There are some columns one is destined to regret. This may be an example, for I wish to write on the characteristics of the female of the species. Gender is in the air at the moment, whether it is the Pope’s Christmas message emphasising the God-given nature of gender, or the societal issues around gay marriage or the question of women soldiers taking part in close combat.
Of course, I am aware of the dangers of such a project. This was illustrated for me by two gender stereotypes which caught me out in the past. The first was that men are not good at handling or explaining emotion. This was scotched when I worked as a marriage counsellor. Typically, after meeting a couple, I would have a separate interview with each party. I found that when husbands realised that they were allowed to explain their feelings, not only did the long pent-up dam collapse but the fluency of their emotional language was impressive.
My instinct is to provide solutions. Give me a problem and, in a minute or two, I will produce my plan of action. I was surprised when my little attempts to help did not impress. I asked my wife and she patiently explained to me that, for women, problems are not there for solving, they are there for presentation. My contribution would remove the problem, or at least defuse its satisfying difficulty by implying that it could be solved rather than merely bewailed. I now confine myself to an “Ain’t it awful?” expression, and sympathise.
A variation on this is the superfluous explanation. I have, with grotesque unfairness, had said of me: “If you ask him the time, he’ll tell you first how to make a clock.” I put this down to a Jesuit education where every statement was riposted by the word “why?” Old habits die hard. There is some evidence that the very use of the word “because” relieves the listener from the need to listen to the actual explanation.
Another problem I have encountered is the assumption that when women ask for approval (do I look good in these trousers? Does this lipstick suit me?) they actually want me to make a judgment. They don’t. What they want is approval, tout court. And this is especially so if they have emphasised that I must not spare their feelings. The more the emphasis, the more unconditional is the required approval. But there is a price to pay if at some later point you let slip that you did not entirely approve. You will have committed the serious offence of not being frank, compounded by the shame caused by allowing the wearing of the wrong hat. A subtle variation on this is the “heads I lose, tails you win” question: “Which do you prefer, my green hat or my blue hat?”
“Er, er, I think the green.”
“So, what’s wrong with the blue hat?”
The claim is made that, in measuring achievement and skills, men provide the best and worst examples, while women cluster between. This seems to be verified by general experience – the Catherines of Siena and the Hildas of Whitby tend to be rare. I have no doubt that more will appear in the future as opportunities and acceptance increase. But I do not think that a woman will head a Vatican congregation in my lifetime – though there is no earthly (or heavenly) reason why not.
Much scientific work is done by scientists on gender differences. The old idea that the embryo is gender-neutral, and converted to male by the pumping out of testosterone, is giving way to the concept of a delicate interplay between genes and hormones. And this is by no means fixed, since the action of genes can be modified through experience. The result is that men and women do have differences in their brains which would seem to lead to different psychological characteristics. But there is plenty of room for uncertainty, and it would be surprising if homosexual and transgender outcomes did not occur from time to time.
Differences in brain architecture point to women’s greater tendency to depression, and to the different ways we remember emotional experiences. Different attitudes toward faces and mechanical objects have been measured in girl and boy babies on their first day after birth.
But beyond the obvious contrast between the sexes in matters related to the mating game, many of these differences turn out to be less than we might think. Characteristics which are more marked in girls rather than boys may be listed (in descending order of variation) as preference for girl’s toys, empathy, fine motor skills and verbal fluency. Characteristics more marked in boys are: preference for boy’s toys, physical aggression, assertiveness, elementary maths. But the variation in even the greatest of these differences is no more than the variation in height between the sexes. There will be many exceptions.
Yet in honesty I must confess to a prejudice. My wife attributes my devotion to Our Lady to my firm belief that, if you really want something in any sphere of activity, you are wise to ask the help of a woman first. I do not disagree – and I marvel at how our faith offers such a variety of ways to approach God that everyone’s temperament is suited.
Come and tell us about gender differences on Secondsightblog.net. You can always use a pseudonym for safety!