Whether they’ve read John Gray’s books or not, everyone 'knows' by now that women and men communicate differently. Women talk more than men and they are more verbally skilled; men talk in order to get things done while women talk in order to make connections to people; men use language competitively while women use it cooperatively. These differences mean that men and women struggle to understand each other, and need help to communicate. And, according to recent books by Simon Baron Cohen and others, these differences are based not on the way we are brought up, but on differences in our brains; it’s the way we were made.
Or is it? In this excellent book, Cameron, an Oxford language professor, examines the evidence behind these beliefs and finds it seriously lacking. One by one, she tackles the myths in the paragraph above and discovers that none of them are substantiated by research. The belief that women talk more than men, for example, was boosted by a book called The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine which claimed that women utter 20,000 words a day while men utter 7,000. The claim got huge publicity because it made great soundbite science, but was not based on any actual research. When the author was challenged to reveal her sources, she admitted that there was no evidence for the claim and withdrew the statistic from subsequent editions of the book. But in terms of perpetuating myths, the damage has been done and the ‘fact’ of women’s talkativeness has entered our common mythology.
And what about the competitive/cooperative difference? After the 1997 general election when a record number of women MPs entered Westminster, there was speculation that their presence would improve the quality of debate in the House of Commons because they would be more cooperative, more interested in listening and more open to negotiation. In fact, research has shown that female MPs are just as adversarial, competitive and assertive as male MPs in terms of contributing to debates. There is one major difference, however, in the way that female MPs communicate; they rarely contribute ‘illegally’ by interrupting, heckling or interjecting comments while others are speaking. Although illegal, these contributions to debates are actually a powerful strategy that enhance MPs’ reputations and bring them to the attention of those in power. Cameron argues that women are less likely to ‘break the rules’ because of the power dynamics of the House; they know they are there as interlopers, forming a small minority in a historically male institution. They keep the rules to show they are worthy of belonging, but in fact that underlines their insecurity and relative powerlessness. In the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, the same researcher discovered that the rule-breakers are as likely to be women as men because it’s a new institution and women have played an active rule since the very beginning. Cameron argues that differences in communication then, are less to do with nature or nurture, but rather more to do with power. Rather than accepting them as a given, we should be asking why they are there and what can be done about them. I’d love to see what she would make of the way that women communicate within the historically male institution of the church.
So why do these myths have such resonance if there is little evidence to back them up? Cameron argues that we typically pay most attention to things that match our expectations while failing to remember or register counter-examples. Her dad firmly believed that women were terrible drivers so whenever they were out in the car, he would point out with glee all the mistakes that female drivers were making. When, in return, Cameron pointed out good female drivers he was genuinely surprised to see them, not having noticed them before; when she pointed out bad male drivers, he would always maintain that they were an exception to the rule – that they were yobbos or Sunday drivers. When we hear that ‘women talk more than men’, we think of stereotypes of gossiping or nagging women and forget the real people – both men and women - that we know who don’t conform. Cameron points out, as I have done, that there can be far more difference between one woman and another than between an ‘average’ man and an ‘average’ woman.
It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking book, although I would have liked to have heard more about how Cameron would respond to the equally compelling evidence in Baron Cohen’s book The Essential Difference. Cameron’s book underlines the need to question assumptions, and to look for evidence. One of the things that concerns me in this whole debate is that Christian writers, such as John and Stasi Eldredge and those writing about the feminisation of the church, have latched onto these communication myths with little critical analysis and use them to uphold equally pernicious, but now Christianised, myths about men and women that maintain the competitive and divisive status quo and ignore the real issue of power. There’s a need for deep thinking, solid research and informed critique that recognises what we have in common, celebrates our diversity and honours the image of God in women and men.
Reviewed by Jenny Baker, writer and co-founder of the Sophia Network