The Truth About Gender Differences
Are we the same or aren’t we?
Posted November 20, 2018
Some scientific findings are black and white. This is seldom the case for the science of gender. To interpret research on gender, it is not enough to understand research methods in social science. Also important is knowing how the research fits within the sociopolitical framework of the time and to know the agendas of the people interpreting the findings.
I first came to understand this as a doctoral student in the 1990s reading the seminal book The Psychology of Sex Differences, written by Maccoby and Jacklin in 1974. My short (at the time) research career focused on gender differences in adolescence, and I was eager to read this groundbreaking text and better understand how and why girls and boys differ from one another. You can imagine my confusion, then, when I realized that the main theme of the book was that there are not many differences between males and females (with a few exceptions—such as physical aggression and some aspects of visual/spatial reasoning). I was disappointed because I was ready to learn about gender differences, and I was confused because academics almost never make a name for themselves writing about phenomena that do not exist (for example, writing about how men and women do not differ).
What I did not understand at the time was how the interpretation of the findings was influenced by the politics of gender in the 1970s. For many years, women had been expected to keep to their roles as mothers and homemakers. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, feminists pushed back against the idea that women were inherently different from men and not well suited for life outside the home. In this context, I began to understand why Maccoby and Jacklin deemphasized gender differences. The popular belief was that males and females were inherently different. Therefore, the proposal that males and females were similar was controversial and groundbreaking.
A different sociopolitical climate, however, can lead to different interpretations. For instance, many of the same gender differences (and similarities) reviewed in The Psychology of Sex Difference are still found today. However, whereas gender similarities were emphasized in the 1970s, gender differences typically are emphasized in contemporary work.
Similarly, interpretations can be influenced by scholarly orientation. For example, whereas some researchers (for example, feminist scholars) may focus on particular similarities between the genders, others (such as evolutionary psychologists) may emphasize particular gender differences.
Importantly, all of these interpretations may be correct. Gender differences emerge for some constructs but not others. Moreover, when gender differences do emerge, they tend to be small to moderate in size. This means that there is overlap between males and females. As an example, women are more likely than men to be depressed, but some men are more depressed than most women. Therefore, the difference can be emphasized (women are more depressed than men) or the similarity can be emphasized (some men are more depressed than most women), and both interpretations are correct.
Given the small to moderate effects and different plausible interpretations, being an informed consumer of the science of gender is not easy. My goal is to help you make sense of it all. Together, we will work through media soundbites and conflicting information to identify what we really need to know to promote health and well-being among girls and boys and for our own selves. Truly understanding when and why the genders differ (and don't differ) is a difficult task, but it is a journey that I look forward to taking with you.