Friday, 22 June 2012

We the Believers

Why is it we want to explain gender differences through biology rather than attribute anything to social constructs? If the fact that women are better at empathising, and men are better at reasoning is purely urban legend, why do we still believe it? Most people are not interested in hearing about the vast amount of research that says gender differences are insignificant. Why not?

Yet again, it isn’t complicated. We see gender differences. We see women gossipping and hear men talking about cars. All our observations are telling us that ‘yes, these gender differences are highly apparent. They have a large impact on us’.

Hasn’t history taught us anything? Our observations and the reality do not always correlate. Once upon a time, scientific evidence proved that the world was flat. We could see that it was flat. People from across the globe knew that it was flat, and people who suggested otherwise were killed. This is an extreme example, but it highlights how fallible we humans really are. We can get it so wrong.

I don’t think we have forgotten that though. I think we do admit that humans can make mistakes, and that we’re far more likely to do so nowadays than we were in our respective Classical/Hellenistic/Gupta etc. periods*.  If our current society rigidly believes in something so contentious, there must be more to it than our faith in human observation.

A possible answer to this question is relationships. The majority of us have relationships, whether they are family, intimate, professional etc. with the opposite sex. Furthermore, most of us have experienced difficulties in our relationships. We attribute it to all kinds of things; lack of communication, misunderstanding, incompatibility, but we explain all of these things by categorising them under gender specific headings. We’re fascinated in finding out why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. It’s a very simplistic idea, it fits in nicely with our observations and we can use it to explain why we’re not getting along. Of course, the fact that humans are so different to each other explains this just as neatly (with more evidence to support it) but gender categorising got there first, and it works for us. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the saying, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

When someone like me does try to fix it, it makes people feel very uncomfortable. The psychological term for this is ‘cognitive dissonance’:

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect that core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit with the core belief.” – Frantz Fanon

That’s why the media is so keen on reporting anything that enforces gender differences, and why it’s so reluctant to report the multitudes of research that does not. It doesn’t want to make society uncomfortable because that would be a really dumb thing for a newspaper to do.

Another stance on biological determinism is, that although some people are highly sceptical of modern neuroscienctific studies, they attribute everything to Paleolithic humans. Apparently our 'hunter/gatherer' roles are 'proof' that gender differences are biologically determined. I've started looking into this debate because, although I believe social/sexual divides may have been necessary for survival, I want to know why we are still encouraging them now it's no longer about life or death. What has fascinated me about this topic is a 'Paleolithic glass ceiling', I had only half contemplated before. Men didn't simply hunt while women reared children and picked berries, it's a lot more complicated (actually, a lot more sensible) than that. I will follow this up with an appropriate blog post.

Whether you believe one way or the other, it’s important to hear both sides of the discussion equally. We should be having this debate publicly, with all ideas being considered without bias. Then, as a society, we can make an informed decision. Maybe nothing will change, who knows? But there’s definitely a bigger picture and people aren’t letting us see it.

*Roman Catholicism actually persuaded us that the earth was flat, even after we initially proved it wasn’t.

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