Gender Cliches Contain Some Truth, Scientists Say | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.03.2008
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Gender Cliches Contain Some Truth, Scientists Say

On the occasion of International Women's Day, on March 8, DW looks at recent scientific research into the role gender plays in affecting differing chances for men and women.

children on bikes

Boys and girls demonstrate different affinities from a young age

"There was probably never a time in human history that the topic of men and women wasn't laden with cliches," said Onur Gunturkun, a bio-psychologist at the Ruhr University Bochum. "For the most part, the books on the market [in Germany] at the moment are an embarrassment. What stands out about these books is that they, as always, contain a kernel of truth, which is, however, generalized in a fully unacceptable way."

Gunturkun specializes in research into male and female brains.

"We can't say there are no biological differences. There are. But we also can't say: since there are these biological differences, the destinies of men and woman have been predetermined. We are actually absolutely free."

But this freedom only exists in theory, according to American sociologist Heather Hofmeister.

A female scientist in the lab

Relatively few women can be found in the top echelons of Germany's medical institutes

"Women have good abilities in math. But they often end up thinking that they are not as good, because girls aren't supposed to be good at math is the message from society. So we close out opportunities for young men and young women, because they are men or women."

Cyclical differences

Neuroscientist Gunturkun has examined the math cliche and discovered that men do indeed often surpass women in solving spatial tasks, but only at certain times of the month.

"We were able to show that women during menstruation were as good as men at these tasks," he said. "That is, it's a myth that women simply can't do it. There are only certain times when they can't. Namely around the 20th day of their cycles, they were indeed clearly worse."

Sociologist Hofmeister maintains that deep-seated role assignments hinder social progress. And they exist even in countries considered to be enlightened and modern. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland girls continue to be pressured into defining themselves based on the role of the "good mother." In contrast, society views women who are successful in their careers with suspicion.

That also explains the relatively low number of women in leadership positions in these countries, according to Henning Sass of Aachen's university clinic. Sixty-five percent of students are female in the first years of medical studies, while at the upper ranks of the medical profession, only 5 percent of the professors, chief and senior physicians are women.

A full university lecture hall

Cliches discourage girls from pursuing scientific subjects

Sass believes the striking numbers do reflect biological differences between the genders.

"Male behavior is more strongly determined by conflict, rivalry, aggressiveness, wanting to dominate, wanting to assert oneself, to stand one's ground, to reach a leadership position," he said.

Socio-cultural constructs

But others disagree. Biological differences are only relevant when it comes to reproduction, according to Wassilios Fthenakis, a socio-anthropologist at Italy's Free University in Bozen-Bolzano. His research has convinced him that other differences between men and women are socio-cultural constructions, behaviors which even the smallest child has internalized.

Fthenakis observed children playing and repeatedly witnessed the same behavior: boys who played with dolls or perfume and girls who took an interest in building bricks were shunned by their peers.

"When you observe these children, you see that they succumb to pressure from the group not to show such behavior," he said. "Thus the children are forced to either play with adults or to play alone, so no one notices what they do, or even to disavow their behavior. That is: they lie."

boys build a city out of blocks

Peer pressure keeps boys and girls in "their place," Fthenakis said

Fthenakis developed new educational plans for the German states of Hesse and Bavaria as well as for the South Tyrol region of Italy. He calls for breaking down socially defined structures among infants. Every child, male or female, must be accepted and encouraged as an individual, regardless of gender, he argues. And he's seen that such an approach works, at a kindergarten in Melbourne, Australia.

"I've never seen a kindergarten where the harmony and the good relations between boys and girls was so exceptional as it was there. It was an encouraging example that we should take seriously, and [we] should consider carefully how we treat boys and girls today."

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