Studying Gender

In the early days of the women's movement, feminists tended to minimize the differences between men and women. All the energy went into asserting that women were just as smart and just as capable as men. It's a sure sign of progress that these days women are willing to trumpet the ways in which they are different from men. In that spirit, health writer Dianne Hales has come out with a new book, Just Like a Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female. She's pulled together a raft of studies on how women's bodies function, how female brains differ from male's, how women think and feel and react."Dianne has put together the first really good overview of the literature," according to T. George Harris, former editor of Psychology Today and American Health. "There's been a lot of talk about gender differences that ended up as simply arguments over justice. Dianne's book says, 'What's the fight about? Let's go into things that really matter.' When you have both genders participating on a parity of power, suddenly you're seeing with both eyes instead of one eye. You're able to see a much richer world."Hales, 48, began writing for the nation's top publications in her 20s. She's a contributing editor at Parade and Ladies' Home Journal and she regularly revises her textbook on health, which has been on college curricula for the last 20 years. She's worked with Harris since 1981, when he founded American Health. In addition, Hales has written several popular books, including New Hope for Problem Pregnancies and Caring for the Mind: The Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health, which she coauthored with her husband, psychiatrist Robert E. Hales.Over the last few months, Hales has been busy promoting her new book, granting interviews to print and broadcast journalists all over the country. When she met with me she chatted happily about her work. Still, I had the sense that she would have preferred being on the other end of the tape recorder.Kramer: The science you refer to in Just Like a Woman often confirms stereotypes, rather than shatters them. One study that I found hilarious was when men were shown pictures of faces, they were unable to recognize expressions of sadness in women, but they had no problem seeing sadness in other men. They actually proved that men are just as clueless as a lot of women always imagined them to be!Hales: [Laughing] Obviously it's conditioning. For whatever reason, it wasn't important for the male brain to acquire that skill of reading faces. Whereas women always have their antennae up, and that was probably a survival skill for eons. But for men, they had to learn to read other men's faces -- this guy's a threat or he's not -- but it wasn't basic to their survival to read women. And none of that means that they can't get it.Kramer: Well, I'm sure we all have men in our lives who are not like that at all. They're certainly capable of being wonderfully sensitive.Hales: Yes, I couldn't agree more. I'm married to a psychiatrist, so he's sensitive by profession as well as personally. But it's interesting to realize that men are looking at things differently and to think of the reasons why. A lot of the things that I learned in doing the book make sense to me as a woman. The fact that we respond more intensely to sadness didn't come as a great shock to me. We now know that the brain of a woman shows activity in a much greater region [while thinking sad thoughts].Kramer: I was surprised to read about that study. A huge area of a woman's brain seems to be wired for sadness!Hales: When I interviewed the researcher, he said it might have to do with the way the study was done. People were asked to think about the very saddest moments of their lives. And his theory is that what makes people sad always has to do with relationships -- men, too. Everyone is sad about loss, about a parent's death, a terrible illness in a child. Men and women both conjured up similar memories. But in women, the depth with which they respond to loss of relationships seems to be truly profound.Kramer: According to the studies you cite, going to work seems to help women counter that tendency toward depression, as long as they have fulfilling work.Hales: Yes. The "pink collar" jobs will wear women out. But when they have autonomy, feel good about themselves and get respect, they thrive at work.Kramer: It stands to reason. People need variety. Without it, I think they feel trapped.Hales: Yes, and women in those dead-end jobs have that same sense of being trapped.Kramer: Women in dead-end marriages, too. This, I think, is a stereotype-shatterer. You describe one study that showed that women are happier single than in a bad marriage. Whereas men couldn't care less if their marriage is good or not, they're just happy to be married!Hales: [Laughing] It's interesting how many health benefits men get from marriage. When the marriage ends, men are equally likely to get depressed or to drink. And when their wives die, they don't do well, either. It's profoundly traumatic for men, and they're more likely to die within a short period than widows are. On the other hand, you'd expect that women would think of marriage as their shelter from the storm, but it's anything but. There's a study that came out last week that