Understanding The Difference Between Men And Women

As the goal of equality between men and women now grows closer we are also losing our awareness of important differences. In some circles of society, politically correct thinking is obliterating important discussion as well as our awareness of the similarities and differences between men and women. 

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical, Medical & Family Psychology


[ This paper is collection of research conclusions and observations which I have witnessed over the past 10 year that I have attempted to put into a written form that might be helpful, but more importantly stimulate discussions. The real purposes is to increase the awareness between men and women, and to help them set aside issues that are not personal but are merely manifestations of nature. To my way of thinking, it is important to honor and rejoice in both our nature and our individuality.]

For centuries, the differences between men and women were socially defined and distorted through a lens of sexism in which men assumed superiority over women and maintained it through domination. As the goal of equality between men and women now grows closer we are also losing our awareness of important differences. In some circles of society, politically correct thinking is obliterating important discussion as well as our awareness of the similarities and differences between men and women. The vision of equality between the sexes has narrowed the possibilities for discovery of what truly exists within a man and within a woman. The world is less interesting when everything is same.

It is my position that men and women are equal but different. When I say equal, I mean that men and women have a right to equal opportunity and protection under the law. The fact that people in this country are assured these rights does not negate my observation that men and women are at least as different psychologically as they are physically.

None of us would argue the fact that men and women are physically different. The physical differences are rather obvious and most of these can be seen and easily measured. Weight, shape, size and anatomy are not political opinions but rather tangible and easily measured. The physical differences between men and women provide functional advantages and have survival value. Men usually have greater upper body strength, build muscle easily, have thicker skin, bruise less easily and have a lower threshold of awareness of injuries to their extremities. Men are essentially built for physical confrontation and the use of force. Their joints are well suited for throwing objects. A man’s skull is almost always thicker and stronger than a women’s. The stereotype that men are more "thick-headed" than women is not far fetched. A man’s "thick headedness", and other anatomical differences have been associated with a uniquely male attraction to high speed activities and reckless behavior that usually involve collisions with other males or  automobiles. Men invented the game "chicken", not women. Men, and a number of other male species of animal seem to charge and crash into each other a great deal in their spare time.

Women on the other hand have four times as many brain cells (neurons) connecting the right and left side of their brain. This latter finding provides physical evidence that supports the observation that men rely easily and more heavily on their left brain to solve one problem one step at a time. Women have more efficient access to both sides of their brain and therefore greater use of their right brain. Women can focus on more than one problem at one time and frequently prefer to solve problems through multiple activities at a time. Nearly every parent has observed how young girls find the conversations of young boys "boring". Young boys express confusion and would rather play sports than participate actively in a conversation between 5 girls who are discussing as many as three subjects at once!

The psychological differences between man and women are less obvious. They can be difficult to describe. Yet these differences can profoundly influence how we form and maintain relationships that can  range from work and friendships to marriage and parenting.

Recognizing, understanding, discussing as well as acting skillfully in light of the differences between men and women can be difficult. Our failure to recognize and appreciate these differences can become a life long source of disappointment, frustration, tension and eventually our downfall in a relationship. Not only can these differences destroy a promising relationship, but most people will grudgingly accept or learn to live with the consequences. Eventually they find some compromise or way to cope. Few people ever work past these difficulties. People tend to accept what they don’t understand when they feel powerless to change it.

Relationships between men and women are not impossible or necessarily difficult. Problems simply arise when we expect or assume the opposite sex should think, feel or act the way we do. It’s not that men and women live in completely different realities. Rather, our lack of knowledge and mutual experience gives rise to our difficulties.

Despite great strides in this country toward equality, modern society hasn’t made relationships between men and women any easier. Today’s society has taught us and has imposed on us the expectation that men and women should live together continuously, in communion, and in harmony. These expectations are not only unrealistic but ultimately they leave people feeling unloved, inadequate, cynical, apathetic or ashamed.

The challenge facing men and women is to become aware of their identities, to accept their differences, and to live their lives fully and as skillfully as possible. To do this we must first understand in what ways we are different. We must avoid trying to change others to suit our needs. The following illustrates some important differences between men and women. These differences are not absolute. They describe how men and women are in most situations most of the time.

