The idea that females are more nurturing and emotional by nature while males are more logical and aggressive has been repeated so often that it's become an unquestioned assumption. But in their new book, Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, Rosalind Barnett, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, and Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University, examine decades' worth of research, bestselling books, and media coverage about the sexes and find them riddled with misinformation. In an interview, Dr. Barnett explains what the latest research shows and how parents can enable their daughters, their sons, and themselves to reach their full potential.
Q: Where did this idea that men and women are wired differently come from, and why are you sure it's a myth?
A: For generations, there have been theories -- women supposedly had smaller brains, were more childlike, or had penis envy. No one takes these ideas seriously anymore, but in the late 1970s, Carol Gilligan, then a professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, began to argue that girls were different but not inferior. Girls organize their world around relationships and judge themselves based on the quality of their bonds, she said, while boys are rational and make abstract judgments. Gilligan's theory was appealing, especially for women who felt their caretaking skills had been undervalued. Today, we've all been affected by her theory. You encounter it in management texts that describe a "gentler female style of leadership" and in bestsellers like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray, Ph.D.
But Gilligan based her theory on just three studies she conducted, two of which had fewer than 30 subjects, all female. Research conducted since then has drawn other conclusions. Studies on gender differences that have been controlled for income, education, race, and class consistently find that these factors are much more powerful predictors of behavior than gender.