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Gender differences: more fictions than fact?

We see gender differences everywhere – in the psychology, thoughts and behaviour of men and women. But the inclination to see differences makes us blind to the overwhelming similarities of men and women…

The inclination to see differences between men and women makes us blind to their similarities. Daniele Civello

We see gender differences everywhere – in the psychology, thoughts and behaviour of men and women. But the inclination to see differences makes us blind to the overwhelming similarities of men and women, and we’re easily fooled into seeing dissimilarities that don’t exist.

This tendency can be seen in the great game we love to play called “spot the gender difference”. The game is so easy it’s even played by prepubescent children as they look into one another’s underpants.

Some differences are real, but some are illusory. But we’re so inclined to believe in the dissimilarities of men and women that we even make them up. Around the world, men and women are artificially distinguished from one another by hairstyles, clothing and body adornments.

Gender differences therefore run all the way from undeniable fact to complete fiction. The question is – which differences seem real but are merely imagined?

The answer to this question is important because our beliefs affect our behaviour; the judgements and limits imposed on men and women based on beliefs about differences are real, even if the presumed gender differences are not.

So, what evidence would justify a claim that a difference is real? Science struggles to clarify the situation.

The judgements and limits imposed on men and women based on beliefs about gender differences are real. stock xchange woman/Flickr

Scientists are looking for gender differences in an untold number of medical and other scientific studies. A search on “gender difference” in Google Scholar since 2012, for instance, returns about 30,000 articles. What’s missing from this list are the untold number of studies where no difference was found because these are not usually published.

Science tends to rely on “statistical significance” to separate real from fictional difference, but simplistic reliance on this arbitrary rule is misleading. If 100 studies examine for a gender difference where there is none, about five (5%) can be expected to return a “statistically significant” difference. This is the false alarm rate or Type I error in statistician-speak.

If Google Scholar reports 30,000 statistically significant differences, our confidence would be seriously undermined if these effects were derived from 600,000 tests for gender differences that otherwise returned no significant results. That is, the significant results are most likely false alarms.

Which gender differences then, are false alarms? It’s hard to say for any single study.

A recent study claims that women’s memories are more affected by stressful news stories than men’s. It was widely reported, but what assurance is there that it is not a false alarm?

Here’s another example - many people believe that women are better at multitasking than men. But at least some research suggests the evidence is more mixed. One study even shows that men are better than women some of the time, and otherwise, there is no difference.

To add to the problem, gender differences are more nuanced than simplistic and sometimes mistaken interpretations of research will allow. While gender is, for the most part, a categorical difference - you are either male or female – many related variables such as height, are more graded.

That is, we find a mean-difference between men and women, and interpret that as a categorical difference. Men are taller than women, but the rule is far from universal; there are many exceptions. On many dimensions that we might measure, the distributions of men and women overlap considerably. There may be a difference in degree (a mean-difference), but the difference is not categorical.

Recent research has found men and women are more similar than different. Tom Magliery

That men and women are more similar than distinct was shown in some recent research. Examining 122 psychological traits including sexual attitudes, behaviours, intimacy and interpersonal orientation in 13 studies comprising over 13,000 individuals, the researchers found that women and men were more similar than distinct from one another.

Even on gender-related dispositions such as masculinity-femininity, inclination toward science, care orientation and fear of success, men and women were found to be more similar than distinctive.

It is claimed that humans and chimpanzees share 96% of their genomic content, despite the many obvious differences between our species. But when looking at the two sexes of Homo sapiens, both with 23 pairs of chromosomes, we choose to focus on just one pair to underscore arguments about gender differences.

Under the spotlight, differences can appear bigger than they are, and can contribute to sexism. So why do we see difference where there is none? We see what we believe. We look for and find evidence supporting what we believe while ignoring contradictory evidence. This is called confirmation bias and it affects us all.

Yes, there are differences between male and female, as we saw when we were very young. But whether all the differences we have marked out since are real is less certain. And while they may make for entertaining bestsellers, such books merely reinforce popular but often false stereotypes.

At best, the public and the scientific community are being misguided by the unchecked reporting of gender differences. At worst, those with an agenda related to gender differences – be they male or female – can cherry-pick studies to support their case.

Correction: One figure in this article has been amended. The original said 20 was 5% of 100. That was obviously incorrect. Thanks to the reader below for pointing it out.

Join the conversation

42 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Men and women both eat the same food.

    But what is very real, is the continued insistence that women are “carers” (and men are not), with lines such as “women and their children” being repeated over and over as a form of propaganda, to brainwash people into believing children should only be with women.

    This is fast leading to the situation where 1 in 3 children will be raised by a single mother shortly in our society.

    And what evidence is there that women are “carers”, but men are not.

    Mothers spend on average about 1.5 hours per day more at childcare than fathers, (while working 3 hours less).

    So minimal differences between fathers and mothers, but our society is being dramatically changed based on myths and propaganda.

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    1. Olivia Hibbitt

      Medical Writer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I think I need a cup of tea and a lie down! I actually agree with Dale Bloom!

      The stats are dodgy and are usually used to espouse some sexist nonsense, but underneath it is actually a good argument.

      I also don't agree with the idea that women should automatically be given full custody of children in cases of separation. Mothers and Fathers are important to their children (and the workforce), any system that automatically places one over the other is inherently sexist.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Olivia Hibbitt

      Yes, the statistics were a little rough.

