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Venus and Mars - not what we thought
September 9, 2008 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Why aren't men and women becoming more alike? A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge. International Sexuality Description Project findings.
posted by desjardins (45 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Where's Mark Liberman when you need him?
posted by Dr. Send at 5:18 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I assume they corrected for class?

Women have evolved to be like this! And men have evolved to be like this! Rite?

Makeitstopmakeitstopmakeitstop.
posted by jokeefe at 5:19 PM on September 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


And can we please have a moratorium on the phrase "hard-wired"? It's not too much to ask, is it? My birthday's coming up. Eventually.
posted by jokeefe at 5:21 PM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States.

Cross-cultural differences are discussed in the article, but more specifically, I wonder if this is because the study was designed and analyzed in a culture that is more like the Netherlands and the United States than India or Zimbabwe. Of course Western scientists are going to see distinctions between Dutch/US men and women that they wouldn't between Indian/Zimbabwean men/women, not because they're not there necessarily, but because they're just not picking up on the nuances.

Now that I'm done bashing the science, it just me, or is the article kind of inane?

[introductory spiel about gender difference controversy, the study, the results, the result controversy] - 1/3
[white dude talks about brown people in similar terms as animals] - 1/3
[hey, women don't seem to be as competitive about running as men! LOL, why's that?] - 1/3
[YAY MARS VENUS!] - the end

Ooooohkay then.
posted by bettafish at 5:25 PM on September 9, 2008 [11 favorites]


men and women are different? shocking.
posted by TrialByMedia at 5:28 PM on September 9, 2008


RTFA dummy.
posted by Hat Maui at 5:35 PM on September 9, 2008


Why?

Because vive la difference!
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:38 PM on September 9, 2008


[white dude talks about brown people in similar terms as animals] - 1/3

Er, all people are animals. How does an evolutionary psychologist not talk about people in the same terms as animals? I mean, everyone really should, but when you're looking at evolutionary traits, it's more explicit.
posted by wildcrdj at 5:42 PM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


How about the gendered clothes in that picture? The dude just spent half an hour buying whatever fit, looks fine. The poor woman had to waste a day finding heels and a headband to match her skirt suit, which I bet does not include a pocket big enough for a bobby pin, let alone provide a convenient location for her wallet, keys and highlighter.
posted by debbie_ann at 5:47 PM on September 9, 2008


On average, women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive. Men tend to be more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat.

On average? I know and have known many women who are more competitive, assertive, reckless and/or emotionally flat than average. I don't think anyone who knows me would disagree that I, as a man, am at least more nurturing and emotionally responsive than average. What are we, freaks of nature?

This large gender gap has persisted for two decades in all kinds of races — high school and college meets, elite and nonelite road races — and it jibes with other studies reporting that male runners train harder and are more motivated by competition, Dr. Deaner says. This enduring “sex difference in competitiveness,” he concludes, “must be considered a genuine failure for the sociocultural conditions hypothesis” that the personality gap will shrink as new roles open for women.

Why? Competitiveness is still often considered a much more attractive trait in a man than in a woman, I believe. A muscular athletic woman would probably be considered less attractive by many men, as it doesn't fit the traditional ideas of femininity and threatens the male ego, because of the social and cultural belief that men are supposed to be stronger. All kinds of new roles can open for women, and you can have equal pay and equal rights - and that's all great and the way it should be - but if the social beliefs, expectations and pressures don't change, there are still going to be many people who (understandably) just want to, and learn to, fit in (...to those roles).

men and women shouldn’t expect to understand each other much better anytime soon.

Why? Women are not confusing to me. People are. Women are no more, and no less. This Mars and Venus shit makes people dull.

Admittedly, when it's nature vs. nurture, I'm pretty much always on the side of nurture. I don't completely exclude the possibility that genetics could be a factor in these differences, but as is almost always the case, the influence of cultural and social forces seem so much more obvious that I just can't understand why people are so desperate to ascribe these differences to genetics - unless they don't want to feel like they can change it, or don't want it to change.
posted by Ira_ at 5:51 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]



This makes sense in light of the research showing that identical twins reared together are more different than those reared apart.

