The Myth of Mars and Venus

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Deborah Cameron, Oxford University Press, £10.99

This short and enjoyable read examines popular science claims that men and women speak and think in different ways due to their biological makeup. The title comes from the most famous, and possibly crudest, modern exponent of these ideas, John Gray, who 15 years ago wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Looking at his website you might think it is Gray's job to point out that men are selfish and idle and that women must learn to accept it for the well-being of society. Hence this gem: "When you ask a man for support and he realises that you do not reject him for saying no, next time he will be more prepared to give."

Of course, as Cameron points out, the real object is also clear from the website - this is a multi-million dollar business. He is selling merchandise, workshops, counselling and franchises while claiming to provide individual solutions to "communication" problems. Snake oil.

The arguments and evidence have moved on since Gray became a bestseller. So Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Essential Difference, and Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate, claim that there is a male and female brain. These are respectively better adapted to visual-spatial and mathematical tasks or verbal tasks. As these differences are supposedly innate a truly equal society will be created when we acknowledge and value this diversity. As Cameron reminds us, this "different but equal" formulation was the basis of apartheid. We don't need reminding that there was no difference between racial groups and no equality.

Cameron examines in detail the studies and claims that, for example, women talk more than men and have bigger vocabularies (both of which are untrue). She also gives examples of cultures where it is a woman's business to be very direct, assertive and rude in a way that would probably result in an Asbo in Britain.

There is a serious point here. Cameron argues that the prevalence of the "common sense" idea that men and women have innate and different language skills means that people are being discriminated against in employment and, furthermore, that rapists have been acquitted because they are given the benefit of the "doubt" as to whether the woman wanted sex or not.

This is a useful addition to the small crop of recent books on the new sexism. It won't give you the theoretical basis to change the world, but another spear to deflate popular prejudice masquerading as science is very welcome.