Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Steven Poole reviews the book in The Guardian:

Cameron argues persuasively that the Mars and Venus myth does threaten women. Consistently, as she shows, aspects of the way our society is currently structured are taken to be clues to some basic difference in the nature of men and women, which always turns out to be to women’s disadvantage, a “natural” reason to keep them in lower-status roles. Cameron discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference, which posits a distinction between the male and female brains and concludes that “people with the female brain”, supposedly more empathetic, are better at jobs such as nursing (just as Rosalind’s notion of “Women’s gentle brain” would predict), and the male-brained, supposedly more analytical, make better lawyers. Cameron comments aptly that nurses also need to be analytical and lawyers need people skills: “These categorisations are not based on a dispassionate analysis of the demands made by the two jobs. They are based on the everyday common-sense knowledge that most nurses are women and most lawyers are men.”

Some gender differences do exist: for example “Men are more aggressive and can throw things further.” But even then, there is as much if not more variability within the groups as between them. Your correspondent cannot throw anything as far as Tessa Sanderson threw her javelins. Ethnographic studies of young girls in LA or male university students, meanwhile, show the girls acting confrontationally and the boys gossiping. Nor does the inherently “speculative” nature of evolutionary psychology inspire Cameron’s confidence. Where there do seem to be empirically attested variations between women’s and men’s language use, such as that women use more “tag questions” (“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”), Cameron argues that this, again, is owed to the present gender-biased distribution of social roles. That men and women habitually “miscommunicate” owing to some notion of direct versus indirect speech-habits is also, as she shows, a useful get-out clause for men, as well as being highly implausible. Cameron cites a rape case in which the accused claimed he didn’t know the woman was not consenting, and ripostes: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that someone who feigns unconsciousness while in bed with you probably doesn’t want to have sex.”