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When 'feminism' becomes sexism

By Bob Montgomery - posted Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Although I suffer the cultural drawbacks of being born and raised as an Australian male (i.e. to be ‘masculine’), I empathise with Kali Goldstone’s frustrations at the disadvantageous treatment of women in many organisations, to the detriment of both (On Line Opinion February 11, 2013). It is unfortunate, however, that she often relies on and quotes poor science. Here are some more research-based findings.

There are observable differences in the respective structures of male and female brains in some areas (e.g. part of the hypothalamus) and in some brain activities (e.g. women’s brains show a 28-day cycle of certain activities throughout their lives, not observed in men’s brains). This makes sense because women have a biological cycle driven by this, evidenced after puberty and before menopause by cycles of fertility and menstruation. I don’t doubt this difference in brain function is  primarily biological in basis and unchangeable by experience.

Patterns of gender differences in many aspects of individual psychology, including social behaviours, communication, perception, problem-solving, emotional expression and others, are observed in most if not all cultures, even though they can differ between cultures. Given the inevitable correlation between brain structures and functions, on the one hand, and psychological characteristics on the other, I don’t doubt that gender differences in psychology reflect gender differences in biology. The classic error made, including by many scientists who should know better, is to confuse correlation with causality and even to assume correlation indicates the direction of cause and effect. I don’t doubt that the majority of gender-based psychological differences referred to here predominantly reflect cultural differences more than biological factors, because usually genes and environment interact, not compete, despite Kali Goldstone’s apparent belief in a competitive  dichotomy of causality. ‘Nature versus nurture’ is so dead it’s probably on the British menu as beef.


The oft-claimed gender differences in ability are only claimed by people who are ignorant or deliberately misleading regarding the relevant research. For popular example, it has been found that males are, on average, better at mathematics than are females. Similarly it has been found that, on average, females are better at languages than are males. But if you look at the ranges of those abilities in males and females, researchers find those ranges overlap considerably. It is easy to find many girls who are better at maths than most boys and many boys who are better at languages than most girls. It is probably impossible to do ethically acceptable research that would define the relative importance of biological and cultural factors in determining the gender differences in such abilities and the observed differences are so small you would have to ask, ‘Why bother?’

Educational psychologists have found, and smart schools have accepted, that girls do better at maths and science in girls-only classes. This is not because girls need special support to ‘catch up’ with the boys but because they are reluctant to show how well they can perform in front of the boys. This is clearly a culturally caused phenomenon that needs a cultural solution, just as the gender imbalance in eating disorders reflects culturally defined notions of female attractiveness. Smart schools recognise the unhelpfulness of some traditional notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ and encourage a school  culture that values the best of both rather than perpetuating antique and sometimes damaging beliefs.

Ms Goldstone confuses quite different notions, such as potential, ability and performance. Biological factors are likely to play a bigger role in setting limits for potential, although the IQ-boosting impact of Sesame Street on poor American kids showed convincingly how wrong it has been to see potential as genetically determined, a conclusion repeatedly demonstrated in the ethnic differences in academic performances in Australian classrooms. Ability and performance, how well you can do or did something, inevitably reflect past and present interactions of biological and cultural factors, expressed within your present context. Smart parents have learned that, of the ten or so factors that influence a child’s performance on a learning task (or any other kind), only one is really under the child’s control, effort. Smart parents pay attention to and encourage effort, not a final performance level which will inevitably reflect the influence of many factors outside the child’s control (e.g. ‘choices’ of parents and home atmosphere, ‘choices’ of school, teacher, teaching  and assessment methods, and ‘choice’ of inherited potential, which may well reflect biological factors).

Kali Goldstone’s scathing comparison of how (some) men approach problem-solving in leadership or management roles with how (some) women approach it is as over-generalised and biased as the same misreporting of gender differences in performance that she understandably attacks. In my opinion, much of her article is as sexist, probably unconsciously so, as the straw arguments she attacks and the defensive rebuttals she will elicit, from men who are just as unconscious of how sexist they have been taught to be.

I agree that major aspects of our culture’s definitions of masculinity and femininity – what boys and girls should strive to be – have served no one well. Girls and women do still clearly suffer unfair and baseless discrimination in many ways. Just look again at how unequally women are paid for equal and sometimes better work. However, depicting this as some clever, self-serving plot by men, who thereby enjoy great advantages, flies in the face of the facts. The more typically ‘masculine’ a man is, the more his health will suffer, the more prematurely he will die, the worse his intimate and family relationships will be, and the worse he will handle psychological difficulties, like surviving a traumatic experience.

We all ought to be smart enough to take a critical look at the ideas we grew up with about gender roles, to identify the good bits from both masculinity and femininity and strengthen them and pass them on to our kids. At the same time we ought to be willing to recognise the harmful bits, to challenge them for ourselves and avoid passing them on to our kids. I like trying, as well as I can, to be a good support for my wife and our son and a good mate to my friends. I get great satisfaction from trying, as well as I can, to be empathic, nurturing and supportive to the troubled people who come to my psychological practice.

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About the Author

Dr Bob Montgomery is a clinical, health and forensic psychologist, practising on the Gold Coast. He is a Past President of the Australian Psychological Society, has been a professor in psychology at five Australian and American universities, and frequently contributes to the media.

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