral than women. In times past, women have even been regarded as chattel—that is, possessions—of men. It is no wonder then that many feminist scholars are suspicious of research on sex differences, for they suspect that research on sex differences may legitimize sexist beliefs and reinforce pernicious stereotypes about men and women.
Must research on sex differences promote inequality between the sexes? Not necessarily. Even if there were actual differences between men and women, this does not need to imply that one sex is better than the other. Psychologist Diane Halpern (1997) noted that although no one would deny that female genitals differ from male genitals, it is silly to ask whether women's genitals are superior to men's or vice versa. Differences are differences. How they are viewed is a matter of values.
But, can we really remove values from the study of sex differences? Feminist theorists often note that in sexist societies—which probably include most societies—what is male or masculine tends to be valued and what is female or feminine tends to be devalued (Crawford & Unger, 2000). At the very least, the study of sex differences requires that scientists constantly examine the ways in which society uses or misuses their findings. Researchers who study sex differences must guard against biases in evaluating and explaining their findings. Too often, lay people and scientists alike assume that sex differences—to the extent that they do exist—reflect wired in, biologically innate, and immutable differences between males and females. But this need not be true. Although there may be significant (that is, statistically reliable) differences between the sexes, the reasons for these differences are open to debate.
Research findings about sex differences can be viewed from two opposing points of view (Eagly, 1995; Hare-Must in & Marecek, 1988). The first emphasizes differences. One popular book argues that "men are from Mars, and women from Venus" (Gray, 1992), and some feminist scholars argue that men and women speak in "a different voice" and possess different moral outlooks and communication styles (Gilligan, 1982; Maltz & Borker, 1982; Tannen, 1990). Those who emphasize sex differences may sometimes mistakenly portray women and men as opposite sexes. The truth is that the two sexes are rarely, if ever, the opposite of each other. Men may be, on average, more physically aggressive than women, for example. Still, most people—regardless of their sex—do not assault or murder other people (Bussey & Bandura. 1999). Thus, men and women may be more similar than different in their homicidal aggression, even if we grant that they show an on-average difference.
The second, opposing perspective about sex differences tends to minimize differences. According to this minimalist perspective, most sex differences are small-to-negligible in magnitude, and even when they do occur, they are often ephemeral—now you see them, now you don't (Deaux, 1984; Deaux & LaFrance, 1998). The minimalists argue that sex differences appear in some situations but not in others; they occur in some studies but not in others. This variability is taken to imply that sex differences in behavior are created by social settings (e.g., by business organizations that assign more power to men than to women) and that sex differences can, therefore, be eliminated by changing social settings. The minimalist perspective generally holds that human sex differences are not due to innate biological differences between males and females.
The minimalists further suggest that when sex differences in behaviors are found, they often result from gender stereotypes and from wrongheaded research methods. Consider, for example, the common finding that men report more sexual partners than women do (Wiederman, 1997). Does this reflect a real sex difference, or does it indicate instead that when responding to surveys, men and women respond in ways that conform to gender stereotypes? If common stereotypes portray men to be more promiscuous and interested in sex than women, then, perhaps, men and women describe themselves consistent with these stereotypes. Men's tendency to report more sexual partners than women may also indicate that men boast (and, perhaps, lie) more than women about their sexual conquests.
Similar sorts of problems may affect many other studies that look at sex differences in self-reported behaviors, such as helping, aggression, and risk-taking. Despite these problems, researchers continue to study sex differences. After all, the very concept of gender is partly defined by differences between the sexes—differences in men's and women's dress, grooming, occupational choices, communication styles, aggression, and nonverbal behaviors.1 As I show in Chapter 2, gender is also partly defined in terms of variations within each sex—variations in individuals' masculinity and femininity. To analyze how much biological and environmental factors contribute to gender, we must first examine these two different faces of gender: (a) sex differences in behavior, and (b) individual differences in masculinity and femininity within each sex.
This chapter focuses on the first face of gender—sex differences. Our first order of business is to decide which sex differences do in fact exist. Do the sexes differ in their personality traits? Do women take fewer risks than men? Are men more physically aggressive than women? Are women more altruistic and helpful than men? Are women more socially perceptive than men? Do men have an advantage in math? Do women show better verbal skills than men do? Do men and women suffer from different kinds of mental illness? The goal of this chapter is to answer these types of questions, based on the best current research evidence.
As we shall see, the findings are varied and complex. Sex differences are large in some domains and small-to-nonexistent in others. Some kinds of sex differences vary over time and across cultures, and others are more stable. Some sex differences depend heavily on situational factors, and some do not. As we wend our way through the findings, it is important constantly to remind ourselves that whether they are strong or weak, consistent or variable, the mere fact that sex differences exist does not necessarily tell us why they exist.