fewer people are marrying and people have a very dismal view of marriage. And I thought, well, that's too bad that people have this jaded view of marriage even before going into it.Kramer: Well, I'm one of them. I've never gotten married. I met the love of my life seven years ago and I still don't want to get married, although I definitely intend to spend the rest of my life with him. But I think most women feel that they should get married, and they feel that they've failed if they don't. So they marry the wrong man and wind up unhappy.Hales: And single women do just fine. I interviewed a bunch of women in their 20s in New York City. They're career women, they've all gotten their MBAs. But they feel so much pressure because they're on hot career tracks and they have to prove something there, and they're all fitness nuts, so they're always exercising. And then they think that they should be landing a husband, in that old-fashioned sense. But they feel that the men they date often take advantage of them financially. They're all on this treadmill and they never get a chance to step back and say, "Wait a minute, what is it I want?"Kramer: Yes, I remember you describe them in the book. These women are Wall Street brokers and they go out with guys who won't even pay for their own cab fare.Hales: These women were so bright, so fit, so attractive. But I don't think they had much sense that they indeed were so well off in every way. But I think that comes with age, too. I certainly wouldn't want to go back and redo my 20s, would you?Kramer: No, life keeps getting better.Hales: And I think that's another thing that women should know.Kramer: Let's talk about women on the career track. You refer in the book to a Swedish study of postdoctoral fellowship candidates that showed the women had to have 20 times as many papers published as the men in order to be considered.Hales: Yes, and there are other studies that are similar. But this was interesting because it was in Sweden, where you expect them to be so much more egalitarian. But there was all this covert bias. There's a book called Why So Slow? by a researcher who came up with the critical mass theory: When you are one woman vying for a job with 10 men, you have to be way better than they are -- she [the researcher] actually has statistics on this; whereas when there are four women and six men, they are considered equally. But until you have that many women in the running, there's this unconscious thinking that this must be a man's job. So women are much better off when there are other women competing for the same job because there are more likely to be unisex standards.Kramer: In your book, you talk about girls losing self-esteem when they reach their teens. I found it interesting to learn that black girls don't go through that nearly as much as whites and other ethnic groups.Hales: I have a 13-year-old daughter, and you can see that it's a wobbly time. They're trying to leave behind the little kid stuff and they want to rush into the grownup stuff and their bodies are morphing. And they cry more, they feel bad about themselves, they blame themselves for everything that goes wrong, they have eating disorders. But African-American girls are just much more comfortable with themselves. They don't buy into that skinny white girl thing. And the researchers that I interviewed said that, in their culture, black women have had to be so strong. And they've often had absent fathers, so the mother is the dominant parent. So girls show much greater ego strength. And they don't bend themselves into pretzels the way white girls do, trying to please everybody. I haven't seen any research about black and white boys. It would be interesting to see what's happening to boys of color.Kramer: Yeah, you don't read as much about research into self-esteem in boys. That's clearly something we should be paying attention to.Hales: The research I've seen has been on younger boys, age 5 and 6. I think now, with the school shootings, we'll be looking into what's behind it.Kramer: Is there also a disparity in self-esteem between black and white adult women?Hales: White women do have higher rates of depression than black women. I think that strong sense of community probably helps African-American women. Whether it's mothers and daughters or friends growing up together, that kind of bond really matters.Kramer: There's a whole chapter in the book about the craving for babies. How universal is that?Hales: I think every species has it. It has nothing to do with being a fancy-pants human being. It's in nature's best interest to have people interested in having babies. But, among all the anthropologists I interviewed, none of them have children! And I thought, gee, this is fascinating! They were in their 40s, and many of them had consciously made the decision that they did not want children. I asked them if they'd ever had this baby urge, and some of the women said yeah, but it passed. And some said no. I truly felt the craving for a child when I was 29. My husband was quite surprised. Where did this come from? It was almost like I woke up one morning and thought, I want to have a baby. It truly was an age-related phenomenon.Kramer: How old were you when you got married?Hales: Twenty-seven. We felt at the time we just weren't ready