Five common misunderstandings about gender differences research

Almost everybody loves to read about gender differences. At least, so it seems, given the large number of newspaper articles and opinion pieces about this topic.

The media’s attention for the topic reflects an enormous interest in gender differences in the population. For most people, understanding gender differences is very important for all sorts of things in life. For example for finding a partner and reproduction. You need to understand at least a little bit about gender differences in order to succeed in these things.

Anyone doing academic research on gender differences knows this too: Gender is a very popular topic, but it is also a very sensitive topic that is often emotionally discussed. There are various misunderstandings about gender differences research which make debates unnecessary heated. My aim here is to eradicate these misunderstandings so that people can discuss these issues with a cool head!

Misunderstanding 1) People generalise too much!

When people hear about a gender differences study, people check if the findings reflect their own experience. That is a natural thing to do, but some people fail to realise that most of the research is about averages, not absolutes. For example, even though it is true that men are taller than women, on average, there are actually really tall women and very short men. Thus, it is not absolutely the case that every man is taller than every woman. That does not make the finding that men are taller than women untrue. It is just that researchers typically mean “on average”. Most of the research on gender differences tries to find out what the average man and the average women think and do.

This has implications for how individuals should and should not apply these findings to their own situation. For example, even though girls have better reading and writing skills (on average!), there is no reason to advise your son not to pursue a career in creative writing if that is what he wants to do; he is just an individual, and he might be very different from the average male student.

The lesson here is that when you read about gender differences research, add “on average” to every statement about men and women.

Misunderstanding 2) “The differences between men and women are much smaller than the differences within gender groups”.

This is related to point 1, and you hear it regularly, like in the tweet below.

tweetgender

The wrong logic behind this misunderstanding goes like this: 1) There is a difference between men and women (e.g., men are a few centimetres taller than women). 2) There is a considerable difference between the shortest and tallest man, and equally, there is a considerable difference between the shortest and tallest adult women (this can easily be half a meter). 3) Therefore, the differences within genders are larger than between the genders. 4) Therefore, the height difference between men and women is meaningless.

Yet, this is simply not true from a statistical point of view. In fact, in psychological studies you typically have a situation where group differences are considerably smaller than the range of values within each group. Even though the group differences between men and women’s height will be only a few centimetres, the range between the shortest and tallest men (or women) is much more than a few centimetres. Even so, this difference is statistically significant. The good thing is that statistics offers tools to determine whether groups differences might be the result of random variation (e.g., t-test) and tools to express the sizes of group differences (e.g., Cohen’s d).

As with point one, the way gender differences are reported often leads to confusion. Point one of this list showed that gender differences are not absolute, and this second point shows that even relatively small differences between groups have real meaning. The findings have not necessarily direct relevance to individual people’s lives, though! It is meaningful for researchers and those who want to design interventions to counter group differences where necessary and possible. In the case of height, there is no interest to abolish this gender difference, because social psychologists have recently found out that the (add “on average”, please!) heterosexual woman prefers a taller man. Again, I can imagine how even reporting something like this can easily lead to a heated debate, for example, because it generalises (I am sure there are many women who do not care about height), and because it gives the impression that people’s desires are, to some degree, instinctive and selfish rather than in line with modern notions of equality and politeness (I mean, it is arguably not so fair or polite to say that someone rather dates somebody else purely because of height).

The danger of this second misunderstanding is that people reject all research about gender differences. A danger because it is clearly the case that males, as a group, and females, as a group are affected by different issues and challenges, and only evidence-based interventions will be suitable to deal with these challenges. Even though the effects might be relatively small and difficult to generalise to your own world, these differences can add up to considerable problems in the population as a whole. Take for example psychological problems affecting children and adolescents. Boys suffer more from attentional problems and girls suffer more from eating disorders; you need to take gender into consideration as an important variable when investigating these issues.

Misunderstanding 3) “Sex differences are either entirely caused by biological factors (nature) or by learning factors (nurture), but not by both”

This is a common misunderstanding. All researchers studying biological factors involved in explaining gender differences are fully aware that gender differences are the result of a combination of both biological factors (such as genetic, hormonal, hereditary factors) and learning and social factors. Biology and the environment constantly interact with one another, and that makes explaining thought and behavior very complex.

It is difficult for people, in general, to simultaneously consider that many factors play a role at the same time. This difficulty is often reflected in newspaper articles, where problems such as why girls do not as well in mathematics as boys in international comparisons are often attributed to a single factor. The issue is, though, that the reality is far more complex than that. That is difficult to convey in a short newspaper article, where the authors do not have the space to elaborate on all factors or to explain that other factors than those mentioned play a role too.

Misunderstanding 4) “It is damaging for women’s education to say that biological factors play a role in explaining sex differences”

This is a misunderstanding. It is not damaging to report findings of academic research one way or another. It is ultimately up to the journalists to inform the public responsibly. But that is often difficult to do in the little space that journalists have or in the short air time researchers get to explain their findings. I recently wrote a whole blog about this.

Misunderstanding 5) “Sex differences due to biological factors can never be changed”

In general, people believe that anything that is caused by biological factors is completely fixed. That is why many people like environmental explanations, because it gives the impression that we can do something about it by improving society. And it is why many people dislike biological explanations, because it make situations seem hopeless.

Fortunately, this is a misunderstanding. Not only is it the case that biological factors never work in isolation (see point 3), we can change the influence of biological variables. Even though it is true that many of our “inborn instincts” are difficult to change, we have the intelligence not give up on overcoming biological limitations. Medical science is the best example of how people have managed to overcome the restrictions of biological factors. And the fact that we can fly to the moon or dive to the bottom of the ocean is proof that we can overcome our biological limitations with ingenuity.

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About Gijsbert Stoet

Gijsbert Stoet is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Glasgow. Gijsbert has carried out research in psychology and neuroscience and is particularly interested in gender differences in thought and behavior. Gijsbert has published a number of papers on this topic in well-known scientific journals.
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