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December 21, 2012 7:02 pm
In the 20 years since John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus was published, many people have turned to it in the hope of sorting out their relationship quandaries. According to this well-known self-help genre, women are intuitive, empathic and good at communication while men are logical, competitive and emotionally inarticulate. Women wish to feel supported at times of trouble, men just want to spin solutions. And so on. That is just how it is: the differences are innate and hardwired.
As someone who is half-decent at parallel parking and unintimidated by maps, I have at times found gender generalisations galling.
But there is no denying that a lot of people find them helpful. Thinking that we know what to expect can give us a sense of control, and having a paradigm to understand clashes in attitude and behaviour can help to find ways around them.
But we should be wary of over-relying on these generalisations. It’s not a question of denying that there are differences. But even if it’s true that men and women think and act differently, we don’t know whether any particular individual will fit the trend. Even if, statistically, women are more likely to bring empathy and collaboration to boardroom meetings, there’s no guarantee that any particular woman will.
And the idea that gender differences are rooted in biology is at the least controversial. You can find a challenge to it in Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender. If you seek consolation about your relationship issues in the conviction that all those belonging to the opposite sex are of a kind, you may end up simply making excuses for people and reinforcing a social construct.
Instead of dividing humanity into two and assuming we know how the other half thinks, we could just remind ourselves that everyone, male or female, might experience the world quite distinctly from us. Perhaps we could bypass the stereotypes and ask them about it.
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that would explain why philosophy so often reads like Martian. Both in the UK and the US, women account for only around a fifth of philosophers in the academy, fewer than in most comparable disciplines.
Does this suggest there is something essentially masculine about philosophy, that cold, hard logic comes much more naturally to the less touchy-feely sex? Something like this idea lies behind the adoption by some feminist philosophers of “care ethics”, led by the US psychologist Carol Gilligan in the 1980s. This emphasises allegedly more feminine virtues of empathy and nurture rather than the more rigid and rule-based system developed by philosophy’s great men. However, other feminists have been stern critics of this and similar ideas, suggestive as they are that women are somehow less suited to abstract, logical thought.
Most mainstream philosophers have insisted that even if men are on average more suited to philosophising than women, the subject itself is gender-neutral. The question of whether an argument is valid or not has as little to do with sex as the matter of whether two plus two makes four. The most famous attempts to argue the opposite have not been helped by their intuitive absurdity, such as Luce Irigaray’s claim that E=mc2 is a sexed equation. Having tried to make sense of this with her face to face, I came to the conclusion that this is one case where an idea really is as barmy as it seems.
But I also think the conviction that philosophy is gender-neutral has led to complacency about the ways in which philosophers may well not be. No group is above prejudices and stereotyping, and these can be harder to recognise if you are convinced that there is no barrier to success other than talent. And while the differences between men and women are unclear and contested, the reality of discrimination is beyond dispute. So it would be inexcusable if debates about the true extent of gender differences distracted us from the immediate need to make planet Earth equally hospitable to Venusians and Martians alike.
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