Problems

Men and women approach problems with similar goals but with different considerations. While men and women can solve problems equally well, their approach and their process are often quite different. For most women, sharing and discussing a problem presents an opportunity to explore, deepen or strengthen the relationship with the person they are talking with. Woman are usually more concerned about how problems are solved than merely solving the problem itself. For women, solving a problem can profoundly impact whether they feel closer and less alone or whether they feel distant and less connected. The process of solving a problem can strengthen or weaken a relationship. Most men are less concerned and do not feel the same as women when solving a problem.

Men approach problems in a very different manner than women. For most men, solving a problem presents an opportunity to demonstrate their competence, their strength of resolve, and their commitment to a relationship. How the problem is solved is not nearly as important as solving it effectively and in the best possible manner. Men have a tendency to dominate and to assume authority in a problem solving process. They set aside their feelings provided the dominance hierarchy was agreed upon in advance and respected. They are often distracted and do not attend well to the quality of the relationship while solving problems.

Some of the more important differences can be illustrated by observing groups of young teenage boys and groups of young teenage girls when they attempt to find their way out of a maze. A group of boys generally establish a hierarchy or chain of command with a leader who emerges on his own or through demonstrations of ability and power. Boys explore the maze using scouts while remaining in distant proximity to each other. Groups of girls tend to explore the maze together as a group without establishing a clear or dominant leader. Relationships tends to be co-equal. Girls tend to elicit discussion and employ "collective intelligence" to the task of discovering a way out. Girls tend to work their way through the maze as a group. Boys tend to search and explore using structured links and a chain of command.

Thinking

While men and women can reach similar conclusions and make similar decisions, the process they use can be quit different and in some cases can lead to entirely different outcomes. In general, men and women consider and process information differently.

Women tend to be intuitive global thinkers. They consider multiple sources of information within a process that can be described as simultaneous, global in perspective and will view elements in the task in terms of their interconnectedness. Women come to understand and consider problems all at once. They take a broad or "collective" perspective, and they view elements in a task as interconnected and interdependent. Women are prone to become overwhelmed with complexities that "exist", or may exist, and may have difficulty separating their personal experience from problems.

Men tend to focus on one problem at a time or a limited number of problems at a time. They have an enhanced ability to separate themselves from problems and minimize the complexity that may exist. Men come to understand and consider problems one piece at a time. They take a linear or sequential perspective, and view elements in a task as less interconnected and more independent. Men are prone to minimize and fail to appreciate subtleties that can be crucial to successful solutions. A male may work through a problem repeatedly, talking about the same thing over and over, rather than trying to address the the problem all at once. 

While there are differences in the ways that men and women think, it must be emphasized that they can and do solve problems in a similar manner. There are no absolutes, only tendencies.

Memory

Women have an enhanced ability to recall memories that have strong emotional components. They can also recall events or experiences that have similar emotions in common. Women are very adept at recalling information, events or experiences in which there is a common emotional theme. Men tend to recall events using strategies that rely on reconstructing the experience in terms of elements, tasks or activities that took place. Profound experiences that are associated with competition or physical activities are more easily recalled. There appears to be a structural and chemical basis for observed memory differences. For instance, the hippocampus, the area in the brain primarily responsible for memory, reacts differently to testosterone in men and it reacts differently to changing levels of estrogen and progesterone in women. Women tend to remember or be reminded of different "emotional memories" and content to some extent as part of their menstrual cycle.

Sensitivity

There is evidence to suggest that a great deal of the sensitivity that exists within men and women has a physiological basis. It has been observed that is many cases, women have an enhanced physical alarm response to danger or threat. Their autonomic and sympathetic systems have a lower threshold of arousal and greater reactivity than men. In both men and women, higher levels of testosterone directly affect the aggressive response and behavior centers of the brain. Increasing estrogen and progesterone in men has a "feminizing" effect. Sexually aggressive males become less focused on sexual aggressive behavior and content when they are given female hormones. On the other hand, changing estrogen and progesterone levels in women during menstrual cycles can produce a "flood" of memories as well as strong emotions. Increasing or high levels of testosterone can produce an emotional insensitivity, empathic block and increased indifference to the distress others.

