One of the questions that keeps coming up as we consider why we think and act the way we do is whether we are just born that way or we learn to be that way. This is a major topic on issues of gender and race, and one of the best-selling books on gender and communication, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, by John Gray, seems to indicate that men and women are born different. Sociologists tend to disagree, falling more on the side that nurture, arguing that what we learn within the contexts in which we develop shapes who we are.

A recent article in the September, 2005 issue of American Psychologist provides evidence that biology might not matter as much as we think it does when it comes to how women and men think and act. Conducted by Janet Shibley Hyde, a psychology professor from the University of Wisconsin, this study contrasts the “gender differences model” with the “gender similarities model.” Professor Hyde compared findings for men and women on 124 different traits, including things such as communication, personality, and leadership potential. She did find differences in some areas such as motor performance (men throw farther than women), masturbation, and attitudes about sex (though not in sexual satisfaction), but she concludes that “the overwhelming scientific evidence is that men and women are very similar psychologically.”

She goes on to suggest that the misperception of what men and women are “really” like has consequences for both women and men, who become limited by our expectations of what is “natural,” creating barriers to opportunity for women and men who would like to pursue thoughts and actions that are counter to our socially constructed expectations of gender.

For a summary of the study, see also the report by Dinesh Ramde in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.