tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Author, speaker shed light on gender differences

I’m reading a book by Myrna Blyth, who edited Ladies Home Journal magazine from 1981 to 2002. In the publishing world, the magazine is referred to as one of the “seven sisters,” the others being Family Circle, Redbook, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens and Woman’s Day. These magazines have absolutely nothing in common with the industry magazines I work with on a daily basis, but I always find it interesting to read the musings of other magazine editors.

The premise of Blyth’s Spin Sisters: How the women of the media sell unhappiness and liberalism to the women of America, is that the seven sisters exploit women by promoting unrealistic images of beauty. They also play on women’s anxieties by printing a preponderance of journalistically flimsy stories about health, stress and safety.

Blyth offers a glimpse into how major media works, but what fascinated me most was her take on the differences between men and women. It seems so politically incorrect today to acknowledge any differences between men and women. But Blyth is not worried about political correctness. She goes into quite a bit of detail about how the media (not just the major women’s magazines) prepare stories differently for men and women.

“Coverage of health topics, which provide the best fodder for frightening stories, dramatically increased during the past decade both on television and in women’s magazines,” she writes on page 125 of the hard-cover edition I’m reading. “On TV, the increase was part of the ‘feminization’ of the media, the realization by executives that more and more often it was women out there watching -– and watching everything -– including the news. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the Tyndall Report, a network news monitor, who tracked CBS news broadcasts in 1968 and 1998, saw the broadcasts shift from foreign policy, military, economic, and business issues to lifestyle topics like health, education, and sexuality. In fact, measuring coverage on all three networks, he found that the news time devoted to what he calls ‘news you can use’ aimed at women quadrupled from 16 minutes to 71 minutes a month and helped transform TV news in the process.”

Blyth cites a University of Michigan psychology professor in her explanation of the different way news impacts women and men. According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, “women tend to ruminate, brood, and worry a lot more than men,” she writes on page 116. “Through an extensive 20-year study, she found that many women spend countless hours thinking about negative ideas, feelings, and experiences.” This finding is in apparent contrast to men.

“Gender plays a powerful role in the perception of hazards, was the conclusion of Professor John Graham, founding director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, after the center polled more than a thousand Americans to find out whether they believe in widely reported but unproven ‘hazards’ like radon and pesticide residue on food. Graham found that women were more likely to believe such scares were true by a margin of 10 percentage points or more.”

Blyth got me to thinking about a speaker I heard who addressed a group of parents in Arkansas last June. Dr. Philip Mango, the president and co-founder of Saint Michael’s Institute for the Psychological Sciences in New York City, described distinct neurological differences between men and women in his presentation at the annual convention of the Couple to Couple League. Dr. Mango doesn’t have a lot in common with Myrna Blyth but he affirmed the hypothesis that there are concrete differences between men and women, including the way they approach problems, think about things and come to conclusions.

Testosterone and vasopressin, the two primary male hormones, flood a man’s mind, affirming characteristics such as assertiveness, Dr. Mango explained. For men, maturity is a matter of harnessing these hormones.

Dr. Mango took us back to the beginning, noting that when a girl is born, her first relationship is with someone like her –- her mother, a women. This is not true when a boy is born. Initially, a boy identifies with his mother, but as his self-awareness grows at about 18 months, he becomes aware that he is not like his mother. His search to find his identity can affect his outlook for the rest of his life, Dr. Mango said. The greatest responsibility of any father, Dr. Mango said, is to love his son. A father must help his son affirm his identity.

“Most boys today are not getting that from their fathers today. Most boys are walking around hungry for their father’s affirmation,” Dr. Mango said. In the same way that God the Father affirmed Jesus at His baptism, saying “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Mt. 3:17) fathers should affirm their sons, Dr. Mango said. “God gives us affirmation; when we know that the King loves us, that gives us the power to go out and do anything. That is what fathers can give their sons.” Dr. Mango urged fathers to spend time with their children and show physical affection toward them.

I can read about the differences between men and women, and I can listen to speakers explain the differences, but I can learn the most just by watching my own two daughters and two sons. My girls have magnificent feminine characteristics and the boys have the classic masculine traits. Whatever this means for the way they will approach life as adults, I only know one thing for sure. My wife and I love those kids and that love is essential to their healthy self fulfillment.

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