At the heart of sensitivity is our capacity to form, appreciate and maintain relationships that are rewarding. Even here there are important differences. For men, what demonstrates a solid relationship is quit different from that of most women. Men feel closer and validated through shared activities. Such activities include sports, competition, outdoor activities or sexual activities that are decidedly active and physical. While both men and women can appreciate and engage in these activities they often have preferential differences. Women, on the other hand, feel closer and validated through communication, dialogue and intimate sharing of experience, emotional content and personal perspectives. Many men tend to find such sharing and involvement uncomfortable, if not, overwhelming.

Processing Information

In most people, especially those people who are right handed, the processing that takes place in the left side of the brain can be described as literal, logical, linear and linguistic. This means that we use our left brain to understand and express experience in words that are logically organized, in the right order or sequence, and correctly chosen. Men, and mostly those who experience the masculinizing effects of testosterone during their first three months a a fetus, tend to be left brain dominant. As a result, the connective tissue between the right and left side of the brain is less than that it is in woman.

What is very interesting about the differences between men and women is their access to right brain. Women are more connected to their right brain because the connective tissue is greater. Men can access their right brain but they have to "listen" for the messages it provides. It is easy for most men to ignore what the right brain has to offer.

The right brain is focused, for the most part, on information that is not left brain. The right brain "makes sense" of the qualities of voice such as tone, pitch, volume. It also "makes sense" of facial expressions, gestures, body language and the feelings we get. In a sense, our right brain is our emotional radar. It picks up on information that is felt, perceived, heard or seen. This is one reason why women are so much more aware of how children and adults are feeling. This comes in handy to a mother because it allows a mother to "read" and understand an infant based on behaviors and sounds. That's important because children can't speak. It is also why women are usually much more attuned, sensitive and unable to ignore an infant who is upset. Mothers seem to know more for reasons that they cannot explain fully to fathers.

Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages. Women seem to know "more" than most men but they can't explain why. They are also more easily overwhelmed. Men often don't "get it" and because they are so "dense" emotionally, they can keep their heads on tasks. In a way, men can miss what's going on but they can get more done because they experience problems more simplistically and in a way that allows them to take action. This does not mean men see things more accurately or that they do the right thing.

The Task Of Relationship Facing Men and Women

The task that faces men and women is to learn to accept their differences, avoid taking their differences as personal attempts to frustrate each other, and to compromise whenever possible. The idea that one gender can think and feel like the other if they truly loved each is rather absurd. Sure, a man or women could act in consideration of the other’s needs, but this would not necessarily be rewarding and honest. Holding the benefit of another above our own is rewarding. But from time to time, and more often for most of us, it is important to be our self and to be accepted, and not to be the source of distress and disappointment in the lives of people we love.

The Role Of Counseling and Therapy

Counseling and therapy can help a couple understand and appreciate each other, and even benefit from their differences. Understanding these differences intellectually is not enough.  A counselor or therapist can help point out these differences, as they surface, and guide a couple to a greater level of relationship. Understanding that differences are not intentional and that misunderstandings are merely the result of expectations that are not realistic can make a huge difference in a relationship. The differences that can be sensed between a man and women can deepen their relationship. More importantly, when men seek to understand and appreciate that which is feminine, they come to a deeper understanding of their self. And when a women seeks to understand that which is masculine in men, they come to appreciate and understand more about their own masculinity. 

For A Related Article See, "About Romantic Love

Dr. Conner is a psychologist who completed a research and training fellowship in graduate medical education and health education. He provides training, evaluation and intervention services for adults, families and youth. Dr. Conner's practice includes clinical, medical and family psychology. He is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, Emergency Crisis Intervention, and Emergency School Response. This article is also available at www.BendPsychology.Com . Dr. Connerís practice is located in Bend Oregon and he can be reached at 541 388-5660

 copyright 1999 to 2008, Michael G. Conner