to have children. And I wrote a book about high-risk pregnancy, and then it turned out I had problems getting pregnant. I didn't have a child until I was 35.Kramer: So the women you were interviewing for the book were older mothers?Hales: Some were diabetics, some had had kidney transplants. There are lots of ways to be high-risk. But they were just so committed to their pregnancies. And it came as a great shock to me when I couldn't get pregnant easily. I just expected my body to conceive.Kramer: How old were you when you started trying to conceive?Hales: Thirty-one. And we ultimately did succeed, but it took four years. Lots of doctors, lots of workups, living by a calendar, taking your temperature. You're kind of on a train and you can't get off the track. One specialist suggests one thing and you go to another specialist and he measures your hormones, you're having cervical biopsies. And I finally reached a point where I thought, I've got to stop now. And it was right about then that I got pregnant.Kramer: Were you considering adoption?Hales: Yes. I had done a story on an Ecuadorean orphan and there were a whole bunch of adorable kids just like her in Ecuador and I was very seriously looking into it. But these days, it takes so long to go through the adoption process, and I got pregnant during that time.Kramer: Funny how that happens. It seems as if the trick to getting pregnant is to not try. You know, I was so glad that you put in that anecdote in the book about the adoptive mother who seemed to know instinctively when her toddler fell into the swimming pool. Before any of the other mothers even noticed, she was in the pool saving her child. It's been my observation that adoptive mothers are every bit as connected to their kids as birth mothers. Adoptive fathers, too.Hales: Yes, I think in some way adoptive fathers might even be more connected [than natural fathers], because they've had to be part of the process. You have to go through screenings, fill out papers, meet with people. It's not something that happens one night. Some people go on and on about whose egg and whose sperm, and I just think, it's not going to matter to the parents. It's just not a huge issue. The ability to love a child is just human.Kramer: What are you working on now?Hales: I'm doing a book on gender medicine with a doctor who pioneered the field, Marianne Legato. She believes that someday there will be gender-specific medical centers, where they'll have different screening methods and different treatments for men and for women. Women have heart attacks in different ways [than men], they are more prone to certain illnesses, they metabolize certain medications differently. And treatments have not been based on this. The treadmill test that works so well for men does not work as well for women. Migraines are much more common in women than in men. Drugs that work for one gender don't necessarily work for the other. And what we have now is basically male-model medicine.Kramer: Why don't treadmill tests work for women?Hales: They get a lot of false positives. These are tests that were designed for men. The fact that women have breasts was just never factored in. When they developed the test, they looked at breastless people.Kramer: How lame!Hales: I know! I've never heard anyone make a good argument for it, other than, well, it's good enough, we still manage to keep most women alive.Kramer: Now that there are more women becoming doctors, is the medical profession getting any better at diagnosing women's ailments rather than dismissing them?Hales: I think it has made a difference. When a woman patient would say, "Every time I take this pill, I feel loopy," the male doctor would say, "Oh, that's all in your head." But the female physician would be the one to say, "I've heard that from other women, too -- there must be something to it." When they were debating about how much to disclose in the package inserts for birth control pills, men were saying, "You can't tell women there's a risk of embolism because our offices will be flooded with women thinking it's happening to them." It took women physicians to say, "No, I'm capable of assessing risks and so are other women."Kramer: You mention in the book that only 16 percent of National Institutes for Health funding goes to medical research on women.Hales: Yes. There's certainly not a critical mass of women in Congress yet, so they haven't gotten the funding. There's a real lag. But now, by law, they do have to include women in studies, so at least whenever something is tested on men, it's also tested on women. But there are specific diseases that really haven't been well investigated. I'm always getting news releases from the interstitial cystitis people and the fibromyalgia people. There's a constant struggle to get more support for research. They're mostly female diseases, and there just hasn't been much interest in doing research there.Kramer: So how does it feel to be the interviewee instead of the interviewer?Hales: I must say, it's kind of fun. But the reason I went into journalism is I find other people more interesting to listen to than myself. I know everything that I've told you. I would just as soon find out all the stuff that you know that I don't know.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.