If you are close and relatively equal, there's a need to differentiate. If there are status differences, there's already enough "difference" so less need to do so.
posted by Maias at 5:55 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Er, all people are animals. How does an evolutionary psychologist not talk about people in the same terms as animals? I mean, everyone really should, but when you're looking at evolutionary traits, it's more explicit.

Dont be naive, wrcdj, its an explicitly racist way of speaking about somebody when you compare them to an animal (a man's height is the same as a bird's plumage!)
posted by yonation at 6:09 PM on September 9, 2008


Much more interesting in the article is the idea that personality differences are less in traditional cultures. I've noticed this - that men, say, from many traditional cultures are just allowed to say and do things and behave in ways that may be considered effeminate and unmanly in wealthier Western cultures. Not that these traditional cultures don't have their own fixed gender roles and sexism - but men are not expected to carry themselves in quite the same way as in Western culture. I keep saying Western, because from my experience of Hong Kong, a relatively wealthy, modern society - I would still bracket it under "traditional culture" in terms of how men are expected to behave. I don't know the answer as to why the difference, but it seems clearly cultural (at least as a major factor) to me. It'd be fascinating to find out.

This also reminded me of something I remarked on to a friend not so long ago: I thought that as men grew older, they seemed to have a tendency to become softer, more cooperative, more nurturing - all those things associated with women. Meanwhile, in my experience, older women seem to me like they feel freer to be harsher - more assertive, reckless, whatever. It's like as they grow older, they head towards the middle. My theory is that as you grow older, you learn to care less about what people think.

My friend looked at me dubiously though - so I'd be curious as to whether other mefites have noticed this.
posted by Ira_ at 6:13 PM on September 9, 2008


I have serious doubts that this study underwent the necessary scrutiny. Datapoint: my manboobs get bigger with every passing year.
posted by lekvar at 6:15 PM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


My birthday's coming up.

My birthday always seemed hardwired, but I've come to realize it was probably just a cultural thing.
posted by Dumsnill at 6:21 PM on September 9, 2008


Oh, and seriously: I have no idea about this. It's interesting in a slightly icky kind of way.
posted by Dumsnill at 6:24 PM on September 9, 2008


If you are close and relatively equal, there's a need to differentiate. If there are status differences, there's already enough "difference" so less need to do so.

That makes sense Maias - but why is there a need to differentiate? And why along the line of sex? After all, a man has a penis and a woman has a vagina in most cases - that's about all the differentiating you need. If it is to differentiate by personality - why along the line of sex? Why not establish your uniqueness as an individual? Or is it like countries, race, sports teams... a wish to belong to a group, and be able to say think in terms of our gang vs. your gang? Gangs that come from different planets, even.
posted by Ira_ at 6:30 PM on September 9, 2008


Martian traits are hard-wired, Venutian traits are soft-wired. Infiltrates are wicked, if something porous this way comes.
posted by Ida Hitit at 6:39 PM on September 9, 2008


No subject starting with "social" should end in "science".
posted by phrontist at 7:16 PM on September 9, 2008


Except maybe Social Conscience?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:24 PM on September 9, 2008 [5 favorites]


I feel immensely more stupid for having read that article, but even in my newfound moronic state, I can still make out the following: the personality traits are self-reported, which means that people will tend to answer according to their perceptions of normative gender roles within their own culture, and also - importantly - according to normative cultural roles that apply to all, male or female.

Self-reported traits need to be treated with a massive grain of salt, and do not necessarily correspond with how people behave in reality. They will also be heavily shaped by media & general social expectations, so it'd be more instructive to look to those kinds of "nurture" factors instead of evolutionary psychology for possible causes of gendered traits, although how cultural values respond to factors like widespread poverty or city-based prosperity would certainly play a role. It'd just be a slightly more nuanced model than a metaphor of showy birds losing their plumage in times of environmental stress.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:37 PM on September 9, 2008


On average? I know and have known many women who are more competitive, assertive, reckless and/or emotionally flat than average. I don't think anyone who knows me would disagree that I, as a man, am at least more nurturing and emotionally responsive than average. What are we, freaks of nature?

