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Week of 24 September 2004 · Vol. VIII, No. 3

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Men are from Earth, and so are women
COM Professor Caryl Rivers attacks gender myths

By Jessica Ullian

In her new book, Caryl Rivers says that men and women are not as different as some researchers claim. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


In her new book, Caryl Rivers says that men and women are not as different as some researchers claim. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The popular theory that men are from Mars and women are from Venus — or that there’s a fundamental difference in how the sexes view the world and communicate with each other — was supposed to simplify relationships. But authors Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett found that it has had the opposite effect.

Rivers, a COM journalism professor, and Barnett, a Brandeis University scientist, collaborated in 1996 on She Works/He Works: How Two-Income Families Are Happy, Healthy, and Thriving and concluded that a family could succeed, emotionally and financially, with two working parents. However, when they checked in on their research subjects several years later, they found that some couples were worried about adopting atypical gender roles. The mothers believed that by working, they weren’t fulfilling their roles as women, and the men believed they were biologically ill-equipped to care for their children.

The discovery led to more research into gender and behavior, and in August, Rivers and Barnett published their results — Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs.

The book, Rivers says, dismisses the Mars-Venus concepts as “junk science, no science, or bad science.”

“The truth is that men and women are much more alike than different,” she says. “And they’re becoming more alike as men get involved in child care, and women get involved in the workforce.”

In Same Difference, the authors assert that men and women can be both hunters and nurturers, both workers and parents, and are limited only by their own ideas about appropriate gender roles. Assigning “natural” characteristics to either sex is simply restrictive.

“When biological determinism starts creeping in, it hurts a lot of people, both men and women,” Rivers says. “It tells a story that’s often a kind of fairy tale, based on some stereotypes.”

The book presents a broad analysis of gender-difference theories, examining their history, methodology, and impact. Taking on many studies that have been considered seminal — such as Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, and John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus — Rivers and Barnett contend that shoddy scientific research rose to prominence through media hype. Gilligan’s studies, for example, were based on two focus groups of 25 students. Tannen’s research, the authors say, relied heavily on personal anecdotes.

The women believe that while the ideas were intended to open up communication between the sexes, the notion that gender determines a person’s skills and strengths is particularly damaging for men in the home and women in the workplace. Rivers and Barnett found themselves fighting against the stereotypes they have encountered in their own careers — only this time the biases were rooted in “science.”

“People would say to me, ‘I’m not going to hire you, because you’re a woman,’” Rivers says of her early years as a journalist. “Now it’s much more subtle, and in some ways it’s even harder to fight. If they say, ‘I won’t hire you because you don’t have the right hormones to lead,’ you start thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute, maybe I don’t.’”

When researchers analyze behavioral differences based on gender, Rivers says, they’re ignoring a key component of any interaction: power. In early studies, men were more frequently in positions of power, she says, which naturally affected their contact with female subordinates. Now, she says, a look at female leaders reveals that when the gender roles are reversed, the typically “male” or “female” behaviors change.

“Does Condoleezza Rice let her male aides step all over her sentences?” she asks. “I wouldn’t think so.”

In addition, Rivers and Barnett applied their findings to education, saying that dominant ideas about how men and women learn actually restrict children’s abilities instead of enhancing them. If it’s assumed that boys have trouble learning English and girls have trouble learning math, they say, an entire generation will grow up with a sense of its own limitations.

“I would agree with that,” says Barbara Gottfried, a CAS instructor in women’s studies. “We live in a culture that works very hard to create difference. Young children are socialized by each other. It’s so pervasive in our culture that it’s almost impossible to imagine a world in which that doesn’t happen.”

Rivers and Barnett say in Same Difference that they are optimistic about the possibility for change, provided their ideas about gender equality gain sufficient momentum. Rivers is already working with Garland Waller, a COM film and television assistant professor, on a I documentary.

“You’ve got to get the other message out,” she explains.

Recent reactions to I indicate that many people are ready to hear the message.

“It really is a time when people are falling back to Mars and Venus, vive la différence explanations of male and female behavior,” says Pulitzer-Prize winning Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman. Rivers and Barnett “get us back to the science. And back to reality.”


24 September 2004
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