Same Difference

How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs


By Rosalind Barnett

By Caryl Rivers

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From respected academics like Carol Gilligan to pop-psych gurus like John Gray, and even the controversial Harvard President Lawrence Summers, the message has long been the same: Men and women are fundamentally different, and trying to bridge the gender gap can only lead to grief. But as the New York Times Book Review raved, Barnett and Rivers “debunk these theories in a no-nonsense way, offering a refreshingly direct (i.e. unashamedly judgmental) critique of traditional parental roles, tututting at the couples they interviewed who cling to stereotyped ideas of the family.” “Blending case histories, new research and thoughtful analysis, the writers describe the divide between the sexes as a crevice, not a chasm. The good news: We’re all a lot more flexible than the gender clich8Es let on.”-Psychology Today


Praise for Same Difference

“My congratulations to Barnett and Rivers for another first-class job of exploring the gender myths affecting our society. They take no prisoners, nor should they, in their cutting analysis, based on solid research and totally accessible writing.”

—Marvin Kalb, senior fellow of Shorenstein Center on Press,
Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University

“Instead of pitting nature against nurture, Barnett and Rivers present an optimistic and accurate picture of humanity that shows how men and women develop a fuller range of ‘natural’ life options, including nurturing fathers and women as political leaders.”

—Diane F. Halpern, former President of the American

Psychological Association, Professor of Psychology, Claremont McKenna

College, and Director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family, and Children

“The message of Same Difference is compelling: For too long, society has stuffed men and women into ill-fitting stereotypes, and now the tight garments are pinching. This engaging and illuminating book is liberating in the best and healthiest sense—that is, freeing individuals to be themselves.”

—Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School,

author of Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End

“A wonderfully provocative book that challenges, one by one, the most popular myths of gender difference, using a combination of compelling science and wise insight. Because it is easier to ‘sell’ the notion that a wide gulf exists between men and women, books and articles proclaiming gender differences receive cover story attention. I strongly hope that this book receives comparable attention and is widely read—because it will clearly help improve relationships between men and women, boys and girls.”

—Ellen Galinsky, President, Families and Work Institute;

author, Ask the Children

Same Difference, then, serves a practical purpose of helping families reconcile their non-traditional balance between work and home against long-held beliefs, including that men are prehistorically predisposed to be providers and that women lack the hard wiring to do math . . . it is a provocative examination of embedded stereotypes that the authors contend limit the potential of both men and women.”

— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“So, in the name of freedom, I encourge you to sit that insensitive, workaholic boyfriend of yours down in front of a football game and take your maternal, co-dependent self to the bookstore to pick up this fabulous gem.”


Also by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers

She Works/He Works (1996)

Lifeprints (1983)

Beyond Sugar and Spice (1979)

Same Difference

How Gender Myths Are
Hurting Our Relationships,
Our Children, and Our Jobs

Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers

Basic Books
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
New York

To Nat and Alan, whose continuous support on many fronts and unflagging interest and enthusiasm made all this possible. If we ever needed proof that caring was as much a male as a female virtue, our husbands have given us that proof.


It is our great fortune to have Susan Rabiner and Susan Arellano as our agents. Without their insight and grasp of the issues, this book would never have come together. Susan Arellano went well beyond her role as agent to ask probing questions and to put in many hours on the final editing of the manuscript.

Jo Ann Miller at Basic Books believed in the manuscript from the start and helped us shape complex ideas into a coherent whole. Thanks as well to her assistant, Ellen Garrison. We would also like to thank Linda Carbone for her editing work.

Special thanks to Donna Ellis, whose generosity of spirit and careful work added greatly to the success of this project.

I (RB) began work on this project while I was a visiting scholar at the Henry A. Murray Research Center at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Ann Colby, then director, who provided me with the support I needed to undertake this work. In addition, I want to thank Jackie James for her encouragement and wisdom, and Marty Mauzy for her unstinting interest and reassurance. In the course of writing the book, I relocated to Brandeis University, where I was fortunate to find a home at the Women’s Studies Research Center. I am deeply indebted to Shula Reinharz, director of the center, for her unwavering support and enthusiasm. She has been a steady source of good cheer and optimism especially at those times when I most needed support. I also want to thank the community of scholars at the center, who showed great interest in the book and offered many helpful suggestions and comments throughout the writing process.