Er, for an average to exist, there will typically be some above the average, some below. There'll also be statistical outliers. Depends on the distribution. C'mon, you knew that.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:42 PM on September 9, 2008


Men's farts are loud and obnoxious. Women's farts are generally quieter and blamed on the dog. That, my friends, is what's really at the heart of the Mars vs. Venus debate.
posted by katillathehun at 7:44 PM on September 9, 2008


Er, for an average to exist, there will typically be some above the average, some below. There'll also be statistical outliers. Depends on the distribution. C'mon, you knew that.

What I was trying to say was that the statistical outliers are not so few and far between for the average to be representative of the sexes. Like you said, depends on the distribution - and I don't think it's distributed like that. I mean, are very competitive, assertive or reckless women really statistical outliers?
posted by Ira_ at 8:03 PM on September 9, 2008


Dude. Iron my shirt.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:11 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


wildcrdj: Er, all people are animals. How does an evolutionary psychologist not talk about people in the same terms as animals? I mean, everyone really should, but when you're looking at evolutionary traits, it's more explicit.

What yonation said. It's not that humans aren't animals, biologically speaking, it's that there is an incredibly loaded history of white people "scientifically" comparing not-white people to non-human animals and using their "proof" as an excuse for persecution. Anyone well-educated enough for a PhD (or to get a job as a science journalist at the NYT, depending on whose fault the comparison is) should know about this history and be tactful about how they present scientific material so as not to, um, make it sound like they're saying non-white people are more animalistic than white people. Which this article does, because when it comes to countries with poorer, non-Western populations it's all about sex, body size, nutrition, stress - like peacocks! And then we're talking about Western people (who may not all be white, but one imagines there are more white people there than in non-Western countries), suddenly we're talking about ... competition in sports?

Yeah, uh, I would call that racist.
posted by bettafish at 9:04 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


What I was trying to say was that the statistical outliers are not so few and far between for the average to be representative of the sexes. Like you said, depends on the distribution - and I don't think it's distributed like that. I mean, are very competitive, assertive or reckless women really statistical outliers?

Fair point - averages can be very meaningless. I assume the answer to your question would be in the detailed statistical results of the study, in the pdf files. Unfortunately, the NYT article doesn't do much to explain these.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:15 PM on September 9, 2008


I think another big piece of the puzzle missing is that, in my experience, the poorer a country is, the greater the general religiousness of the people.

And by that, I don't mean the holier-than-thou moral self-righteousness that so often characterises the religious right in the West, but something closer to what I see as the 'essence' of religion - humility, looking out for one's neighbour, respect for others, perhaps a kind of stoical resignation to poverty & hope that ethical conduct will pave the way for a better rebirth or life after death.

Given that these values are shared by men & women alike, and are often palpably strong and deeply felt, I'm not that surprised that men & women in developing countries might be more alike than the sexes are in the west, where religion seems to do less to temper things like greed, ambition, pride & aggressiveness.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:17 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hmm. This is an interesting thing to think about. Thanks for the mental stimulation desjardins. Naturally, I'm curious what you think.

Perhaps when human beings are in the old roles of provider and baby caretaker they operate more as a survival team, united against the odds. Survival circumstances would have made appearing or acting more unified a priority.

When the survival odds are less strenuous there is more freedom for innate differences between the genders to arise that were there all along. The need for sex to be procreation is diminished. Males and females don't then have to work as a survival team but more as peers with differences. Friends with benefits.
posted by nickyskye at 9:43 PM on September 9, 2008


What? I see the snark en mass. I see the standard PC answer. I see someone not understanding probability (Ira). And I see one quite relevant comment (UbuRoivas). But it all has a distinctly bizarre feel. Did I miss some meeting of the snark committee?

Men in traditional cultures murder one another all the time. Isn't that aggressive? Are they counting illegal, wrong, etc. acts? If so, how? Western men might appear more aggressive because they're completely repressed into socially acceptable aggression.

We all agree western cultures give people more luxuries. One subtle such luxury may be pretending you are an alpha male, inducing flat emotions, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:41 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wait, these are all SELF-REPORTED personality traits, if I am R-ing tFA correctly.

So I'm pretty sure that all this study tells us is that men and women in the industrialized world think they're more different from each other than men and women in the developing world. According to some guy who teaches at a teensy university I've never heard of in Peoria. (A university which is not a research institution, and only offers one doctoral program--in Physical Therapy!)

