Are gender stereotypes boring?

Suggestions one sex is more intelligent, witty, sympathetic, moral or interesting than the other do

Anyone who is particularly fond of sweeping sexist generalisations (and really, who doesn't just love the suggestion that all women are shoe-obsessed chatterboxes, for instance, while all men are emotionally repressed sports nuts?) was in for a treat in the Daily Telegraph this past week.

Recently, the paper featured an article by Sabine Durrant, baldly headlined: "Are men boring?" A ramble through a heap of anecdotes, shot through with science, Durrant's article initially found that "a straw poll among friends and relations would suggest the contention is so irrefutable that evidence is barely necessary"; she then unpacked a slightly more balanced argument. This tonal shift wasn't enough to quell Neil Tweedie, who rebuked her in the paper the following day: "For your information, Sabine, men often find female conversation less than scintillating." All pretty nebulous and sniping, which was hardly surprising: implications that one sex is more intelligent, witty, sympathetic, moral or interesting than the other do tend to be objectionable.

The idea that the sexes are almost entirely different species has, of course, always been popular, often especially with those who prize traditional gender roles. If you want society to stick to an ancient order, it helps to assert that men and women each have their own place and quite separate characteristics, and that these are defined not simply by social structures and norms, but by biology. To take the example of power, to define it specifically as a male, testosterone-driven prerogative, as many have done, immediately makes any woman who seeks it (I'm thinking Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton) into either a freak of nature or a faker - someone who is simply trying to ape the mannerisms of the opposite sex, to become a male, and who, on those terms, can only ever fail.

Those who cling to the idea that the most basic of male and female stereotypes hold true like to point to the science. Now, I've no doubt that there are scientists who are conducting very interesting, nuanced and subtle work on the differences between the male and female brains, but I'm equally sure that the subtleties of their work are often misrepresented.

Let's take the subject of talkativeness, for example. This is widely perceived as a woman's prerogative, proof of women's special empathy and emotional agility, and also of an annoying tendency to bang on when men are trying to eat their dinner. Durrant mentions in passing in her article that there is a "popular contention that in an average day a man utters 2,000 words, and a woman 7,000, which nobody seems to prove". She goes on to quote from a controversial book, The Female Brain (2006), by the US neuro psychiatrist Lou ann Brizendine, which contended that "connecting through talking activates the pleasure centres in a girl's brain".

In this book, Brizendine came up with a dif ferent statistic from Durrant's, though proportionally quite similar, stating that men speak on average 7,000 words a day, while women babble 20,000, numbers pounced on by the media, which proved unfortunate when Brizendine had to retract the figures, on the grounds that they came from an unreliable study.

Around the same time, extensive research was published which found that - surprise! - both men and women speak about 16,000 words a day. (Of the study's 396 participants, the three most verbose were men, one of whom spoke a massive 47,000 words a day.) Discussing the results of his study, the psychologist Matthias Mehl, of Arizona University, made the central point that gender stereotypes put "unfortunate constraints on [both] men and women".

And that's the truth of it. I've always hated the glib assertions, sometimes dressed up as loosely "feminist", that all men are intrinsically dull or feckless or emotionally constipated, because if I truly believed that, I would also have to believe that women are defined by a whole variety of irritating gender stereotypes - that we are all inherently nurturing handbag-lovers, for example, who spend hours pondering our hairstyles. Frankly, as world-views go, I can't think of anything more limiting. And, indeed, boring.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times