by Melanie Yarborough


"There really are fundamental differences in the way men and women process information...Women tend to process more extensively more different pieces of information...Men tend to rely more on mental shortcuts..."

This was one of many points brought out in a recent discussion on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation". The Moderator was Brooke Gladstone. Her guests included Deborah Blum, Author of Sex on the Brain, and Professor of Journalism in University of Wisconsin in Madison, and Joan Myers Levy, Professor of Marketing & Consumer Behavior at the University of Chicago Business School.

In one study mentioned, a group of people were brought to a room and later asked to remember various items there. It happened that women had much better memory for details than did men. Men might remember the big picture of an office like the location of a desk or bookshelf. But women would remember more intimate details like a vase of flowers in the corner, or a picture of a husband and wife on a book case.

This begs the question "Are women smarter than men?" There is no simple Yes or No: the answer seems rooted in human evolution.

Men and women had to face different pressures as each adopted to their own specialized social roles. Men had to become the more aggressive hunters and compete with other men. They had to process information quickly, perhaps more quickly than females. Biochemical studies have even shown a more "jittery" neural response from men.

This explains the long-term relationship of men to other men, where one was always looking over one's shoulder. One had to eliminate unecessary details quickly, simplify and react just as quickly. Or, if you weren't the Alpha male leader, you'd want to be one of the guys. Conformity became crucial.

The converse of this is that women as gatherers had to mentally map in fine detail things like bushes and berries and where they had stored food. They also tended to relate less by competition and more by sympathy and empathy.

Research suggests that in women, the two spheres of their brains communicate better than do men's. Studies show that women pull in information from both halves. This allows women to give a more sophisticated emotional response. Thus, women are better at talking about their emotions and reading subtleties.

It therefore seems that this isn't necessarily a case of men and women being smarter or not smarter than each other. Each approach was the environmentally correct one, necessary for both men and women to survive in their assigned roles.

Now in today's consumer-oriented society, these kind of gender differences have not gone unnoticed by marketers. Ad agencies often ask "What makes an effective ad for a man or for a woman?

For women, ads often are more detailed. Take for example toiletry ads. For one thing, women are more concerned abut grooming and appearence. And they appreciate very fine distinctions, such as 5 different variations of shampoo-for curly hair, straight hair, oily hair, dry hair, etc. For men, by contrast, toiletry ads focus on a single product. Men are likely to pick up on one or two very salient and obvious kinds of cues. Men think in a more macro way, and need to be shown the big picture. Also, men are less likely to process complex metaphors.

Are men phobic about fashions? Actually, it's more that men are phobic about appearing to be concerned about fashion. They don't want to come across as caring about it too much. It's often an issue of how they're perceived by other men. The fear is that they'll appear to be too foppish (ie gay) or narcissistic if they seem to be overly concerned aobut dress. Thus, those selling fashion to men have to offer the options in a subtle way, not a direct one. Offering too many options can be the kiss of death.

Interesting, men are much more responsive to sexual cues. In one study, men and women listened to audio tape conversations about non-sexual topics. In one, a women discussed if she should be an anthropologist. Men read sexual cues into the conversation, while women didn't. Men seem to be much more sensitive to sexual signals. This fact has not been lost on advertisers. We all know how sex sells.

It's important to appreciate these perceptual differences between men and women. In the transgender community, we've spent a lot of time studying the physical differences between men and women. The spotlight seems to be on things like makeup, wardrobing, electrolysis, hormones, or the intricacies of sexual reassignment surgury (SRS).

However, the psychological and sociological differences between men and women are unhappily all-too-unexplored. Anyone who truly wants to understand what it means to be the other gender, must recognize these less tangible but important differences. 

-Is the difference between men and women's reactions biological or environmental?Studies have been done of male and female infants aged two months, before they've had a chance to be socialized. Female infants are more responsive to the sound of a human voice in distress. Very young males are more responsive to objects, and females to faces.Of course, infants are also talked to differently, looked at diferently, touched differently, depending what their gender is. At two months, there may already be a fair amount of social conditioning already taken place.

Deborah: But studies have been done showing in utero development. We start in a slightly different place-we bring different genes to the table.

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