Once again, the New York Times demonstrates astonishing levels of fail in discussing anything even remotely approaching science. I swear to God, they should just set up 'OBSCURE PROFESSOR HAS SEMI-PLAUSIBLE IDEA' as a standing subhead.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:02 AM on September 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


bettafish make it sound like they're saying non-white people are more animalistic than white people.
This is the root of the problem. "More animalistic" is a term that in the context of evolutionary psychology should not have any inherent meaning whatsoever. It's a non-sequitur. It's like asking whether that chair or this chair is more furnituristic, or whether that car or this car is more automobilistic. The same applies to "more manly" or "more feminine". These can't possibly be scientific terms. Whatever "animalist" or "manly" or "feminine" even means (and this brings us back to the same problem), how to quantitatively measure it is a difficult proposition.

Even if we could come up with a quantitative measure of "manliness" that stood up to review (maybe something involving gene expression: ie body hair, skin thickness, testosterone content in the blood, speed and frequency of assuming a state of sexual arousal, whatever), we may only have come up with measureable "man-ness"; man-li-ness is definitely cultural, and culture is the aggregation of observed behaviors and expressed opinions. Good luck measuring that.

And then there's the offend/praise question ... "animalism" is criticism: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." "Masculinity" or "femininity" is somewhat praise, in some contexts criticism ("such a boyzone" "total sausage-fest").

And then we add cultural outsider/insider/ally/apostate factors. Who is, and is not, "allowed" to criticize, praise or describe what, how much, and in what context: "make it sound like they're saying non-white people are more animalistic than white people", again.

So what's a poor evolutionary biologist to do, contemplating this pestiferous soup of subjective qualitivity? Clearly there are some meaningful observations that can be made and inferences that can be drawn from these observations. These observations--like Alfred Kinsey's sex survey--could lead to general increases in human happiness; if it's quantitatively demonstrable that humans are inclined to do X, it is perverse, and doomed to failure, for policymakers to demand we do Y. On the other hand, there's a risk of Calvinistic genetics: you are predestined to do X, because your genes say so. Therefore abandon choice and reason, for these are fruitless to you. The world of GATTACA.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:52 AM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Maias: If you are close and relatively equal, there's a need to differentiate. If there are status differences, there's already enough "difference" so less need to do so.


Ira)_:That makes sense Maias - but why is there a need to differentiate? And why along the line of sex? After all, a man has a penis and a woman has a vagina in most cases - that's about all the differentiating you need. If it is to differentiate by personality - why along the line of sex? Why not establish your uniqueness as an individual? Or is it like countries, race, sports teams... a wish to belong to a group, and be able to say think in terms of our gang vs. your gang? Gangs that come from different planets, even.


Maias' interpretation seems very plausible to me given something I came across last night on interpersonal attraction. This might explain why differentiation is useful. Also, I think these considerations provide a way of interpreting the data in the article without drawing any explicit conclusions about gender difference and also without appealing to cultural differences.

Similarity and complimentarity (essentially differences or an opposites attract view) are two of the several factors thought to cause attraction between two people. So we might be attracted to someone if they are similar to us in a number of ways or different from us in certain ways. The factors that people have in common or that distinguish one person from another might concern either physical appearance, interests and activities, or personality to name a few.

Similarity is often the overwhelming and initial cause of attraction. Complementarity can cause attraction at the outset of a relationship but more often comes into play later on in order to enhance interest and cause greater attraction between people whose initial attraction (due to similarity) has faded in the light of familiarity. Since similarity is a motivation that subsides or is insufficient to cause attraction over time, couples might have to develop or emphasize their differences to sustain the relationship.

Note that this explanation is gender neutral, and does rest on assumptions or determine anything about gender differences. It describes and explains patterns of attraction between any two people based on the relevant data in the article. And perhaps the author's attempt to differentiate between men and women generally, is a misinterpretation based on the limited the scope of their investigation, namely to m/f couples. The article is perhaps better taken to note the potential comparison of factors that cause shared attraction throughout relationships between people whose social environments differ in terms of the proximity, and its duration, among the membership.

