How are men and women different?

As Dan Savage says, “Every relationship ends until you find one that doesn’t...and you only know which one that is once ...

As Dan Savage says, “Every relationship ends until you find one that doesn’t...and you only know which one that is once you’re dead.”

How are men and women different? It’s one of those perennial topics of conversation, particularly among hack comedians.

The American relationship counsellor John Gray – or as he prefers to be known, “John Gray, Ph.D” – came up with a simple explanation in his bestselling book, Men Are From Mars And Women Are From Venus.

I’ve always taken the view that this book wasn’t worth reading. The central metaphor has always irritated me, with its trite gender essentialism fancied up for a pop audience. While I’d never judge a book by its cover, in this case, judging by the title seems warranted.

And yet, an academic study reported this week went to the trouble of properly debunking the theory, and I found reading about it fairly satisfying, so I thought I’d look in more detail at what Gray had to say.

A lot of people have done that – his original book has sold over 50 million copies, and was apparently the best-selling non-fiction book of the 1990s. Which is a little depressing, frankly.

Now, I’m not going to read the whole book. He’s sold enough copies, and if he can be essentialist, so can I. Wikipedia boils his argument down to a few main points. Firstly, men and women keep score differently. Women sweat the small stuff, tallying up little points for everything, whereas men tend to look at big one-off, ‘high scoring’ items. And secondly, men retreat to their ‘cave’ and take time out, whereas women like to talk issues through.

The reason these theories were so thoroughly discredited by this new study is because after surveying 13,000 people, the researchers discovered that people don’t fit neatly into gender groups in terms of “122 different characteristics such as fear of success, intimacy and empathy”.

Now, this doesn’t mean that men and women are exactly the same as one another. If they were, Daily Life wouldn’t have its army of eccentric gentlemen commenters who like to accuse its writers of ‘misandry’. Hello, boys!

Rather, the picture is much more complex. You can’t simply generalise that all women are alike in one particular way, and that no men are like that.

Think about this question of keeping score. Of course there are women who like grand relationship gestures, and there are men who prefer little demonstrations of affection – and moreover, there are relationships where nobody keeps score, because both parties think that the whole idea of keeping score is stupid. That’s certainly my preference, for the record.

And let’s talk about “man-caves”, an irritating term because it suggests that we gentleman are lower on the evolutionary scale, and like to retreat into spaces where we can grunt, scratch ourselves and do metalwork. I dispute that, although we do like to scratch ourselves.

Sorry, that was an essentialist joke. See, it’s so easy to think that way!

Sure, okay – men like having spaces to put stuff in and pursue our hobbies in – and why wouldn’t women, for that matter? (See A Room Of One’s Own.) But the suggestion that us guys retreat into them to avoid confronting problems is such a simplistic stereotype. I can only think of one man who retreated into a cave to avoid confronting a difficult situation, and that was Osama bin Laden.

While some men admittedly don’t like talking things through, some love it. I know this because I’m one of those who enjoy incredibly long conversations about problems; yes, including emotional, relationship-type problems. Does that somehow make me less of a man?

And if men are so thoroughly unable to engage with those kinds of conversations, why would any of us become psychologists – or, for that matter, consult them?

Indeed, anyone who’s familiar with the work of Woody Allen knows that some men, if anything, talk altogether too much about their problems.

In fact, Gray, Ph.D himself is proof positive that not all men dislike talking about this stuff. The guy's entirely unable to shut up about other people’s relationship difficulties. Not only has he written no less than 18 books, but the guy does a live streaming show on his website every single day where he talks about this stuff.

Retreat, John Gray, Ph.D, would you please? Perhaps into some kind of man-cave?

And yet, according to his theory, women are the ones who constantly want to talk about stuff. Well, not always. It’s well known that women in abusive relationships often go to great lengths not to confront the situation, and resist talking about them with anybody, least of all their partner. This is too widespread and serious a problem to gloss over with a stereotype about the ladies loving a good ol’ chinwag.

Then there’s the contrast he makes where men want to solve problems and women just want to discuss them. How thoroughly patronising an analysis. Has Gray surveyed women and discovered that they don’t ever want any of their concerns addressed? And to suggest that women don’t care about solutions is to imply that their concerns are trivial, because it doesn’t ultimately matter whether they’re resolved.

I must confess that I was a bit surprised to discover that Gray is persisting with this Mars/Venus paradigm in 2013. But then again, as he says in his original book, “not to be needed is a slow death for a man”. I very much dispute that, but perhaps it’s slow death for Gray not to be needed to deliver these pop psychology homilies, and so he battles on. How typically Martian of him!

Here’s another thing – if women and men are so different, and can’t understand one another, what can a man such as Gray tell us about women? Because if the gender comprehension divide is as steep as he suggests, the book should be called Men Are From Mars And Women, I Dunno, They Confuse Me.

Then again, perhaps Gray is a hermaphrodite, combining the best of Venus and Mars in his own body and therefore able to understand both?

In fact, gender is not the only determinant of personality. Serious (i.e. non-pop) psychologists who study personality disorders, for instance, will tell you that personality problems like narcissism transcend gender, for instance – a narcissist won’t exactly care for being ‘needed’ (Mars) or ‘cherished’ (Venus).

