Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Gender Difference or Personality Difference?

Quite often, I deliberately tune into talk radio programs that I know I will heartily disagree with nearly everything that is said. The reasons for listening to such shows is twofold: it helps to sharpen my thinking about my own opinions when exposed to opposing views and, secondly, it's great fodder for ranty blogging.

One such show is the Focus on the Family weekend edition, which I sometimes hear when out in the car. I am against nearly everything this group stands for, so it is perfect for the purposes mentioned above.

The other night they were talking about a book about conflicts in marriage typically being caused by differences in thinking processes between men and women. It was the tired, hackneyed, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" stereotyping crap all over again, this time in fundie garb.

The book, "Men Are Like Waffles--Women Are Like Spaghetti: Understanding and Delighting in Your Differences" focused on the issue of multitasking, taking the position that men are incapable of multitasking and that women are incapable of compartmentalized thinking.

To be a male "Waffle" thinker was to approach issues one at a time, much as a waffle is divided into completely separate squares. That is, they posit that men either are baffled by or simply ignore other simultaneous issues; that having to deal with several things at once throws men for a loop.

Conversely, they characterize the "Spaghetti" women as being natural multitaskers; that women approach everything as being interconnected, much like a pile of spaghetti strands on a plate. They also imply that women cannot compartmentalize or take a single minded approach.

This, of course, is the tired "blockheaded male", "flighty female" stereotype dished up in new wrapping. It's the old "head vs heart" argument. This stereotype has been used in the past to justify barring women from careers that demand a rational, single-minded approach, and pushing them toward jobs with repetitious, detail-oriented tasks. It's the mindset behind the mistaken idea that women make better nurses than men, because they are supposedly more "relational". And it's behind the ubiquitous humor about married couples: the husband who can't find anything and the wife who goes off on tangents when in an argument.

Like all stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in this one, but that's all it is, a grain. It is too sloppy a generalization, like all stereotypes are, to accurately apply to all men and all women. Rather, this type of difference in thinking styles is more of a difference in personality, rather than gender, per se. It is addressed more accurately in the Myers-Briggs personality system by the Thinking/Feeling and Intuitive/Sensing continua, where both men and women are represented in all of these distinctions of personality.

To use an example to show the faults of the multitasking/compartmentalizing gender stereotype, consider the profession of emergency dispatcher. This profession is all about multitasking: answering multiple telephones and dispatching to multiple officers simultaneously, while also using computers to run criminal histories, driver's license checks, and so on. For many years, all police dispatchers were male, just as patrolmen were. They apparently handled the multitasking just fine, as there was no evidence of police departments being in chaos because of male dispatchers! Nowadays, most dispatchers are female, but this has more to do with lingering discrimination against female patrol officers, rather than a belief that women are more naturally suited to it than men are. Dispatching has been, for the last forty years or so, available to women interested in police work.

This stereotype has also been used to explain why men tend to more readily engage in extramarital and casual sex; that men supposedly are more able to compartmentalize and separate different aspects of their lives. While I conform to stereotype in this instance, I know plenty of women who can, too -- otherwise, where would I be getting my sex partners from? Additionally, I know men who resist temptation because they consider how this action might relate to other parts of their lives.

While I admit that these two types of thinking processes exist, I think it's unhelpful and maladaptive to address it from a sharply divided gender line. First of all, I think all people are capable of employing both thinking processes in different situations, which is amply showed by the reality that nearly every profession employs both men and women and by the fact that both men and women are capable of casual sex. Secondly, I think it would be far more useful to approach this as an aspect of personality difference, as in the Myers-Briggs personality system, rather than one of gender.


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