Thanks to the generosity of these two institutions, I had the good fortune to work with a number of outstanding undergraduate students, including Elizabeth Beasely, Madeline Lohman, Rachel Nash, Mical Natoniewski, Rebecca Nesson, Anna Perrici, Erica Pond, Nicole Selinger, Patricia Wencelblatt, and Annie Wong.

CR wishes to thank Bill Ketter and Bob Zelnick, chairs of the Boston University Journalism Department, for their help and encouragement, as well as Dean J. J. Schulz of the College of Communication. Jim Gallagher in the Bebe Research Center at the College of Communication at Boston University was of great help in researching this book. Thanks also to Lisa Becker for her interviewing skills.

Our thanks to Marvin Kalb and the Joan Shorenstein Center for Press and Politics at Harvard University for a Goldsmith Research Award that helped make this book possible.


In the time since the hardcover edition of this book was published, a series of high-profile events made clear that the issue of gender differences is far from a dry academic subject.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers made comments at an academic conference in 2005 that caused an international uproar. He said that perhaps it was women’s innate deficiencies in math and science— not discrimination or the long hours of academic life—that accounted for the dearth of women in top positions in these fields. One world-renowned female scientist who was present, Nancy Hopkins of M.I.T., got up and walked out. The presidents of three elite universities wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe, chastising the Harvard president. “Speculation that ‘innate differences’ may be a significant cause of under-representation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases,” wrote the authors, Susan Hockfield of M.I.T., a neuroscientist; Shirley M. Tilghman of Princeton, a molecular geneticist; and John L. Hennessy of Stanford, a computer scientist. (On the other side, his defenders accused his critics of political correctness and of being enemies of academic freedom.)

At the conference, Summers called for new research on gender differences in math and science, seeming to believe that little had been done in this area. Some ill-informed members of the media fell prey to the same mistake. The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn wrote, “Why don’t female mathematicians and scientists, particularly at Harvard, get together and research the issue until they have definitive answers instead of reaching for the smelling salts.”

Despite Quinn’s Victorian rhetoric, a phone call from president Summers to one of his faculty members could have saved him much grief. Over the past two decades many large and well-designed studies had found again and again that the differences in math ability between men and women were trivial. (See our chapter “Do The Math” for a full discussion of these studies.)

Summers apologized for his error and proposed new initiatives for women in science. But what will people remember—the fact that good research debunked his statement (as he admitted) or the fact that the president of Harvard said women might not be naturally good at math?

It wasn’t only in mathematics that debates over gender differences surfaced. In a fractious squabble over why there weren’t more women writers on the op-ed pages of America’s newspapers, some people suggested that women’s brain structures were the problem. This issue erupted in controversy when law professor and Fox News commentator Susan Estrich offered her syndicated column to Michael Kinsley, editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times. Things got nasty after the column was rejected and Estrich pointed out the paucity of op-eds written by women during Kinsley’s tenure. (She suggested his judgment might have been affected by his Parkinson’s disease and later apologized for that remark.) Critics used the incident to point out the glaring lack of women among media opinion makers: in a two-month study, they noted 19.9 percent of op-eds at the Los Angeles Times were by women. The Washington Post clocked in at 10.4 percent, and the New York Times at 16.9 percent.

Too often, with brain research, sweeping assertions are made on what one researcher calls “a thimbleful of evidence.” Research “findings” about the human brain appear and are debunked faster than hemlines go up and down.

A Washington Post article ventured the idea that women’s brains made them too cautious to express strong opinions. “Women, being tuned in to the more cautious (and more creative) right brain,” said the Post story, “are more reluctant to do something unless they’re sure they’re going to get it right.”

Here’s an alternate theory about why women don’t write as many opinion pieces as men. New research finds that in social arenas that are generally thought to be male-dominated, women are seen as either competent and unlikable, or not competent and likeable. In other words, a woman with strong opinions is far more likely to be disliked than a man. Other research shows that women suffer more negative consequences when they appear to fail than men do. No wonder women are more careful than men—the stakes are higher. The fracas over op-eds illustrates the ways in which generalizations about women’s brains are being used to avoid the whole subject of discrimination. Switching the topic to brain structures or hormones usually means taking the focus away from the real reasons that women are often absent from the top levels in many fields. It is being said today that women can’t achieve because they aren’t risk takers, and their brains are wired for empathy, not achievement. Research demonstrates this is not so, but it’s fast becoming the new backlash. (See our chapter “Leading Questions” about this issue.)