The evidence we are given is that two people (forgetting about their location) who are similar with respect to their occupations, perhaps though not necessarily education, and other activities often differ with respect to their personalities and attitudes. These people, I suspect, may even subconsciously bring about these changes in attitude to maintain intimacy and attraction, especially given an increasing similarity of their social roles. Some people might attempt to counteract this development by intensifying or increasing the exercise of their unique psychological traits.

On the other hand we have couples that differ with respect to their roles in the community, but have similar personalities. The distinctions between this couple and the first indicate different patterns of attraction between them. But these patterns are not fully determined or explained by the cultures and societies in which the couples live. Culture is significant only is so far as it involves groups of people dissimilarly organized. In this case members of one community appear to live and interact closely with one another and often, and the members of the other likely live in greater isolation and may interact spontaneously or for a relatively short time. Other factors that determine or are determined by these structures are irrelevant.

People living in the latter type of environment, I think, would tend to be attracted to another at first because of recognized similarity, particularly regarding physical characteristics, interests and activities, the most readily observable and accessible features given normal modes of interaction. And as I suggested earlier, their attraction is likely to suffers over time and necessitate a differentiation and exhibition between their other traits, e.g. attitudes, emotions, and personalities.

Societies like the former, whose members live so closely, probably creates familiarity and similarity of personality among them. So two people who form of a relationship in such an environment likely understand that it involves these particular similarities between them, along with whatever additional factors (similar and different) motivated initial attraction. Contrived or purely instrumental complimentarity is unnecessary for the maintenance of this type of relationship since the initial attraction can and likely often does involve appreciating and acknowledging differences. And, generally, similarities and differences, regarding personality, between two people can be affected by how closely and how often the members of their communities interact with one another.


(I'm not committed to this explanation or its implications. But it seems that the information is better understood in a way like this, rather than as indicating something fundamental or interesting about gender differences.)
posted by inconsequentialist at 2:04 AM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


The scientist noticed that according to his research, industrialized societies see increased personality differences between men and women as women enter the workforce in more numbers. Setting aside the obvious issues with the "personality tests" which established the evidence of this trend, it's clear that the scientist is assessing the evidence based on his preconceived notions, given that this was the best hypothesis he could come up with to explain the differentiation:

Dr. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, suggests that as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

Not, you know, that social mores or expectations are changing, or that the advent of gender equality is creating social anxieties that individuals and societies address by extreme sex-specific difference.

Ancient internal differences are being revived.

Evolutionary psychologists are idiots because of ancient internal programming that makes them scientifically illiterate. That's my hypothesis.
posted by miss tea at 3:43 AM on September 10, 2008


I'll take a shot in the dark and say it's because of the millions of years of evolution thus far.
posted by autodidact at 6:40 AM on September 10, 2008


It's articles like this that reinforce my stubbornly held belief that the NY Times is pretty much crap.
posted by lunit at 8:27 AM on September 10, 2008


"If you are close and relatively equal, there's a need to differentiate. If there are status differences, there's already enough "difference" so less need to do so."

As another anecdote, I'd note that having traditionally-gendered aspects makes it easier to abandon other trappings. For example, I've got a big ol' beard and work at a men's magazine—that kind of frees me from ever having to play the alpha male game.

And if everyone (in a Western society, caveat caveat) has the ability to define their own gender identity, it's no a surprise that a fair number of them would do so by exaggerating traits already expected of them. When you have a constrained social identity, there's less pressure to differentiate yourself.
posted by klangklangston at 9:30 AM on September 10, 2008


I really wish the nytimes had chosen someone less asshatty than Tierney to write their science blog. The dude has yet to write a post about something gender-related without projecting his little heart out.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:40 AM on September 10, 2008


And if everyone (in a Western society, caveat caveat) has the ability to define their own gender identity, it's no a surprise that a fair number of them would do so by exaggerating traits already expected of them.

This can be seen quite clearly in gay male culture. Certainly there are many, many gay males who are superficially indistinguishable from heterosexual males, but there are also a great number who, being freed to some extent from traditional gender roles, express their masculinity or femininity in a more exaggerated fashion than do heterosexual males.

I have (more than) a passing familiarity with drag kings and butches, but not enough to assert that the above is also true in lesbian culture.
posted by desjardins at 10:05 AM on September 10, 2008


Oh, evolutionary psychology, your studies are so easy to disprove.

