Many people believe that men and women are completely different. For example, men are thought to be better at parking cars, whereas women are thought to be better multitaskers. But how big are the differences between men and women really?
Some male-female differences are undeniable. For example men and women obviously have different physical shapes. But other kinds of differences are smaller than you might expect.
Personality Two researchers from the US investigated whether men and women differed on 122 traits. As expected, there were clear physical differences. For example, men were heavier and taller than women on average, and they could jump farther and higher.
However, almost none of the psychological traits, such as empathy and assertiveness, showed clear differences by gender. In addition, a study based on 100 meta-analyses found that men and women showed close to 80% overlap on most personality traits. Clearly, when it comes to personality men and women are much more simlar than they are different.
The brain Similarly, it is not a good idea to label parts of the brain as ‘male’ or ‘female’. A study of more than 1400 MRI brain scans found that every single brain, whether it belonged to a man or woman, was unique. Unlike popular belief, no brain looked typically male or typically female. Every unique brain contains some parts that are most often found in men, some parts that are most often found in women, and some parts that occur equally often in either gender. Moreover, the brains of both genders often showed a lot of overlap.
Looking beyond averages Taken together, this research shows that there is no such thing as a typically male or female brain, or a typically male or female personality. Nevertheless, science often reports about differences between men and women. What are these reports based on?
A lot of research on gender differences looks at averages. Based on the average performance of a group, we might conclude that ‘women are better at multitasking’ or ‘men are better at parallel parking.’
But studies comparing averages tend to ignore that the data also show a lot of overlap. And based on the larger studies discussed earlier, the amount of overlap is often quite substantial. Researchers should take this into account when interpreting the data.
Some differences may be important Although it is important to acknowledge the overlap between men and women, sometimes (small) differences can be important. Some mental disorders occur more often for a specific gender. If we can understand why this is the case, we may be able to understand the (biological) causes of these disorders. This may contribute to the development of more effective treatments.
Not opposites Next time you’re annoyed because a woman is doing a bad parking job, or because a man is unable to watch TV and listen to you at the same time, remember that this could happen with either gender. After all, we tend to be much more similar than we are different. Men and women are not opposites.