Twenty-seven years after publishing his best-selling novel Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, John Gray believes that the relationship dynamics between men and women have been fundamentally transformed with the rise of social media and women’s emancipation in the workforce. Now that men and women are somewhat on the same footing in terms of their career, couples face a slippery slope trying to strike a balance between personal aspirations and commitment. No matter how harrowing and confusing it might be, to understand the opposite gender, it is still important to take a step back and question why women and men are on such different tangents. Does it all just boil down to biological differences, or are the differences between males and females just fictitious constructs influenced by society and gender norms? Could the collapse of the Lehman Brothers really have been avoided if it was, as Christine Lagarde puts it, Lehman Sisters instead? Perhaps it is best to avoid such sweeping generalizations and look at what psychology says instead.
Let us start with the most common personality trope: women are less aggressive and more caring than men. Indeed, an influential study by Paul Costa, Robert McCrae and Antonio Terracciano in 2001 seems to confirm this. Among twenty-three thousand men and women from twenty-six cultures around the globe, women consistently rated themselves as being warmer, friendlier, and more anxious and sensitive about their feelings than men. Men on the other hand, considered themselves more assertive and open to new ideas than women. All in all, women scored higher on average on the personality psychology areas of Agreeableness and Neuroticism, while men scored higher on one facet of Extraversion. The results of this study held true even in a separate study where twelve-thousand participants from fifty-five cultures were asked to describe the personality of another man or woman they knew instead of themselves. Evolutionary psychologists would explain these differences as a natural result of the way our ancestors survived. Women with more nurturing personalities would have raised offspring better, and men with more competitiveness had higher chances of success in finding a mate.
While these findings may tempt one to generalize the differences between men and women, the picture is far from simple. One of the major criticisms of such studies is that questionnaires and self-surveys makes participants provide answers that places them in a positive light, more commonly known as “participant bias” in psychology lingo. Indeed, one way to account for this problem has been to note the speed of keyboard responses by the participants (typing as fast as possible in response to different words) to assess how closely people relate words pertaining to themselves with those describing different personality traits. The rationale is that participants unintentionally reveal what they think about their personality and so their scores cannot be influenced by preconceived notions about gender and cultural conformation. Studies using this approach find that while women and men do differ on Neuroticism and Agreeableness, the intensity of it is not as much as previous studies indicate. In other words, questionnaires and self-reporting methods tend to exaggerate gender differences.
A landmark study conducted by Hyde (2005) further emphasises the gender-similarity stance and found that males and females in adulthood may actually be more alike than not. Analysing forty-six meta-analyses conducted during the last two decades of the 20th century revealed that men and women are closely related in terms of cognitive ability, personality, and leadership. A few differences include higher levels of aggression and masturbation in men as well as more permissiveness related to sex in uncommitted relationships. Interestingly, gender roles were reversed when Hyde controlled for labelling and identification of participants according to their sex: women were more aggressive than men. This finding suggests that behavioural traits like aggression are not necessarily static and predetermined: differences between men and women are as much an embodiment of the context people are in as evolution passed down through the generations.
As you might have figured out by now, psychology does not have a clear answer about the Mars-Venus debate. But these studies suggest that men and women might not actually be planets apart, and that has important implications for the way we discuss differences in capabilities between men and women. If we let girls believe that boys are better than them at Maths for example, then chances are that they will internalize that for life. Perhaps that also explains why, despite all the buzz around gender-parity, women in the finance sector are less optimistic than men regarding their career prospects at top positions. To top it all off, it does not help that the media we consume constantly bombards us with images of girls falling head-over-heels for boys who wield sex as the ultimate power symbol. Notwithstanding the inherent evolutionary differences women and men harbour, it is crucial to look beyond the stereotypes that cloud our judgements and recognize that times have changed: women and men deserve an equal place in all spheres of society, from access to education to positions as C-level executives.