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Men and women found more similar than portrayed in popular media


The popular media has portrayed men and women as psychologically different as two planets – Mars and Venus - but these differences are vastly overestimated and the two sexes are more similar in personality, communication, cognitive ability and leadership than realized, according to a review of 46 meta-analyses conducted over the last 20 years.

According to the meta-analysis of studies on gender differences reported on in the current issue of the American Psychologist, males and females from childhood to adulthood are more alike than different on most but not all psychological variables, said psychologist Janet S. Hyde, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Psychological differences based on gender were examined in studies that looked at a number of psychological traits and abilities to determine how much gender influenced an outcome. The traits and variables examined were cognitive abilities, verbal and nonverbal communication, social or psychological traits like aggression or leadership, psychological well-being like self-esteem, motor behaviors like throwing distance and moral reasoning.

Gender differences accounted for either zero or a very small effect for most of the psychological variables examined, according to Hyde. Only motor behaviors (throwing distance), some aspects of sexuality and heightened physical aggression showed marked gender differences.

Furthermore, gender differences seem to depend on the context they were measured in, said Hyde. In studies where gender norms are removed, researchers demonstrated how important gender roles and social context were in determining a person’s actions. In one study where participants in the experimental group were told that they were not identified as male or female nor wore any identification, neither sex conformed to a stereotyped image when given the opportunity to act aggressively. They did the opposite to what was expected.

Over-inflated claims of gender difference seen in the mass media affect men and women in work, parenting and relationships, said Hyde. Studies of gender and evaluation of leaders in the workplace show that women who go against the caring, nurturing stereotype may pay for it dearly when being hired or evaluated. This also happens with the portrayals of relationships in the media. Best-selling books and popular magazine articles assert that women and men can’t get along because they communicate too differently, said Dr. Hyde. Maybe the problem is that they give up prematurely because they believe they can’t change what they mistakenly believe is an innate trait, she added.

Children also suffer the consequences of these exaggerated claims of gender difference. There is a wide spread belief that boys are better in math than girls, said Dr Hyde. But according to this meta-analysis, boys and girls perform equally in math until high school where boys do gain a small advantage. Unfortunately, elementary aged mathematically-talented girls may be overlooked by parents who have lower expectations for a daughter’s success in math versus a son’s likelihood to succeed in math. Research has shown that parents’ expectations for their children’s math success relate strongly to a child’s self-confidence and his or her performance.

The misrepresentation of how different the sexes are, which is not supported by the scientific evidence, harms men and women of all ages in many different areas of life, said Dr. Hyde. "The claims can hurt women’s opportunities in the workplace, dissuade couples from trying to resolve conflict and communication problems and cause unnecessary obstacles that hurt children and adolescents’ self-esteem."

Pam Willenz | EurekAlert!
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