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Men and Women and Overlapping Bell Curves
Your reflections on measuring individuals against the aggregate
This week, I have selections from your reflections on a survey tool that assesses personality and predicts gender. Next week, I’ll put together a round up of your reactions to my review of Ross Douthat’s Lyme memoir The Deep Places and the challenges of chronic illness. And if you’re in Notre Dame this weekend, I’ll be speaking on Saturday as part of a panel on “The Dignity of the Sexed Body: Asymmetry, Equality, and Real Reproductive Justice.”
I appreciated your comments and questions about Clearer Thinking’s tool to assess sex-linked personality traits and try to guess people’s genders from their responses. I thought all the responses were marked by charity (what is good to take from a limited tool?) and appropriate skepticism (what is good to take from a limited tool?). These were a few of your comments that really stuck with me.
Coretta found the tool helpful for broadening our understanding of what is normal.
I find this to be a helpful model of what I see around me, starting with the infants I babysit: there are personality differences between men and women in general, but lots of overlap too. I think data like this can help people understand that people who have the same gender as them but very different personalities are just as male/ female as they are. Or the other way around: that people who have been bruised by insensitive comments stemming from gender stereotypes can understand where it comes from—an explanation is not an excuse, but it can change how one views the hurt. And I also believe it is important to take the (general) differences into account when working or communicating with people of the opposite gender, to keep honest misunderstandings from escalating into hard feelings.
This is how I try to approach it, too. It’s normal for any particular man or woman not to fit our expectations for men and women, but if we obscure the fact that there are some notable differences on average we’re more likely to take the male median as the universal median and leave many women out.
Off the ‘stack, a guy friend commented on facebook:
There are still lots of open questions. Which of the traits that separate groups have to do with socialization rather than anything innate? The quiz doesn't demonstrate that any of the traits demonstrated are the result of innate differences; they could equally well be the result of learned messaging and societal norms.
I don't believe it's fully possible for separate groups to exist with recognized differences that result in no discomfort from outliers being pressured to conform—I think the existence of recognized "differences" will continue to be difficult, both for those who are part of historically marginalized groups and for those who don't personally conform. Nor do I believe it's fully possible to ignore or erase all differences, whether biological or societal in origin. However, I think we can work to do better on all fronts, though: recognizing and affirming any common traits within gender groups, as well as affirming individuals' choices that deviate from the "norms." And I think we may also find it helpful to recognize that we may never be able to draw a meaningful distinction between "innate" differences and "societal" differences—and that the distinction should not prevent us from treating groups and individuals with respect.
I think his last point is particularly well taken: it’s hard to sort out what’s innate and what’s learned, whether at the level of an individual or society as a whole. I’ve grown up suspicious-by-default of any innate claims, since they often felt like a way to say “no” to women.
But treating everything as inculcated raises different questions—are we utterly self-constructed or is there some kind of core in our creation that is fruitful to consider? If gender is all expression and choice, I care less about it than if it’s right to talk about a sexed soul.
Finally, I appreciated some of the discussion in the comments about how to think about the overlap between the male and female distribution curves. Does occupying the same space make us more alike or does it point to a subtler difference? Here’s what I wrote:
As someone who came out female favored by this measure, but has a lot of male-linked traits as part of my personality, my experience of having a male-associated trait as a woman is often pretty different than a guy's experience of that trait as a man.
A woman and a man can both be 5'7" (it's not a shocking height for either) but they'll navigate moving through the world at that height differently.
I often feel freer to be a little combative/tough on timekeeping as a woman when I chair debates, because my actions carry less of an undercurrent of "will this get physical" than a man's do if he says the same words in a similar tone.
This has been an undercurrent of the discussions over paternity leave, sparked by Buttigieg (justly!) taking time off to care for newborn twins, one of whom had a lengthy NICU stay. The same leave, offered to men and women equally, is still received differently, both because of our different expectations for mothers and fathers (many people mocking Buttigieg underrated a father’s love and presence) and because of the distinct biological reality of being a mother or father (neither Buttigieg nor his husband face the same physical recovery from birth that their surrogate or birth mother does—and who knows what leave she got).