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19 June 2008

Are gender stereotypes boring?

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

By Kira Cochrane

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”.

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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

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