21 April 2017 | by Dr John Barry
Please welcome Dr John Barry to the BPS blog with this entry discussing the complex issue of gender differences in psychology.
A: “Well, we’re academics, so we know we’re pretty objective when it comes to research”
B: “We think we are, but what if collectively we can’t see our biases about gender?”
A: “Oh yeah, but we have unconscious bias training for that”
B: “But what if that is part of the bias”
B: “What if not recognizing gender differences is a cognitive bias. What if this bias is causing us to do more harm than good?”
You might end up having the same type of conversation if you try to point out, as I did recently, that academia sometimes has a blind spot for problems facing men and boys.
The truth is that psychologists are, by and large, some of the most well-intentioned people you will find. We all want to do the right thing, to help people, and mostly we succeed.
For example, we have created all sorts of techniques and procedures to reduce human suffering, and we agonise over how well these techniques work, how we can improve them, how widely then can be applied…
But what if we are like a shoe maker who creates lots of styles of shoe, but only in one size?
For many customers the shoe will more or less fit, but for others it won’t fit at all.
In research into the gendered needs of men and women in therapy, we have found that, in general terms, women want to talk about their feelings and men just want a quick solution (Russ et al, 2015; Lemkey et al, 2016; Holloway et al, in review).
But psychologists mainly offer therapies based around discussing feelings – a single size of shoe, that isn’t always a good fit for men.
We have also found that many therapists are somewhat uneasy about fully accepting that there are gender differences in their clients (Russ et al, 2015; Holloway et al, in review), and experience cognitive dissonance when asked to think about the sex differences they routinely observe.
This tendency would be harmless, except that some gender differences are clinically important - for example, men commit suicide more than women do (ONS, 2015) but seek therapy less (Kung, 2003)
If we are disinclined to explore the reasons for this because thinking about gender differences makes us feel uncomfortable, then we have become a helping profession incapable of helping.
How widespread is this problem? ‘Beta bias’ in research - the tendency to ignore or minimise gender differences - emerged in the 1970s (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988), and today ideas such as Hyde’s (2005) ‘gender similarities hypothesis’ prevail.
But what if beta bias – like Type II errors in research – has led to an inadvertent neglect of men and boys? Have we, sincere and well-meaning psychologists, been trying so hard to defeat sexism that we have inadvertently created a different kind?
But… before we start feeling guilty and blaming ourselves, we need to realise that the roots of what Seager et al (2014) call male gender blindness go much deeper than modern psychology.
Indeed the origins are probably in the evolution of our species, rooted in our tendency to see men as the strong protectors of society, and not typically people in need of protection (Seager, Farrell and Barry, 2016), which perhaps explains why there appears to be a difference in how much sympathy we have for men and women experiencing the same types of problem (the gender empathy gap; Barry, 2016).
For example, when we see a drunk man picking a fight in the street, our first thought is not ‘poor man, acting out his childhood trauma,’ instead we think ‘what an idiot – lock him up!’
So it’s not our fault that we are so easily led away from seeing male suffering – we can blame evolution for that. But as psychologists, it is our responsibility and professional duty to make sure that we do what we can to meet the needs of everyone, even if it means having to face up to gender differences.
Barry, J. (2016). Can psychology bridge the gender empathy gap? South West Review, 4, 31-36 http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/gender-empathy-gap-BPS-SW-Review-Barry-Winter-2016-author-copy.pdf
Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American psychologist, 60(6), 581.
Holloway, K., Seager, M., and Barry, J.A. (in review). Are clinical psychologists and psychotherapists overlooking the gender-related needs of their clients?
Kung, H. C., Pearson, J. L., & Liu, X. (2003). Risk factors for male and female suicide decedents ages 15–64 in the United States. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 38(8), 419-426 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00127-003-0656-x
Lemkey, L., Brown, B., & Barry, J. A. (2015). Gender distinctions: Should we be more sensitive to the different therapeutic needs of men and women in clinical hypnosis? Findings from a pilot interview study. Australian Journal of Clinical Hypnotherapy & Hypnosis, 37(2), 10 http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/gender-distinctions-in-clinical-hypnosis-Lemkey-Brown-Barry-2016-1.pdf
ONS, Office of National Statistics (2015). Suicide rates in the United Kingdom, 2013 Registrations http://tinyurl.com/mzplbzr
Russ, S., Ellam-Dyson, V., Seager, M., & Barry, J.A. (2015). Coaches’ Views on Differences in Treatment Style for Male and Female Clients. New Male Studies, 4(3) http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/coaching-gender-differences-Russ-et-al-2015-author-copy.pdf
Seager, M., Sullivan, L., and Barry, J.A. (2014). The Male Psychology Conference, University College London, June 2014. New Male Studies, 3, 41-68 http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Male-Psychology-Conf-NMS-Seager-et-al-2014.pdf
Seager, M., Farrell, W. & Barry, J.A. (2016). The Male Gender Empathy Gap: Time for psychology to take action. New Male Studies, 5(2), 6-16 http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/article-2-.pdf