“Men and women are different.”
This is an obvious enough statement, right? After all, the divine establishment of male and female is a fundamental tenet of humanity created in the image of God.
Yet, what does it mean exactly to say that men and women are different, and is there a framework that guides the way we draw implications from the difference between male and female?
On the one hand, if one develops a framework starting from an anatomical perspective and reproductive roles perspective, the gender distinction is largely binary—male and female are mutually exclusive. This perspective lends itself to making implications that emphasize the differences between men and women—e.g. books like “Men are From Mars…,” comedy sketches contrasting men and women, and Christian teaching about husbands and wives (“Love and Respect”).
On the other hand, one of the critiques I’ve seen frequently in regard to egalitarian arguments is that they rely on diminishing, if not denying, the distinction between male and female. There may be some cases where this critique is on target, but generally I think it is well understood by the vast majority of people that men and women, taken as a whole, are indeed different.
But what does “different” mean when applied to entire genders, and how does the idea apply when individual men and women are taken into account? While it is clear to me that men and women are different, I also wrestle with the fact that many of the "classic" gender differences that are touted to make people laugh or to produce a sermon simply don't apply to my wife and me. And so when all the couples around me are laughing at the pastor's joke, which is presumably funny because it's "true", and yet it's not true to my life, what does that mean? Am I the only one that feels this way?
I don’t think I’m alone, and when a look across the audience at an all-male gathering where gender stereotypes are being promoted, it makes me sad to consider the unintentional harm and self-doubt caused in those who don’t fit the stereotypes. When I bring this up to my (more typically) male friends, they usually look at me funny and say, “You don’t think men and women are the same, do you?” Well, of course I don’t…but yet why do some of the female stereotypes fit me better than they fit my wife? What am I missing here? Can we both be right?
Over time I’ve decided that it might be useful to think about the “difference” between men and women in more precise terms. What it comes down to is that when we say “men and women are different”, what we really mean is that the “average” or “typical” man is different than the “average” or “typical” woman. And this is a true statement when talking about the sexes as a whole. But it is an unhelpful oversimplification when it comes to considering any individual woman or man.
Imagine the height of every person on earth plotted on a frequency graph. If we plotted the height of men and women independently, the graph would look resemble two overlapping normal distributions, or something like this:
As seen in the graph, to the extent that there is a difference in the average height of men and women, it is the case that men and women are different. At the same time, to the extent that the two distribution curves overlap, it is the case that there are some women who are taller than some men and some men who are shorter than some women. In this sense it is accurate to say that men and women are the same, or that there are some men who are more like a (typical) woman when it comes to height, and some woman who happen to be more like a (typical) man. Another way to think of it is that, if given only a person’s height, it is impossible, except for a few extreme cases, to determine that person’s gender.
As it turns out, the heights of men and women in the U.S. are distributed somewhat uniquely, but the overall concept remains, as seen in this graph:
Now, consider extrapolating this dynamic to other physical, mental, emotional, psychological and behavioral traits of human beings, particularly those traits that are not primarily shaped by geography, culture, economic status, etc. In many cases, plotting the distribution curves of men and women will reveal a difference in the means/averages of women vs. men, but also overlap between the curves. In some cases the means will be closer, and the overlap will be more (e.g. life expectancy in a given geographic area) and in others it may be that the means are relatively farther apart and the overlap less (e.g. blood testosterone level). And in many cases, the means will be essentially identical and the overlap nearly complete (e.g. intelligence, and many, if not most, character qualities), with a distributions that look something like this:
So…what’s the point? What does this mean for men and women who follow Jesus? It means that gender stereotypes, while true for the whole, are unhelpful and perhaps even harmful when addressing individual men and women in the body of Christ.
Furthermore, it means that it is never justified to base all-or-nothing positions on gender stereotypes: “Women are more ____, therefore…” or “Men are more _____, therefore…” Even if certain gender-correlated traits or characteristics (of which there are likely fewer than many people think) could be mapped to certain roles (say, objectivity as a preferred trait for strategic leaders), it does not follow that if the average man (or woman) is more objective than the average woman (or man), therefore men should be strategic leaders and women should not. Regardless of the characteristics or traits required for a role, there exists both women and men who fit the bill.
The same obviously applies for stereotypes of all kinds, and to that extent, saying that stereotypes are unhelpful is not saying anything new. But when it comes to gender, the composite differences are often readily apparent, and as a result the stereotypes seem to be more readily applied. Are men and women, taken as a whole, different? In many ways, yes. Does that support assigning roles or responsibilities based on gender? Clearly not!