February 25, 2013 18 Comments
In early 1993 I read the book called “Men are from Mars Women are from Venus” written by John Gray, American author and relationship counsellor. The book sat on the American best seller list for 121 weeks and reportedly over the last 20 years has sold over 50 million copies.
For that rare group who have not read the actual book, Gray asserts that men and women are so different, particularly in the way that they view the “mechanics” of relationships, that they are effectively from planets very distant from each other, men being from the planet Mars and women from Venus. As a result they are each very comfortable with their own society and customs, but not with each other’s.
The choice of planets is obvious but important as Mars is represented by the male sex symbol and iron, and the planet Venus by the female sex symbol and copper. In Roman mythology the God Mars was the God of war and Venus the Goddess of love, beauty, sex and fertility. Also fairly obvious, but central to the book’s premises, for example, that men are “problem solvers” whereas women are driven by their emotions and are “problem discussers”. According to Gray this creates problems when a man offers solutions to a woman’s problems rather than just listening to her and offering sympathy.
I came across my old copy recently and decided that it was worth revisiting, and having just finished rereading it I would like to say “John, whilst some of what you write makes sense, when it comes to reality today, I think that you are talking out of Uranus !”
The problem I have with the book is that it just reinforces the stereotypes that men are strong, capable and the natural hunters while women are soft, emotional and are here to beautify the planet for men and to bear their children.
I came across a recent example of this reinforcement of the stereotypes, which whilst very funny, is very close to reality, when a friend sent me these “Rules for Women and Men”.
Some of those rules for women that relate specifically to Gray’s book are:
– Crying is blackmail
– Ask for what you want. Let us be clear on this one: Subtle hints do not work! Strong hints do not work! Obvious hints do not work! Just say it!
– Yes and No are perfectly acceptable answers to almost every question.
– Come to us with a problem only if you want help solving it. That is what we do. Look to your girlfriends for a sympathetic ear.
– If something we said can be interpreted two ways, and one of the ways makes you sad or angry, we meant the other one.
– If we ask what is wrong and you say “nothing,” we will act like nothing is wrong. We know you are lying, but it is just not worth the hassle.
The same spirit exists in the rules for men:
– The female has the right to be angry or upset for any reason, real or imagined, at any time and under any circumstance which in her sole judgement she deems appropriate. The male is not to be given any sign of the root cause of the female’s being angry or upset. The female may, however, give false or misleading reasons to see if the male is paying attention
– The male is expected to read the mind of the female at all times. Failure to do so will result in punishments and penalties imposed at the sole discretion of the female
I do agree that this is very funny in a “Blokey” way, but the problem that I have with it is that, like Gray’s book, it reinforces all the attitudes that help to strengthen the barriers that men erect to keep women out of senior management roles and out of the board rooms. Whilst I am not an advocate of externally imposed quota systems for women in senior roles (see “Stupid work fads” posted September 5, 2011), I do believe in the need to create a level playing field for all. For example, I find it unfortunate that of the 5 boards on which I now serve, only two have a woman board member. In the first she is the CFO (increasingly a role becoming more acceptable for a women to fill along with HR), and in the second she is one of the two founders of the company so there is no choice). In the Top 300 European companies women still make up only about 12% of board members (up from 10% in 2008), although Norway at 38% does skew the results somewhat. The latest Catalyst figures show that women only make up 11% of Fortune 1000 company board members, and that 25% of the Fortune 1000 still have no female board members at all.
Male dominated business environments use anecdotes, humour and publications, such as Gray’s book, to perpetuate the whole myth of “how can you entrust business seniority to women who are generally too sensitive, too needy, not problem solvers and who are not self-sufficient but are always in need of a sympathetic ear?”.
This description has not been my personal experience with women in senior management roles (see “Do women make better managers” posted November 22, 2010), yet I have to admit that I was personally guilty of perpetuating the “maleness” of the business environment when I recently worked with one management team on defining the direction of a competitive strategy as needing to be either “Kill the dragon” or “Rescue the Princess”, both tending towards the myth of man being the brave hunter or the rescuer of a female in distress. Obviously my conditioning has been as strong as the next man’s.
Even Poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was guilty when he wrote in his poem the Princess
“Man is the hunter; woman is his game: The sleek and shining creatures of the chase, We hunt them for the beauty of their skins; They love us for it, and we ride them down.”