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The gender shame game. (MICHEL TOURAINE/www.jupiterimages.com/MICHEL TOURAINE/www.jupiterimages.com)
The gender shame game. (MICHEL TOURAINE/www.jupiterimages.com/MICHEL TOURAINE/www.jupiterimages.com)

Are women really better than men? Add to ...

During my impressionable teen years, my stepfather occasionally talked about the superiority of women, waxing philosophically that, especially when it came to intimate relationships, men didn't have the capacity to be as compassionate and unselfishly connected as women until much later in life.

He didn't state it explicitly, but back then I assumed he meant a man couldn't love a woman properly until his youthful fury of testosterone had been dulled some. He'd also often raise my mother onto a pedestal, uxoriously speaking of her as a magical specimen of virtue.

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Now that I'm in my mid-30s - and have known women of many different emotional hues and levels of integrity - I have my doubts. Are women really better than men?

According to at least one man - the author of a book that recently crossed my desk - the answer is yes, for the most part.

For Man Down, very descriptively subtitled Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers and Just About Everything Else, Dan Abrams has trolled through piles of studies and surveys to prove that in an ever-increasing number of ways, women are indeed superior.

In fact, Mr. Abrams, the former chief legal analyst for NBC and founder of Mediaite.com, discovered that not only are women better in ways that square with our usual stereotypes - fields related to "intellect, health, communication and interpersonal skills" - they're also tops in areas previously thought of as male-dominated.

There's even a chapter that states - gasp - "women get ready faster than men." (According to a study Mr. Abrams cites, the average man spends 83 minutes prepping to head out, four minutes more than the average woman.)

But along with some slightly silly stats, Man Down also documents female dominance in more serious matters such as money and education.

"There's this male stereotype of the slacker that is viewed as okay, if not attractive. But I think that, particularly when it comes to school, men are going to have to realize that being a slacker isn't appealing," Mr. Abrams told me. "And when you look at the macro picture, in this bad economy women are surviving better than men."

His book, he says, "should serve as a wake-up call to men."

Now, I don't have any issues with male self-improvement, but I'm skeptical of the current fad of overstating the imbalance between the genders. The old habit of calling women inferior based on their psychologies and biologies, and the current fear-mongering that - wait, no, they are in fact built and primed to take over everything - seem to me like two sides of the same sexist coin.

The problem with both those opinions is thinking that we can truly know or prove any of these differences.

Carol Tavris, a social psychologist who in 1992 penned a bestselling book called The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex or the Opposite Sex, told me recently that claims of gender difference often rely on what she called the "fundamental attribution error."

This is, she explained, when we attribute a person's behaviour to something supposedly hardwired inside her - the functioning of her "female brain," for instance - instead of realizing she's just reacting to the roles and circumstances she's been dealt.

"For instance, you put a sweet woman in the cutthroat banking industry, and she's probably not going to change that industry," said Dr. Tavris, suggesting such a woman would instead adapt and become more cutthroat herself to get ahead.

For an example from the political arena, she pointed to Margaret Thatcher. "One of the first things she did was cut the milk subsidy for poor children. That's a womanly and compassionate thing to do, right?" she said.

(In case you're a guy who didn't catch the sarcasm, take solace in knowing that, according to Mr. Abrams's research, "women appreciate a good joke better.")

In other words, what we think of as "womanly" is only based on the opportunities women have had until now and can broaden infinitely as more opportunities come along.

"Is Sarah Palin going to be a kind, compassionate woman if she were to take office?" Dr. Tavris added.

To be fair to Mr. Abrams, if there are fundamental attribution errors in his book, they're not necessarily his, but society's at large. In his chapter on women making better world leaders, he relates a survey in which respondents overwhelmingly thought women were more honest than men and thus more trustworthy.

But is it true that women are more honest in some essential way? Is this why my stepfather thought they were better at relationships? One study that appears in Man Down shows this might not be the case.

Researchers at Indiana University who ran post-mortems after a speed-dating experiment found that, as the chapter title proclaims: "Women are Better at Faking Attraction."

When I pointed out to Mr. Abrams that this proved women were adept liars, he countered: "I just thought of it as that they're more polite."

Well, touché.

His response made me soften a little bit: Even if Mr. Abrams is fuelling the fear-mongering, he's at least pretty sweet about it. In that way, he reminds me of my stepfather, who, even if he was fundamentally attributing in error so long ago, was also just admiring his object of affection. That's what lovers do: They raise each other up.

So, in the spirit of teamwork - something both genders need to be good at to make it work - I'd like to see the next book that surveys male competency be written by a woman, and point out the ways that men are pretty awesome at some unexpected things. Such as, I don't know, child-rearing, toenail painting, or - gasp - commitment.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.

Follow on Twitter: @MicahToub

 

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