Jul 28, 2011

The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron

The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron

The myth of Mars and Venus - a set of gender-related beliefs popularised by authors such as John Gray and Deborah Tannen, or, in the more upmarket version, Simon Baron-Cohen or Steven Pinker - maintains that men and women are different enough that they almost belong to different species. Some of its champions justify these differences through biological imperatives; others through cultural determinism. But at the end of the day, the conclusions they reach are about the same: women are caring, nurturing, good at empathising and communicating, and emotionally articulate. Men, on the other hand, are analytical, dominated by their ‘urges’, not good at listening or talking about their feelings, and cannot reasonably be expected to have anything beyond the emotional awareness of a toddler. These are the “facts”, and we are powerless to change them. The sooner we accept our different abilities and adjust our aspirations, the happier everyone will be.

In The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron does a kind of work similar to that of researchers such as Janet Hyde, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Mark Liberman or Cordelia Fine: she challenges this myth, drawing from several sources in the process. Cameron is a linguist at the University of Oxford, so her specific focus here is on sociolinguistics and on the widespread belief that men and women communicate very differently. This includes assumptions such as: women talk more than men, women talk to build relationships and men to obtain information, women are averse to direct commands or requests whereas men are blunt and straight to the point, and so on and so forth.

Deborah Cameron checks the references of several popular books on gender differences and uncovers such interesting things as “facts” that have been simply made up (for example, the figures often cited to support the aforementioned belief that women talk a lot more than men were drawn from an author’s imagination rather than from any sort of empirical research). She also explains something that Cordelia Fine christened “file drawer syndrome” – the phenomenon that leads research uncovering gender similarities to linger unpublished in file drawers, either because researchers don’t see it as containing relevant results or because they know it to be unpublishable due to lack of interest. Furthermore, she cites metanalyses that show that the differences within groups of men and women are much larger than across genders; she challenges the BECAUSE CAVEMEN circular logic of evolutionary psychology; and she refers to methodologically sound and peer-reviewed studies that clearly contradict the myth of Mars and Venus.

Another thing Cameron does is draw attention to the often dishonest way proponents of the myth frame their point of view. Sadly, the tendency to gain credibility by casting oneself as the lone voice of dissent is every bit as common as it is infuriating. As Cameron puts it,
Writers in this vein are fond of presenting themselves as latter-day Galileos, braving the wrath of the political correctness lobby by daring to challenge the feminist orthodoxy which denies that men and women are by nature profoundly different. (…) Yet before we applaud, we should perhaps pause to ask ourselves: since when has silence reigned about the differences between men and women? Certainly not since the early 1990s, when the previous steady trickle of books began to develop into a raging torrent. By now, a writer who announces that sex differences are natural is not ‘saying the unsayable’, he or she is stating the obvious. The proposition that men and women communicate differently is particularly uncontroversial, with clich├ęs like ‘men never listen’ and ‘women find it easier to talk about their feelings’ references constantly in everything from women’s magazines to humorous greeting cards.
Acceptance of the myth of Mars and Venus is actually as far from a controversial stance as possible. It is in fact the dominant mainstream opinion, and its hold on popular consciousness is as profound as it is troubling. One of the most worrisome consequences of the acceptance this myth is its influence on the way rape cases are popularly perceived. To cite Cameron once more,
For example, the belief that ‘male-female miscommunication’ is an endemic problem is increasingly influencing the way we deal with crimes of rape and sexual assault. Defence lawyers can now argue that because the sexes communicate differently, a man may genuinely, and through no fault of his own, have understood a woman to be consenting to sex when by her own account she was doing no such thing. If this argument is accepted, the defendant may be acquitted or punished less severely on the grounds that he did not intentionally disregard the woman’s wishes, he simply misinterpreted them.
The portrayal of men and women that emerges from the myth of Mars and Venus is not really flattering to either gender. And unlike what its champions would maintain, its widespread acceptance so far seems to only lead to further unhappiness and steeper social inequalities.

The Myth of Mars and Venus does for sociolinguistics what Delusions of Gender does for the neurosciences. It’s not as detailed a piece of work, but what it does cover, it covers extremely well. And it belongs to a tradition of books I wholeheartedly embrace: books that combat the ideological biases in science through better and more rigorous science. Can we have more of these, please?

Other interesting bits:
Most research studies investigating the behaviour of men and women are designed around the question: ‘is there a difference?’—and the presumption is usually that there will be. If a study finds a significant difference between male and female subjects (in other words, a result which statistical tests show could not have been produced by chance), that is considered to be a ‘positive’ finding, and has a good chance of being published in a scientific journal. A study which finds no significant difference is less likely to be published. This mean that some negative findings are never even submitted for publication. It also means that if a study has examined a large number of variables and found positive results for only one or two of them, it will be the least typical, positive findings which researchers emphasize.

