A Continuing Debate: Are Men And Women Different? Does It Matter?

We've been watching the debate stirred by research done Thomas S. Dee is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at Swarthmore College and a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggesting that some boys do better with a male teacher and some girls do better with a female teacher.

There was an interesting Opinion piece in the LA Times by an author of Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs by Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers. A book published a few years ago.

We appreciate the need to not perpetuate stereotypes. And that the key is that both boys AND girls get a quality education. And that some of the most important factors for childrens' educational success is competent teachers, men AND women.

We were reading some of the responses to the Barnett and Rivers' book:

Monica J. Kern, Professor of social psychology at the University of Kentucky.

"As a social psychologist, I read this book with some eagerness, thinking of it as a potential text for my classes. However, I ended up feeling rather disappointed and concluding that--while it makes some good points--it suffers from many of the same criticisms it points out in the work of feminist scholars.

As an example, the book devotes an inordinate amount of space to criticizing the work of Carol Gilligan. I was actually glad to see this, because the authors correctly point out that Gilligan's work has had a disproportionate and scary amount of influence on cultural thought despite severe methodological flaws (e.g., small sample, reliance on unrepresentative anecdotal accounts, refusal to allow other researchers access to data, etc.). However--and without any apparent sense of irony--Barnett and Rivers rely heavily on anecdotes from their own clinical practices throughout the book to make THEIR points. And if it's not okay for Gilligan to do so, why is it okay for them?

A second feature I found disappointing in this book is that the authors misinterpret "small differences" to mean trivial or meaningless. For example, a frequent refrain throughout the book is that studies comparing genders find more variability within genders than between genders. This is undoubtedly true, but it does not mean that the obtained mean differences are unimportant. As an illustration, take the height difference in men and women. Few people would argue that men, on average, are taller than women. Of course, there is greater variability within genders than between; in other words, the difference between the tallest ten percent of men and shortest ten percent is greater than the difference between the average man and woman. But that does not call into question the documented sex difference: Men are, on average, taller than women, and this difference reflects innate biological sex differences. Height, of course, is a trivial trait I chose to make the point vividly, but the same argument can be made about any of the cognitive and psychological traits that solid science (e.g., peer-reviewed meta-analyses) reveals to demonstrate sex differences. To give a more substantive example, while men and women do not differ on overall IQ, they DO differ in the shape of the distribution, with men being disproportionately represented in the tails. To put it bluntly, there are more severely retarded men...but there are also more male geniuses. Why, nobody knows, but it does no good to try to pretend these differences don't exist or to blame it on some nonexistent glass ceiling that is preventing women from geniushood.

In short, I feel this book goes too far in trying to deny the existence of sex differences. I agree with the authors that the "Men are from Mars" and Carol Gilligan crowd is doing a disservice to men and women alike by stereotyping and pigeonholing us and insisting that we do not have the capabilities or flexibilities to show traits associated with the opposite gender. But I think "Same Difference" undermines their own argument by insisting too steadfastly that there are no differences at all, and their argument is undermined further by a willingness to rely on anecdotal evidence they (rightfully) dismiss in others' work. Yes, there is tremendous variability within genders, and both men and women are capable of an infinite range of behaviors, emotions, and talents. But men and women also differ, reliably, consistently, and in statistically significant and practically important ways. To pretend that they don't is the tale of the emperor's new clothes all over again."

The debate will continue.

What do you think?