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Tuesday, August 24, 1999Men, women from the same planet after all
Distorted research: Lack of motivation, not ability, drives some sex 'differences'
Will John Gray please step down from the podium. Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Gender differences, according to new research presented this week at a meeting of the American Psychological Association, have been greatly exaggerated.
Dr. Janet Shibley Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, reviewed all the available studies on sex differences in math performance, verbal talent and spatial ability, and discovered that the research had been hugely distorted.
Take math. "Males' superior performance in mathematics has been taught as one of the basic textbook facts in psychology," Shibley Hyde reminded her colleagues at the meeting. Yet when she and her associates took a second look at all the studies, guess what they found? Forty-three percent of them showed women excelling at math. (Five percent found no difference; 51% favoured men.)
"Girls actually do better at computation in the elementary and middle-school years," Shibley Hyde said, "and there is exactly no difference in high school."
The same result was presented by psychologist Chieh Li of Northeastern University, who tested Korean-American women for their mathematical aptitudes and determined that motivation was the driving factor behind female excellence in the field. The real issue is that girls opt out more from science and math courses. It appears to be a matter of gendered preference, not talent.
Shibley Hyde also found "an astonishingly tiny gender difference" in verbal ability. Supporting her research, another paper presented at the conference revealed that men can be just as emotionally fluent communicators as women when they are provided with the right motivation. Their problem, according to a group of psychologists from Boston College, is not an inability to talk things out, as famous "difference" scholars such as Deborah Tannen, Carol Gilligan and John Gray have insisted. It is a disinclination to do so. When motivated, they can be highly expressive.
The decidedly unscholarly columnist Dave Barry of the Miami Herald captured the real problem perfectly in a column about himself talking on the phone with an old friend he hadn't heard from in years.
"What did he say?" his wife asked. "Nothing," said Barry. It turned out, of course, that the friend told Barry about being in prison, having his wife die, getting abducted by aliens, etc., etc. Men don't like talking about other people's personal affairs.
Shibley Hyde also exploded certain abiding myths about gender differences in self-esteem. She reviewed studies that, taken together, represented the testing of nearly 100,000 Americans, and found that self-esteem differences between girls, boys, men and women were marginal at best. A similar conclusion was presented in a separate session by psychologist Judith Minton of New York University, in a paper entitled "Does Ophelia Need Reviving?"
Taking on Mary Pipher's international best-seller, Reviving Ophelia, about the faltering of girls' confidence due to "sex-saturated media that denigrate girls and women," the psychologist suggested that Pipher would have been more accurate if she said that "adolescent self-esteem takes a nosedive" at the age of 11 or 12. Boys, as a growing body of literature suggests, are just as vulnerable at that age.
"Yes, we need special programs for adolescent girls. But we need special programs for adolescent boys as much, and possibly more," Shibley Hyde noted. She also worried about "the costs of overinflated claims about girls' self-esteem problems. They pathologize girls' lives and ignore girls' coping skills and successes."
Indeed, all of the celebrated gender differences, which have served various political agendas through history, demean one sex at the expense of the other. Difference feminists are just as guilty as misogynists of overplaying the distinctions to advance their cause. The research of Shibley Hyde and several other scholars appears to be a backlash against this gender warfare.
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