I tried to replicate one of the essential evolutionary psych studies on female attractiveness my senior year in undergrad. I used a larger and more diverse subject pool than the original author, and more photorealistic depictions of the women and, strangely enough, the line on my graph went the opposite way.

I've worked on enough psych research to tell you that at least 90% of it is full of shit.
posted by threeturtles at 12:27 PM on September 10, 2008


threeturtles, what study did you try to replicate?
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:10 PM on September 10, 2008


I almost choked to death when I read this article's final main conclusion over breakfast this morning. It's insanity that the science section of The New York Times would print this half-baked article citing the pet theory of one Dr. Deaner regarding the lack of competitive depth in women's road racing results versus men's.

To quote the article:

Competitive running makes a good case study because, to mix athletic metaphors, it has offered a level playing field to women the past two decades in the United States. Similar numbers of males and females run on high school and college teams and in road races. Female runners have been competing for equal shares of prize money and receiving nearly 50 percent more scholarship aid from Division I colleges than their male counterparts, according to the N.C.A.A.

It could just be my imagination, but already I'm sensing some subtle axe-grinding here around the issue of Title 9. Women get 50% more scholarship aid because colleges don't offer football scholarships for women, only men. Most men's athletic departments give the bulk of their scholarship funds to football, which leaves the more fringe sports such as men's track and field, which don't generate income down the line for the school, orphaned. However, I can see where the mention of scholarships as they relate to opportunity would be a component of this analysis so I'll give the article the benefit of the doubt.

But these social changes have not shrunk a gender gap among runners analyzed by Robert Deaner, a psychologist at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, who classifies runners as relatively fast if they keep close to the pace of the world’s best runners of their own sex. When Dr. Deaner looks at, say, the top 40 finishers of each sex in a race, he typically finds two to four times as many relatively fast male runners as relatively fast female runners.

Bear with me for a moment with what probably appears to be a complete digression:

I was a competitive road runner from 1992 or so until 2001. When I first started training with a group, most of the athletes I ran with and socialized with were a generation or two ahead of me, and male. Their heyday was during the running boom and many of them had trained together for major road and track races during the 1980s and even the 1970s. There were a handful of Olympians in the posse, along with a large number of runners who had been top local competitors. The times that the latter marathoners had consistently posted were in the 2:20-2:25 range, and those results often only put them in the top 25-50 spots in non prize money races. Most races did not offer prize money, because athletes were considered amateurs and accepting money would revoke their amateur status, disqualifying them for national and Olympic berths.
A constant topic of conversation among these old-timers was the dearth of younger menrunning comparable times at local races now that the races had incentives such as prize money. A 2:22 marathon would win many large regional races outright, even with more than a few thousand dollars on the line. A quick look at the results would show that the majority of the top runners were over 30, and it wasn't unusual to see a few masters (over 40) runners placing in the top ten as well.

Money and apparent incentives alone do not determine how fast a given group of athletes run. There's often extenuating circumstances for the athletes involved when determining whether a given pursuit is worthwhile or not.


During the 1990s, this development was a source of constant consternation, with the blame usually being placed on the influx of African runners competing on U.S. roads. The theory was that America's top male athletes coming out of school were intimidated by the times that athletes from other countries were running, and rather than putting in the overwhelmingly difficult and time consuming work necessary to reach the times that, for example, the Kenyan runners were capable of, they lowered their expectations. There have been many good articles and books written about how much the differences between culture, lifestyle, society's expectations, and practical constraints have factored in the ascendancy of Kenya's runners versus the United State's, not to mention environmental factors such as altitude and even genetic factors (tempered by environment) such as height and bone structure. In general, though, during the last decade male distance runners in America only trained hard enough to beat each other.

Was this lack of true competitive drive among American men an innate trait? Was it something genetic? During the past few years the competitive depth has grown in the younger age brackets, and we've even produced a handful of male runners who have been been able to compete well at the international level again, even as track scholarships are being cut. My personal opinion is that intense training in the subculture of running has recently become "cool" again with young American males due to the nature of social networking and the instant gratification of having one's running exploits broadcast to one's peers after every race and killer workout. A sport where recognition was once hard-earned and reserved for only the very fastest athletes (in recent times this meant foreign athletes) a larger number a runners can gain a measure of fame and accolades. In other words, society (or, to be more specific, The Runners Society) definitely has influenced how much closer to the top elite athletes the men at road races are now getting and how much deeper in breadth they are, but only since around 2000.

