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Home > Culture and Society

Nature vs. nurture vs. gross generalisations

27 August 2004

This week various media reported that women are more sensible investors than men. Women who buy shares are more likely to spread their risks over different companies, and tend to buy lower-risk shares, for example in retail companies. Men, on the other hand, like high-risk investments that offer big returns, eg. high-tech companies, and are less likely to spread risks, investing more in fewer enterprises.

Can you spot the subtext? Here it is:

Men are obsessed with their boy-toys and invest aggressively thanks to a testosterone-fuelled desire to get that big score. Women, meanwhile, are more mature and sensible, and therefore superior to the angry man-apes. Of course, since we're already in the territory of gross gender generalisations, you could also argue that women just like shopping, so what more pleasing activity could there be than to go shopping for shops?

Another recent story put a typically shallow spin on gender differences. When last week's A-level results came out, there were scores of stories claiming that boys were finally 'catching up' with girls when it came to academic success, as though we should be cheering on youngsters of our own sex to beat the 'opposition'.

These 'gender difference' stories pop up with grim regularity, but what are they really about? Noone would deny that men and women behave differently in many ways, but when people talk about differences between the sexes, you get the suspicion that they implicitly want to 'prove' an intrinsic or biological difference.

It's not an implausible idea, particularly if you consider the effects of testosterone (although men and women both have testosterone and oestrogen, albeit in different quantities) but it does have its limitations. Take these random examples of different gender behaviours:

- The vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men.

- Most women do not believe that a handbrake turn is a legitimate manoeuvre on a public highway.

You can 'explain' both these facts with testosterone, a hormone that is strongly linked to aggression. But consider some of the counter-arguments. Quite clearly, women *are* capable of violent crimes and violent behaviour in general. And what about the millions of non-aggressive men? Do they all have testosterone

And as for aggressive driving... well, men tend to be the worst offenders, but surely this owes more to the cult of blokes and their cars. Max Power magazine used to (and probably still does) invite readers to send in pictures of cars they'd managed to write off in interesting ways. To our knowledge, Cosmo, Marie Claire and Elle do not ask their readers to do the same.

And this is kind of the point. What explains these male/female differences better? Is it biological differences, or sub-cultures and social groups? Is it nature or nurture?

We've all heard the hoary old chestnut about women not having the same aptitude for 'spatial reasoning' as men, ie. they're not as good at visualising practical problems as men, who therefore obviously make better drivers and engineers.

This is taken as a fact, but there are a couple of problems. Firstly, research can be wrong, particularly if it's dealing with something as abstract as 'spatial reasoning'. Secondly, even if there are differences in the ability of different sexes to do different things, how the hell can you tell if it's nature or

If you give a group of boys and a group of girls a pile of Meccano or Lego and tell them to build, say, a bridge, who's more likely to be better at it? Is it the boys, who've probably been given construction-related toys all their lives, or girls who were given My Little Ponies once they grew out of Lego Duplo?

On the weirder fringes of the 'nature' argument, some (male) 'thinkers' have even argued that men are more successful (in conventional terms like career success and income) than women because women are the nurturing sex, while men are more ambitious, all thanks to testosterone. A few million years ago, goes the 'logic', testosterone-fuelled males hunted the woolly mammoths. Nowadays their aggressive hunting skills have become ambition and competitiveness, which is why there are more male managing directors, famous novelists, explorers, etc.

Oh dear. It *might* well be true that men are more aggressive and thus more competitive, but on balance of probability, what's more likely? That women don't have the get-up-and-go to be high achievers, or that they've been hampered by entrenched gender roles or sexism throughout history, and, more recently, have had their careers interrupted by having children? (This argument also conveniently ignores the millions of women who are just as successful as men, and makes a highly dubious connection between aggression and ambition.)

What's irksome about the gender difference 'debate' is that this sort of highly speculative generalising seems to be the norm. That's not to say we shouldn't discuss gender differences, but we should at least try to look for the best explanation for them.

Unfortunately the debate is usually conducted at the most simplistic level. We're sure we won't have to wait long for the ext story about the 'female nurturing gene', or the fact that men are 'hard-wired' to drink lager and watch football with their mates.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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