And more complex analytical frameworks than Gray’s – Myers-Briggs, for instance – don’t even bother to discriminate by gender in drawing its personality types and supplying insights about how we interact.

Mars is a better analogy for human personalities than Venus in that it contains a diversity of landforms, habitats and climates. Also bad for Gray’s model associating Venus with women is the fact that its atmosphere contains toxic sulfuric clouds. But of course the author doesn’t care about what Venus or Mars is really like, just as he isn’t interested in the complexity and diversity of our personalities – and how members of opposite sexes can be alike one another, and how each gender can contain a full spectrum of difference. A binary’s easier to explain, and to sell.

Then again, if Gray, Ph.D. embraced the full nuance and complexity of our personalities and relationship, he probably wouldn’t have sold 50 million pop psychology books. Predominantly to a female readership – and come to think of it, why do so many women buy this guff? Maybe they really are all from Venus.



  • Yes, I seriously doubt the author of MAFMWAFV really understands the concept of gender essentialism (and why it's a) problematic and b) offensive). Actually, Dom- another interesting point to consider: 'we' use to engage in race essentialism all the time until we realised that it was a) hella wrong, b) hella racist and c) hella unhelpful. Yet just watch how this thread will unfold... I can predict it now... there will be all sorts of people howling down the idea that we should challenge gender essentialism... and you can bet that their reasoning and 'evidence' will consist mainly of a few non-academic, untested, non-generalizable observations from their own lives (*headdesk*), along with a few citations of Betinna Arndt's work.

    Nina F
    Date and time
    February 15, 2013, 9:20AM
    • Oh yes, the whole - my wife can't read maps so you are just talking 'PC gone mad' bollocks - head-desk-head-desk

      Date and time
      February 15, 2013, 10:56AM
  • Great article :) But please don't reference the Myers-Briggs as a positive, it's really not well validated and is heavily criticised in the field.

    Red Pony
    Date and time
    February 15, 2013, 9:55AM
    • (I thought the Mars and Venus comparisons were Greek god references, not planetary ones)

      Also, I think one of the reasons a lot of women bought this book is because it is written by a man. That way, when they find something in the book they like they can show it to their male partner and be all, "See?! This guy agrees with me, and he's on YOUR side!"

      Date and time
      February 15, 2013, 9:58AM
      • The mars/venus metaphor is both a planetary reference.

        The metaphor is literally saying that "men are from Mars" the planet, but this allusion is to being masculine in character the way that Mars the deity was.

        Date and time
        February 15, 2013, 12:48PM
      • Mars and Venus were chosen specifically as a reference to the Roman God of War and Goddess of Love, with whom he had a love affair.
        It has been years since I read the book, which I picked up as a youth who was struggling with my own gender identity. It's good that studies are debunking these earlier concepts and whilst I doubt Gray is likely to abandon his theories, it isn't out of the question that a "re-framing" to discuss dealing with general behavioural traits rather than couching everything in gender essentialist viewpoints could take place.

        After all, whether you're a man or a woman, if you tend to need time to yourself to process information and get frustrated if you're repeatedly drawn on for an opinion by your partner, you can say you generally like to "withdraw to your cave".

        I think, Dom, you're being flippant and reductionist in your criticism of Gray's work.

        Lucid Fugue
        Date and time
        February 15, 2013, 1:17PM
    • So...similar to what I said on the other story:

      Men on average will trend towards certain tendencies due to biologiy and culture, and women on average will trend towards certain tendencies due to biology and culture, but individuals will vary considerably, and culture/education/society shapes and exerts considerable influence over biological tendencies and instincs.

      Behavioural and gender stereotypes can be useful as a beginning framework for understanding someone, but should never be considered absolute 'rules' and should always be amenable to change.

      Date and time
      February 15, 2013, 10:02AM
      • Perfect comment! I can only agree with you wholeheartedly. Hubby & I both like to talk and he is terrible at navigating while I'm great at it. Sweetly, one of his first gifts to me was a GPS which is more something he needed!

        Date and time
        February 15, 2013, 11:10AM
      • DM –Do you think the average responses of the genders should be preserved, ignored or torn down so that new ones can emerge?

        Date and time
        February 15, 2013, 12:08PM
      • "Do you think the average responses of the genders should be preserved, ignored or torn down so that new ones can emerge?"

        I think that we are talking about an average as it emeges from millions (or billions) of individuals. There is no way that a focus on the averages can be useful for anything other than an overview when it comes to talking about changing aspects of society. There are so many tens of thousands of variables and influences that go into the production of those averages that with our current intelligence and technology you could never hope to truly understand the various degrees of influence and impact that those variables have on the average. You can't ignore them if there are problems, but it's irresponsible to tear them down without at least some understanding of the impact the change would have.

        Therefore the only logical approach is to look at individual factors alone and in small groups and try and determine if they are helpful or harmful to general human equality and well-being. It's not a perfect solution, but it's the only one that could have any practical possiblity of being useful.

        Date and time
        February 15, 2013, 12:34PM

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