Why hasn't this same phenomenon occurred for women, though?
I'm going to try to answer this with my own, completely nonobjective anecdotes.

When I first began my running career, my coach and the long time runners I was surrounded by were extremely supportive of women training just like men. They idolized their female contemporaries women like Joanie Benoit even though they had outrun her in many a race. No special "wuss" exemptions were made for me because of my gender, and I was ridiculed as mercilessly as any of the men in the group if I exhibited any lapses in mental toughness or fortitude. In essence, I was treated as an equal. Because of this environment, I felt that being covered in spit (um, my own, thanks) and dry heaving during workouts was noble and not "unladylike". "Unladylike" did not exist in that world because there was no ladies, no gentlemen, only athletes. I forged many deep and long lasting friendships with men and women who held these same competitive values, and through the strength of that important support system I was able to focus and slowly climb up through the ranks.

Flash forward to 2001. After having a career ending injury and relocating for work, I no longer had the protective bubble of an egalitarian group of runners I'd been accustomed to. I began to redefine my place in the world, and I realized that not only had I identified myself primarily as an athlete (which at the time I would have denied) but that society at large identifies me as "female" rather than "runner" or "artist" or "person" any other number of things I was or am.

Here is what I am getting at: the internet and all its glory has been very kind to male runners. It has been very unkind to female runners.

I can remember a time in the mid 1990s where a bunch of us canceled our subscriptions to Runners World because we felt like they'd completely jumped the shark (after years of increasingly pandering to fitness and recreational runners) when they ran an article in the special "Women's Running" issue that reviewed waterproof make-up, with the message "how to look great while running". At the time, there were a handful of women who raced wearing makeup (and only one on the elite level that I can think of, she often got asked about it in interviews because it was such an anomaly).

Look at photos of women running today. Most of them, especially at the college level, are wearing a full coat of war paint. There's a very good reason for this. The message now is not how fast you run, it's how you look doing it. The message boards that have been so fawning of mens exploits have been cruel and demeaning when it comes to women who run. Now that photos of running events and track meets are posted practically in real time, a great source of entertainment for male runners has been to comb through the photos of female athletes and analyze their physical attributes. Rarely are the performances themselves discussed unless a record has been broken. The rationale is that women are never as fast as men, so why bother paying women's events any measure of respect if you know a few high school boys who can run those same times?

I am not a scientist, but it seems to me that being fast enough to stand out from the crowd if you are a female athlete brings little in the way of respect, and often results in scorn and derision from a great number of fellow athletes. I realize it's a stretch, but perhaps this social phenomenon might have something to do with the relative lack of competitive female athletes?

This large gender gap has persisted for two decades in all kinds of races — high school and college meets, elite and non-elite road races — and it jibes with other studies reporting that male runners train harder and are more motivated by competition, Dr. Deaner says. This enduring “sex difference in competitiveness,” he concludes, “must be considered a genuine failure for the sociocultural conditions hypothesis” that the personality gap will shrink as new roles open for women.

WHA??!!!

p.s. I have conducted freelance interviews with elite athletes in the past, both male and female. Almost all of the female athletes I interviewed discussed the challenges unique to gaining respect in society as a female athlete, often off the record.
posted by stagewhisper at 1:22 PM on September 10, 2008 [8 favorites]


Oh christ, that was long. Sorry.
posted by stagewhisper at 1:23 PM on September 10, 2008


No, not at all, that was really interesting. And was just as long as it needed to be.
posted by jokeefe at 3:07 PM on September 10, 2008


Yeah, great stuff, thanks.

As an aside, I've been of a mind recently to favourite fewer comments of wit or clever snark, and more comments in which people with in-depth personal knowledge of a certain subject take the time to explain it to the rest of us outsiders, especially when it's explained well. Your comment was fascinating & informative, and fit that bill perfectly.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:35 PM on September 10, 2008


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