Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

6 Ways Men and Women Are (Mostly) Different

We both want it all. Beyond that, research finds we have less in common.

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I’ve spent most of my career as a psychologist examining the differences, as well as the similarities, between how men and women approach life, and the experiences that make up that life: How they work, how they parent, how they love. (And, yes, whether they ask for directions.) And while you may recognize yourself in some of the following general dichotomies, you very well may not. That's the beauty of human nature:

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  1. She wants it all. So does he. When we talk about how men and women define success, we often generalize: Women want balance, or to “have it all.” Men want status, and its symbols—houses, cars, stuff. But that’s not the whole story. One recent survey found the ambition gap a little narrower than previously thought. More than half of women turned down a job due to concerns about its impact on the work-life balance. But so did more than half of men. And two-thirds of both sexes felt they could “have it all.” Both genders, meanwhile, ranked the qualities of career success in this order: Work-life balance, then money, and then recognition.

  2. She wears her heart on her sleeve. He tucks it away. If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “He can’t connect emotionally.” It’s a universal complaint among women, it seems (along with unequal pay for equal work and the difficulty finding the perfect pair of jeans). But what I’ve found is that most of the women who say this are confusing love with the expression of love. While for women the two may be one in the same, for men they often aren’t. The truth is, both men and women feel; they just express it differently, if they express it at all. Women are often fine with sharing every last emotion in part because, for them, it’s a way of stress relief. Men, though, are more likely to “put on a mask” to conform to long-established societal expectations—and because the expression just doesn’t bring them the same sort of physical satisfaction.

  3. She fights. He takes flight. Perhaps this sounds familiar: A bad day for her ends in tears and a desire to rehash what went wrong and who did what, followed by a plan for how to “fix” it. For him? A short outburst, and then, end of discussion—a night of TV or a glass of scotch. This is entirely common: Studies show that women and men experience and respond to conflicts at work in very different ways. Women tend to feel conflict more deeply, reporting higher levels of work stress, tension, and frustration than men. And so they respond by working harder. Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to call in sick or otherwise “check out." (And if you’ve ever tried to have a serious conversation with a male partner, only to witness his eyes glaze over, you know this response isn’t limited to conflicts at the office.)

  4. She has lots of friends. He has, well, fewer. No matter how sure you are that men spend their free time complaining about the women in their lives, science says otherwise. Men have fewer friends than women, on average, and those friendships are different. They confide in each other less. They don’t talk. Instead, they “do stuff”—golf, ski, drink. Is it that men don’t want close relationships with their pals? Not at all. One study found that when asked about what they’d like from friendships, men are just as likely as women to list things like emotional support, ability to confide in the person, and having someone to care for them. But they sure don’t get that from other men in real life. They are conditioned from an early age to believe that friendships are “girly.” So they leave them to the girls.

  5. She multi-tasks. He’s laser-focused. Many years into my marriage, I’ll still initiate an important conversation with my husband while doing at least one or two other things—cooking dinner, catching up on the news, driving to visit a friend—and he will invariably ask to have the conversation later, at a time when I’m less otherwise engaged. The research finds that men aren’t as skilled as women at dealing with more than one problem or task at a time. One study found that women perform 70 percent better than men at juggling more than one task at a time. So when he asks not to be interrupted, he’s not being brusque: It’s simply how he operates best.

  6. She regrets. So does he. Our society has mixed opinions on regret: Some view it as a useless, awful feeling that can lead to depression and stagnation. Others argue that, harnessed appropriately, regret can in fact be useful in moving us forward. Either way, it’s an emotion experienced equally between the sexes—though not quite similarly. Studies show that men tend to regret things they hadn’t done, while women regretted things they had.

All of this being said, it’s important to recognize that the qualities men and women share, or don’t, are fluid and ever changing, and prone to shifting with time, experience, and relationships. We're not stagnant beings. That is to say, keep picking up his socks and someday he might just pick up yours.

 

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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