Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Myth of Mars and Venus - Deborah Cameron

Don't you just hate all that Mars and Venus crap? All those bullshit pseudoscientific articles about how Cave Men had Genetic Imperative X, so women should make allowances for Modern Behaviour Y? That sort of thing never ceases to annoy me, but for the last decade or two it's been massively popular, while at the same time allowing the authors to claim that they're somehow brave iconoclasts striking a blow against the PC establishment. Equally fed up, it would seem, is Oxford language professor Deborah Cameron, who comes out at full swing against the received wisdom that men and women communicate in fundamentally different ways. It's a well-researched, vitriolic and often very funny analysis of the existing data on the topic, and a fine antidote to all those made-up headline-grabbers about women's genetic predisposition to like pink, or whatever.

Cameron's particular target is not just the popularist fluff, but also the "scientific" research that seems to confirm gender differences, for example Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference and Pinker's The Blank Slate. With good use of meta-analysis across a broad range of studies, she comes to the conclusion that much of this research is beset by sloppy design and confirmation bias, and overall shows such a miniscule difference between the sexes' abilities that it's hardly worth reporting on, and that in fact there is vastly more difference within the sexes than there is between them. The fact that any perceived difference is picked up so readily by magazine journalists and self-help writers, argues Cameron, is nothing more than a desire to justify existing prejudices.

The concept of differing communication styles may seem a bit abstract, but the real-life consequences can be severe. Call-centre managers have admitted to hiring mostly female employees because men's communication abilities are perceived to be inferior, and the outcome of rape hearings is often contaminated by the idea that it's exclusively the woman's job to communicate her reluctance, not the man's job to understand it. Obviously, these issues are so endemic in our culture that we've a long way to go before they are fixed, but this book is certainly a step in the right direction, and the more that this nonsense is highlighted, the better. There are some extracts from the book available at the Guardian website, but I recommend reading the whole thing.



Blogger Chris, The Book Swede said...

Good review, it's cool that you slam pseudo-scientific stuff and I may very well pick this up.


1:19 pm  

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