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TRINITY Magazine 2006 | Same Difference

How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs

by Caryl Rivers ’59 and Rosalind Barnett

Nearly ten years ago we wrote a book called She Works/He Works.  Drawing on a four-year, million-dollar study of 300 working couples, we examined how the new “working” family—in which both parents were employed—was faring.  Currently between 60 and 70 percent of families consist of two working parents and their children, so it’s hard to remember that until recently, this was not the norm.  Only thirty-odd years ago, most families consisted of one full-time working parent, the male, and one stay-at-home parent, the female.  It was not until 1980, when the U.S. Census Bureau no longer automatically assumed the male to be the head of the household, that the nation put the old Leave It to Beaver family to rest.  Nowadays most women, including mothers of young children, are part of the paid labor force from their twenties until retirement.  This revolution in women’s lives, and in the life of the family, is taken for granted today.

Our study, as well as studies done by others, showed that many fears arising from the entry of mothers into the workforce—regarding children’s psychological well-being, women’s ability to juggle multiple roles, and men’s willingness to accept those new roles—were groundless: people are doing well in the new family structure.  Most children of working mothers don’t exhibit attachment problems or cognitive deficits.  Many studies show no meaningful differences between the children of mothers at work and mothers at home.  Most working mothers do not turn into emotional wrecks as they perform the family juggling act (in fact, working mothers consistently exhibit fewer emotional problems than stay-at-home mothers), and most men seem to accept the changing power structure at work and on the home front.  Clearly something about this new, busy lifestyle confers a major health benefit…

End of story?  Not quite.  One group of people in our study troubled us.  They were having major problems in their marriages, experiencing severe stress at work and home.  What characterized this “out-of-synch” group was that their beliefs and attitudes deeply contradicted the lives they were living.  Even though all the couples were actually performing dual roles, the people in this group didn’t believe men and women could—or should—be equally competent at both.  In their minds, women were more effective in the home sphere because they were naturally more domestic and more nurturing and simply enjoyed that arena more.  Men, they believed, were by nature more aggressive and less nurturing, and thus better suited to the competitive world of work than the “touchy-feely” domestic sphere.  Because both the men and the women in this group believed they weren’t suited to both roles, they couldn’t enjoy their dual roles or feel competent performing them.  The women were angry that they had to work when they felt their true job was making a home for their families.  The men weren’t able to take pleasure in caring for their kids because they feared they lacked the natural instinct for it.  As a result, the couples—especially the men—felt tremendous stress and often took it out on each other…

Like us, most people had come to believe that men and women, if not interchangeable, were more alike than different in what they could and in fact did do.  The prevailing wisdom was that both sexes would benefit and be happier when there was greater equality at work and at home.

So how to explain our out-of-synch couples?  We sympathized with them but assumed they were simply a holdover from an earlier era and that the traditional ideas they held—beliefs that caused them discord and distress—would soon be a thing of the past.

If we had been right, you would not be reading this book.  Out-of-synch couples—faced with overwhelming evidence that women and men could take on the same tasks in the same way and do them equally well—would have faded into history.  But, as it turns out, we were dead wrong.
Fast-forward eight years.  A best-selling book is published in 2002 by a leading Harvard academic.  In The Blank Slate psychologist Steven Pinker declares that men and women are by nature suited to different roles…The Blank Slate was the latest in a barrage of backlash books that included Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Girls (2002), which urged mothers to disregard feminist messages and focus on their daughters’ caring abilities rather than their talents…  The acknowledged kingpin of the gender-difference screeds was John Gray’s huge best-seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which told us that men and women virtually evolved on different planets.  Another genre of “difference” books came from a surprising source—women who declared themselves feminists but delivered a message that women are very different from men, which could easily be twisted to diminish women’s opportunities…
When we saw how these gender-difference ideas were infiltrating institutions and families, we were puzzled.  Why would people, including some of our brightest intellectuals, promote ideas that we thought had been nullified by mothers’ advancement into the workforce and fathers’ growing involvement in family life.

A Closer Look

So, like all good researchers, we went back to the data.  We looked closely at the “gender-difference” theories to assess their assumptions and the source of their information.  We reexamined our own studies and those of our colleagues to learn why our findings stood in such opposition to the conclusions of the gender-difference theorists…

In [our] book we go beyond data analysis, however, to propose a new way to put together the jigsaw puzzle of research.  We hope that our findings, based on a wide array of studies from many varied disciplines, will be of practical use to our readers as they structure their lives…

It’s important to understand a fundamental difference between our assumptions and those of gender-difference theorists.  We begin with a premise—which we support throughout [our] book—that people’s behavior today is determined more by situation than by gender…

In our modern technological society, both sexes are doing many of the same things and—lo and behold!—are performing equally well.  It’s most likely the job that dictates the behavior, not the gender.  Consequently we argue that one sex is not inherently better suited to certain roles than the other sex.

You may wonder why we pay so much attention to what are, basically, philosophical differences among those who theorize about gender difference.  We do so because, as we’ll show throughout the book, theoretical assumptions have real, practical consequences for the lives and health of men, women, and children…

Drawing on a range of sources, we [show in our book] how these theories hurt male-female relationships, undermine equality in schools and the workplace, adversely affected the division of labor in the home, and deprive our children of the opportunity to develop their full human potential.

Time for a Truce

In explaining behavior, gender-difference experts usually dredge up the “nature versus nurture” argument.  For a time, those who espoused the nurture argument—that most gender differences are socially constructed—held sway.  Environment trumps nature.  Now the nature camp, with its many high-profile adherents, is monopolizing the airwaves.  These experts claim massive differences between the sexes that are deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and are relatively immune from the forces of nurture.

It’s time to call a truce in this war.  It’s not nature versus nurture.  It’s both.  We are not “blank slates” on which experience writes the text.  Nor are we so hardwired that we act out inevitable lifelong scripts.  We are all a product of many interacting forces, including our genes, our personalities, our environment, and chance…

The Change Virus

We have chosen the metaphor “change virus” to describe the process of rapid cultural transformation we see all around us.  “Virus” is a word that biologist Richard Dawkins used in discussing the way ideas spread.  Drawing on Dawkins’s work, Susan Blackmore of the University of the West of England offered some ideas that are relevant to the future of the sexes and the same-difference argument.  Asking which concepts tend to be imitated and spread, she notes that the more visible ones travel fastest.  So, to the degree that nontraditional women are gaining more access to jobs, power, politics, and the media, their lifestyles are spreading faster.  Journalists, actors, athletes, and businesswomen are visible in public roles.  “Non-traditional women today are spreading [ideas] of equality and independence for women,” notes Blackmore.  In contrast, traditional women, who are more apt to be at home, do not have media visibility and are less likely to trigger the change virus…

To this end, we will paint a richer portrait of the sexes, one based on research, that will enable women and men to take maximum advantage of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead and to confront the future unencumbered by the myths and stereotypes of the past.

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