There is little question that men and women differ, but there is great debate as to why, according to a Los Angeles author.
Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and author of "Mismeasure of Women," and "Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion," prefers to look at the context. Using a male model to measure women or a female model to measure men gives misleading results, according to Tavris. If the context of research is examined, our cultural stereotypes often disappear, she said.Speaking at College of Family Life Week at Utah State University, Tavris debunked many preconceptions about the basic nature of men and women.
For instance, the concept that women have more mood swings than men is largely based on studies of premenstrual syndrome and menstruation in general. "Believe me, both men and women have hormones, and both men and women have mood swings," Tavris said.
She said the key is what questions are asked. If you remove "cramps" and "breast tenderness" from the questionnaire, men tend to report similar fluctuations in mood swings throughout the month.
"We are more similar than different. Men and women have the same emotions, they just express them differently," she said.
Studies of recently divorced people have looked at this, Tavris said. A female model of depression doesn't work well for diagnosing men. Women who are depressed tend to talk, eat and cry. Using these criteria, men register near zero on depression scales. Men tend to express depression by working too hard, drinking too much and driving too recklessly.
Many of the differences we perceive as exclusively male and female disappear if you look closely at the context. For example, take the research finding that "women tend to speak more hesitantly and end their sentences with questions more often than men," Tavris said.
She said these widely publicized studies about male vs. female conversation styles really had more to do with power structure than gender. Both genders speak differently to people they perceive as being in positions of power.
Later studies found that these speech pattern were found generally just when women were talking to men. When they talked to other women their conversation styles returned to something similar to men's. When men talked to their superiors they tended to take on the same conversation patterns as women, Tavris said.
The same is true with studies of anger. The common perception is that men get more angry than women. The issue again is more about power than gender, she said. "Women don't generally express anger to men because, again, men are generally in the more powerful position. Women do, however, express anger to their children with little difficulty.
"Anger is rarely expressed upward by either gender. That is, we usually don't express anger to bosses no matter what gender they are," Tavris said.
She said context tempers behavior in larger social contexts also. There is no argument that men are more aggressive than women, but that is partially because that trait is desired. Nations that need aggressive men for defense train them to be that way.