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Busted! Five False Myths About Gender Differences

Over the last few decades, touchy-feely self-help books have painted a picture of male-female relationships as something between an ongoing battle and a complete exercise in futility. They lecture that gender differences ensure that men and women have different styles of communication, thinking, and behavior. They’re not just different sexes, they’re from entirely different planets, and never the twain shall meet.

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If all these things were true, it would be a miracle that any two people managed to have a functioning relationship at all. Indeed, recent psychological research has shown that women and men are far more alike than they are different, and many of the things that we’re taught about the supposed gender differences in men’s and women’s brains are nothing but mere myths. 

Myth #1: Women Are More Talkative
One popular stereotype claims that women speak tens of thousands of words per day, while men manage to utter only a few hundred. In fact, there’s virtually no difference between the number of words spoken by men and those spoken by women. A 2007 study at the University of Arizona monitored 396 college students and found that both the men and the women spoke an average of about sixteen thousand words per day, without any statistically significant difference between the sexes. In the June 2007 issue of Science magazine, researcher Matthias Mehl reported that the study’s three chattiest subjects actually happened to all be men, each of whom uttered about forty thousand words per day. 

Myth #2: Men Are More Competitive
In many societies, the stereotype is that men are competitive and women are collaborative. Some studies of Western subjects confirm this bias, but a study conducted by professors from Columbia University and the University of Chicago found surprising results in cultures that haven’t been subjected to this bias, such as the Masai, a patriarchal tribe from Tanzania, and the Khasi, a matrilineal group from India. In the patriarchal society, the men were more competitive than the women were, but in the matrilineal society, it was the women who were more competitive. The researchers interpreted their findings as evidence that there is no biological basis for competitive drive, and that differences between the sexes are merely social biases, reflecting the fact that young girls and boys are socialized differently. 

Myth #3: Women Are More Emotional
In a study conducted by Vanderbilt University psychologist Ann Kring, male and female college students watching movies reported feeling the same levels of emotion, but the females felt more comfortable expressing them. In fact, many studies have shown that there’s no difference in the experiences of emotion between men and women, but since women are already perceived to be the more emotional sex, they consistently score higher than men on tests of emotional expression. According to a study published in the February 2004 issue of Sex Roles: a Journal of Research, male and female subjects were equally likely to express feelings of sympathy or lend support to friends, but often the circumstances surrounding the outward expression of emotion are highly dependent on the context, such as whether the subject is being watched by onlookers. 

Myth #4: Men Are Better at Math
It’s been established that boys tend to do better on math tests and are more likely than girls to choose math-centric career paths, such as engineering, technology, and computers. The real problem, though, is not an actual biological handicap, but the perception that girls are inferior at math. Many tests, like one professors at the University of Texas and New York University conducted, found that when they tested groups of people who were primed to think about the bias against women, the women scored poorly, but in groups that were primed to think about gender-neutral subjects, the score gap disappeared. This “stereotype anxiety” is a well-known psychological phenomenon in testing, and many researchers now believe it accounts for much of girls’ lower performance on math tests. 

Myth #5: Women Are More Intuitive
Many women pride themselves on their powers of intuition, but new research reveals that intuitive, empathic thinking isn’t solely the province of ladies. A study conducted at the University of Hertfordshire in Great Britain tested subjects’ ability to decipher real smiles from fake ones. Although more women than men reported that they were “highly intuitive,” there was virtually no corresponding improvement in performance. Men detected 72 percent of the real smiles to women’s 71 percent. When asked specifically to decipher the expressions of the opposite sex, men did even better. They detected 76 percent of false female smiles, while women picked out only 67 percent of men’s fake smiles. Intuition is traditionally considered a female attribute, but research such as this shows that men’s and women’s abilities are just about even. 

According to psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, whose article “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis” was published in the September 2005 issue of the American Psychologist, there are only a few areas in which men and women are substantially different. They differ in measures of motor performance in tasks like speed and throwing power (since after puberty, men are bigger and have more muscle mass), and in certain facets of and attitudes about sexuality. Also, women and men differ in expression of aggression: men exhibit more physical aggression, while women score higher on tests of relational aggression and verbal bullying. 

Reinforcing stereotypes about men and women is damaging; it can prevent people from expressing themselves, and it solidifies outdated gender roles. Some women may talk more than their husbands and some men may be more competitive than their wives, but those differences are created by society, not biology. Anyone who’s been in a marital argument can attest that sometimes it seems like his or her partner is on a separate planet. But the truth is that men and women are far more alike than we are different.

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.

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