Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

The male/female aggression divide?

Edited by Jill Wright,

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull's job title is a relatively accurate description of his talents, but he must have spent the past few days wondering quite why he allowed the perpetually professionally outraged Andrew Bolt to lure him into publicly advising the ABC's Leigh Sales and Emma Alberici to be less aggressive and more "forensic" in their interviews with government ministers.

What does a man expect to communicate, I wonder, when he starts offering gratuitous advice to women? At best he's likely to come across as patronising, if not outright sexist.

In this particular case, Turnbull was on even shakier ground, presuming to instruct highly competent journalists in behaviour from which, as a frequent interviewee, he would presumably benefit. And while his CV might include some jobs in journalism, they were relatively brief and almost certainly aimed at furthering his real ambitions as a lawyer, investment banker and politician. Sales and Alberici are far more accomplished journalists than Turnbull ever was.

And yet, despite the by now well-known dangers of wading into the deep waters of gender bias, where even well-intentioned, arguably supportive remarks can be interpreted as sexism, apparently intelligent men like Turnbull, who really should know better, so often seem unable to resist giving the opposite sex the benefit of their "superior" insight.

Even men who demonstrate public indignation on behalf of women, such as Fairfax columnist John Birmingham, who protested in print that male journalists don't seem to be criticised for their aggression, seem to me to be potentially betraying a "gendered premise" that women are in need of male protection.

A recent article in The Guardian by Dean Burnett demonstrates the sort of intellectual swamp men can blunder into when they imagine they're paying a woman a compliment. His point is that describing a woman as more "emotionally intelligent" is a back-handed compliment, serving the myth that has done so much harm to the status and dignity of women: that they are more emotional than men.

Burnett writes, "... when I hear a powerful man praising women for their 'emotional intelligence', it can't help but grate. It sounds like a compliment but it means little to nothing when you look at it, like praising someone for being really good at walking when you won't let them drive the car. It comes across as the intellectual equivalent of giving someone a lollipop and a pat on the head in order to keep them quiet while you do the important stuff."

I don't know if I quite agree, but I think there is something in the argument. I can't help but wonder if Turnbull's advice for the girls to be more forensic [like him] rather than aggressive [emotional], springs from the same tainted well.

The psychology of gender relations is highly complex. I do think most men should do a lot more listening and learning in the area, before they start "educating" women.


About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.

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