These generalisations present a range of problems, but one problem they all have in common is that they treat ‘men’ and ‘women’ as internally undifferentiated categories. Regardless of its substance, any claim about men and women that ignores the existence of differences within each group is bound to oversimplify the picture, because it is taking a telescope to something that needs to be examined with a microscope.
They read it too:
Eve’s Alexandria (An excellent and detailed review which I recommend that you all read.)



  1. This sounds fascinating Ana! Thanks for the review. Definitely going on my wish list :D

  2. It sounds well-researched, but how is it for readability? As good as Cordelia Fine? Either way, thanks for hooking us up with this -

  3. Amy: I've little doubt you'll enjoy it!

    Mumsy: Also very readable! Cameron isn't quite as funny as Cordelia Fine, but she's very clear and to the point (how unfeminine of her :P)

  4. This sounds great, Ana! I still haven't read Cordelia Fine, though, and that one is on my TBR pile. Must get to it soon! Then this one...

  5. Word to your first quote and wtf to the second. Ideas that men and women communicate differently are being taken into account in rape trials? We need to move.

  6. I've always felt the Mars/Venus thing was a bit of a cop out to excuse poor behavior. This sounds fascinating.

  7. Wow! This sounds like a really good book! Adding to Goodreads. :-)

  8. I also don't like Mars vs. Venus. Like the only differences between the sexes are that a man needs a cave to go brood about how talkative and demanding their women are? Get real! I think this book sounds fascinating, and some of the things I have discovered by being married to a man who is extraordinarily communicative lead me to believe that a lot of the preconceived notions about men are truly just a lot of bunk. This was a great review, and I think you wrote about your reactions very elegantly and intelligently. Thanks, Ana!

  9. I really like Ziblee's comment :) I wouldn't have worded that better.

  10. This sounds amazing and I can't wait to read it. You know stuff like this bothers me to no end. The myth that we all fit into a stereotype. Sounds like she does an amazing job of dymything it!!

  11. Certainly thought provoking. Fabulous review :D

  12. This sounds like a wonderful book! I'm always on the look out for really solidly written non-fiction, and this sounds like that and more. I'm intrigued by the idea of calling attention to the fact that some things we deem "controversial" are, in fact, not so. Great review!

  13. Word to the ridiculousness of Mars/Venus proponents claiming to be the persecuted minority.

  14. Nice review, Ana! This book looks really interesting! It looks like Deborah Cameron has really done her research and has questioned the popular opinions on the subject. I feel that generalizing the behaviour of men and women has its perils as for any kind of generalization there will be enough number of exceptions. But on the other hand, if I try being a devil's advocate and assume that as men and women are not really different, I can communicate in my natural way ignoring the other person's gender (if I were a woman, I would assume that a man will think and communicate like a woman and talk to him like I would to another woman. Similarly if I were a man, I would assume that a woman will think and communicate like a man and talk to her like I would to another man) and it will work perfectly fine - somehow this makes me feel that I might be ignoring some aspect of reality here which will make things complex. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  15. Kailana: Well, now that it was added to our reading list swap I know you will soon :P

    Jodie: *reaches for pitchfork, prepares to march at dawn*. Seriously, I WANT to :|

    Kathy: Sadly very often it is, yes :S

    Jillian: I hope you enjoy it when you have the chance to get to it!

    Zibilee: As always, thank you for your kind comment! You know, sometimes I worry about people who take those stereotypes at face value... if they're in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, I can't imagine it being truly intimate, equal or satisfying!

    Veens: You are both too kind!

    Chris: I'm sure you'd enjoy it a lot :)

    Kelly: Thank you!

    Wereadtoknow: It's a rhetorical technique I've been noticing more and more lately!

    Christy: I know! Seriously people, you aren't really fooling anyone.

    Vishy: First of all, I love how I can always count on you to leave me thoughtful, challenging comments that encourage me go further in my thinking! I think you're right: to deny that there are any differences period would ignore several social realities, and Cameron herself wouldn't argue with that. What she does argue with is the idea that any differences in how most or some men and women communicate are "natural", inevitable, and immutable, rather than the result of social structures and power imbalances currently in place. The many power hierarchies in the world where we live today do affect how, when, and how often people communicate - there's no denying that. But these differences aren't "natural", and there are too many exceptions for generalisations to be possible or useful. Furthermore, power-related differences don't really correspond to stereotypical ideas of how men and women communicate, so the myth of Mars and Venus obscures things rather than help clarify them. I hope this makes sense!

  16. Wow. This book sounds so so so so so so so freakin' good!!!
    (Remind me to tell you about one of the professors at the school where Rich got his PhD sometime. Luckily, it was not Rich's major professor.)

  17. I loved your reply, Ana :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.