However, the media announced in 2005 that even if all these ideas about faulty brain structures and hormones are wrong, and women do have the ability and drive for leadership, there’s a catch. If they do achieve, they will be miserable. No man will want them. Citing two studies that drew headlines like Glass Ceilings at Altar as Well as Boardroom and Men Just Want Mommy, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked in 2005 whether the feminist movement was “some sort of cruel hoax.” She wrote “The more women achieve, the less desirable they are.”

True? No. One study, by psychologists Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan and Brian Lewis of UCLA, was seriously flawed. It was done on a small sample (120 male and 208 female undergraduates, mainly freshman.) The males rated the desirability of a fictitious female, who was described as either their immediate supervisor, a peer, or an assistant, as a dating or marriage partner. Surprise, surprise! The freshman males preferred the subordinate over the peer and the supervisor when it came to dating and mating. But was the study a barometer of adult male preferences—or of teenage boys’ ambivalence about strong women? Clearly the latter, given the facts about what adult men actually desire. Men do not reject achieving women—quite the opposite. Sociologist Valerie Oppenheimer of UC Berkeley reports that today men are choosing as mates women who have completed their education. The more education a woman has, the more marriageable she is. And Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic Policy Research found that women between the ages of 28 and 35 who work full time and earn more than $55,000 per year, or have a graduate or professional degree, are just as likely to be successfully married as other working women.

The second study, cited by Dowd and picked up by the Atlantic Monthly under the headline “Too Smart to Marry?” found that for every 15-point increase in IQ score above the average, women’s likelihood of marriage fell by almost 60 percent.

Alarming news for bright women, right? Well, not exactly. The news stories about this study failed to mention that the women in the study are now in their eighties, having been born in 1921. In that era, smart women may have found the constraints of traditional marriage impossible, and since the “ideal” woman of the time was passive, timid, and not given to strong opinions, men may not have found smart women proper marriage candidates. But, despite the media hype, the study tells us nothing about the behavior of today’s young men and women.

Still, the “women haven’t got the right stuffnarrative is rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, women rarely hear the facts about their abilities and their natural inclinations—the drumbeat of bad news and scare stories creates too much of a din. If women believe that they can’t really achieve—or that they will suffer if they do—the bright potential of many lives will be forever dimmed.

However, there has been some good news lately. More stereotypes about sex differences are giving way to the insights of technologically sophisticated scientific study. In March 2005 a large international group of 282 scientists (molecular biologists, geneticists, and other specialists) at twenty-one institutions in six countries reported in Nature the results of extensive study of the genetic structure of the X chromosome. If a fetus has two X chromosomes it develops into a female; if it has one X and one Y, it develops into a male. At a genetic level, the difference between the sexes boils down to the presence or absence of a second X or a Y chromosome!

The new findings that grabbed headlines across the globe showed that old thinking about the X chromosome had to be shelved. It had been thought that only the genes on one of the two X chromosomes every female carries were in fact active; the other was thought to be “turned off.” Now, it appears that about 15 percent of the genes on the second copy, the supposedly inactive chromosome, are still busily at work. And, about 10 percent of the genes on the “active” chromosome are in fact inactive. What does this mean? Simply, the combination of genes that are active or inactive on both copies of the X chromosome is very large, leading to far more differences among females than was thought before. In contrast, differences among men are far less dramatic, at least at the genetic level.

These findings contradict the idea that women are stamped out as if by cookie cutters, so that they talk, think, relate, communicate and lead in exactly the same way—as the media would have us believe.

What will tomorrow’s scientific breakthroughs reveal? Of course, no one knows. However, it does seem true that previously accepted generalizations about men and women are being dismantled at an astonishing rate. Overall, the most recent developments point to just the trends we describe in this book, namely that the differences among women and among men dwarf the differences between the sexes.

The Seduction of Difference

NEARLY TEN YEARS AGO we wrote a book called She Works/He Works.1 Drawing on a four-year, million-dollar study of 300 working couples, we examined how the new “working” family—in which both parents were employed—was faring. Currently between 60 and 70 percent of families consist of two working parents and their children, and so it’s hard to remember that until recently, this was not the norm. Only thirty-odd years ago, most families consisted of one full-time working parent, the male, and one stay-at-home parent, the female. It was not until 1980, when the U.S. Census Bureau no longer automatically assumed the male to be the head of the household, that the nation put the old Leave It to Beaver family to rest.2 Nowadays most women, including mothers of young children, are part of the paid labor force from their twenties until retirement. This revolution in women’s lives, and in the life of the family, is taken for granted today.

Our study, as well as studies done by others, showed that many fears arising from the entry of mothers into the workforce—regarding children’s psychological well-being, women’s ability to juggle multiple roles, and men’s willingness to accept those new roles—were groundless: people are doing well in the new family structure.3 Most children of working mothers don’t exhibit attachment problems or cognitive deficits. Many studies show no meaningful differences between the children of mothers at work and mothers at home.4 Most working mothers do not turn into emotional wrecks as they perform the family juggling act (in fact, working mothers consistently exhibit fewer emotional problems than stay-at-home mothers), and most men seem to accept the changing power structure at work and on the home front. Clearly something about this new, busy lifestyle confers a major health benefit.

The good news we imparted in She Works/He Works was warmly welcomed; the book was widely read and reviewed, and in 1997 it was awarded the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award.

End of story? Not quite. One group of people in our study troubled us. They were having major problems in their marriages, experiencing severe stress at work and at home. What characterized this “out-of-synch” group was that their beliefs and attitudes deeply contradicted the lives they were living. Even though all the couples were actually performing dual roles, the people in this group didn’t believe men and women could—or should—be equally competent at both. In their minds, women were more effective in the home sphere because they were naturally more domestic and more nurturing and simply enjoyed that arena more. Men, they believed, were by nature more aggressive and less nurturing, and thus better suited to the competitive world of work than the “touchy-feely” domestic sphere. Because both the men and the women in this group believed they weren’t suited to both roles, they couldn’t enjoy their dual roles or feel competent performing them. The women were angry that they had to work when they felt their true job was making a home for their families. The men weren’t able to take pleasure in caring for their kids because they feared they lacked the natural instinct for it. As a result, the couples—especially the men—felt tremendous stress and often took it out on each other.

We were surprised to discover this group of unhappy couples within our larger study. As veterans of the 1970s women’s movement, we had helped broaden opportunities for women, and in the years since then we had witnessed a remarkable transformation in men’s and women’s attitudes and roles. When RB was getting her advanced degree in psychology in 1964, few women were principal investigators on major grants, held academic chairs, or were sought out as national experts on the science of human behavior. And when CR was studying journalism, there were no female editors or managing editors of major newspapers, no female reporters on network television, few women on the “hard news” beats that led to top jobs. But by 1996, when we published our study of dual earners, all this had changed, as demonstrated by the overwhelmingly positive results of our research. Like us, most people had come to believe that men and women, if not interchangeable, were more alike than different in what they could and in fact did do. The prevailing wisdom was that both sexes would benefit and be happier when there was greater equality at work and at home.

So how to explain our out-of-synch couples? We sympathized with them but assumed that they were simply a holdover from an earlier era and that the traditional ideas they held—beliefs that caused them discord and distress—would soon be a thing of the past.

If we had been right, you would not be reading this book. Out-of-synch couples—faced with overwhelming evidence that women and men could take on the same tasks in the same way and do them equally well—would have faded into history. But, as it turns out, we were dead wrong.

Fast-forward eight years. A best-selling book is published in 2002 by a leading Harvard academic. In The Blank Slate psychologist Steven Pinker declares that men and women are by nature suited to different roles. Men are inherently “risk-taking achievers who can willingly endure discomfort in pursuit of success,” while “women are more likely to choose administrative support jobs that offer low pay in air conditioned offices.”

The Blank Slate was the latest in a barrage of backlash books that included Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Girls (2002),5 which urged mothers to disregard feminist messages and focus on their daughters’ caring abilities rather than their talents, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children (2002), which warns women to abandon serious career plans and have children in their twenties.6 The acknowledged kingpin of the gender-difference screeds was John Gray’s huge best-seller Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus, which told us that men and women virtually evolved on different planets. Another genre of “difference” books came from a surprising source—women who declared themselves feminists but delivered a message that women are very different from men, which could easily be twisted to diminish women’s opportunities. These include Deborah Tannen’s best-selling


On Sale
Mar 25, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Rosalind Barnett

About the Author

Rosalind Barnett, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist at Brandeis University and Director of its Community, Families, and Work Program. She is the author of six books and her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, among other publications. She lives in Weston, Massachusetts.

Caryl Rivers is a Professor of Journalism at Boston University and is a nationally known columnist, author, journalist, and media critic. She has written for the New York Times, the Nation, Ms., Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, and Dissent. She lives in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author