      Average mothers spent 1.812857 hours extra per day on childcare than average fathers, while working 3.18857 hours less.

      http://melbourneinstitute.com/downloads/working_paper_series/wp2004n01.pdf

      This is from a longitudional study where figures are periodically compiled, and the figures are now about 10 years old.

      At that time, about 90% of children in separated families were automatically awarded to the mother, because the mother was defined as the “primary carer”.

      But when the statistics were finally compiled, the definition of “primary carer” was based on only 1.812857 hours extra per day on childcare by the mother, while working 3.18857 hours less.

      It eventually lead to 30% of children in Australia being taken from their natural father, but we are about to see a society where about 1 in 3 children will not have any father at all, either natural father or stepfather.

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    3. Tim Benham

      Student of Statistics

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      `the continued insistence that women are “carers” (and men are not), with lines such as “women and their children” being repeated over and over as a form of propaganda,...our society is being dramatically changed based on myths and propaganda.'

      I think the association of women and children predates modern propaganda by a millennium or a hundred. When was this pre-change society that didn't associate women and children?

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  2. Thanh Maksimov

    logged in via Twitter

    "If 100 studies examine for a gender difference where there is none, about 20 (5%) can be expected to return a “statistically significant” difference."

    Uh, 20 isn't 5% of 100. It's... 20%.

    5% of 100 is... you know, 5.

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    1. Reema Rattan

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Thanh Maksimov

      Hi Thanh,

      The author has contacted me to say that he unfortunately made a mistake with that figure. Sadly, I missed it also in the editing process. I will amend it now.

      Thanks for pointing it out.

      Reema

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    2. David Tuck

      Scientist

      In reply to Reema Rattan

      What about 'What’s missing from this list are the untold number of studies where no difference was found because these are not usually published.'? That is simply untrue, it is more common to find a hypothesis is not supported in any research paper. The idea of scientific research is to ultimately guide scientists toward a discovery using collaborative effort. When a research hypothesis is not supported it does not mean that the research was a waste of time, it means that scientists are one step closer to making a discovery because that avenue of research has been explored and it was found to be a dead end. Unlike the misleading information given in this article, the purpose of science is not to sell an idea in one paper. It is to build on previous knowledge in order to explain the natural world. I'm surprised that the conversation could print something as deliberately misleading as the content of this article.

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  3. Barbara Flowers

    Legal Research Librarian

    There's one marked difference I've observed between the two genders and that is the importance men place upon defending 'masculinity' as a concept. Women don't generally seem to have this terror or horror of losing control of their 'feminity', or of being thought unfeminine.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Barbara Flowers

      Is that so.

      Before it started raining, I was in a camp of about 300 men and about 10 women.

      I did notice women trying to project their femininity and attempting to stand out, by wearing very short shorts, dressing in colourfull clothes, speaking loudly in the camp kitchen etc.

      But that is going to be the future for many men.

      Due to propaganda and myth, they will be relegated to workers camps, because they are being portrayed as useful for work only.

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    2. Rob Brooks
      Rob Brooks is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at University of New South Wales

      In reply to Barbara Flowers

      Hey Barbara,
      I think that is a really interesting observation. My experience is that women range from defending femininity quite strongly, and expressing a horror at being unfeminine (often accompanied by a rejection of feminism expressed in terms suggesting they learned about feminism from Rush Limbaugh) - all the way through to the opposite case - which you describe.

      I do think a greater proportion of men defend the concept of masculinity very strongly, but a great many men subvert it by their actions. Also, it matters what individuals of the opposite sex think and do. An ideologic commitment to subvert or downplay masculinity/femininity can be (and often is) completely undone by a deep, visceral attraction to feminine women or masculine men.

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Barbara Flowers

      don't agree barbara

      there was an article i read recently re women and makeup.
      it said that women were "afraid" of being seen without makeup, often to the point of getting out of bed and going to the bathroom to put on her "face" before her companion awoke.

      women are rarely seen without makeup in any situation.

      is the stereotype of women concerned with shoes, shopping clothing and makeup a blatant lie, or do women to a greater or lesser extent rely on accessories to heighten their attractiveness.

      men do place an importance on masculinity in many respects, but equally so do women place importance on femininity.

      no reason for either gender to feel stigmatised about it tho.

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    4. Gordon Smith

      Private citizen

      In reply to Barbara Flowers

      Barbara - I think it is best seen as "fragile masculinity'' (there is no doubt fragile femaninity but being a bloke I have more to say on men)

      It often expresses itself in homophobia and there is a line of though called the 'penetration theory' and it goes something like this -
      A womans body is always open, they menstrate, have babies and are penetrated during sex.
      A mans body is always closed and when opened be it by the sabre tooth tiger or the sword has always meant defeat (that might be…

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    5. Barbara Flowers

      Legal Research Librarian

      In reply to Gordon Smith

      How interesting Gordon. I think you're right that there's an age-related issue around such protection of masculinity too, and it's perhaps not something younger men concern themselves with so much. I'm not male so can only guess at reasons for it, so your explanation is really fascinating to me in an anthropological way. I had a rather odd idea of my own that it might be to do with our earliest form of self, as we apparently all start out female. Is this really so? If it is, I began thinking that to become male at all is to require effort. And so to remain male or masculine, takes effort too. I don't really count extraneous things like clothing, vanity etc - these can be both female or male pursuits according to the times we live in, and the culture.

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  4. Olivia Hibbitt

    Medical Writer

    Excellent article! I see confirmation bias in my own home on a daily basis.

    I have personally tried to protect my kids from gender stereotyping, an endeavour seen as tantamount to child abuse by my family! My mother in law in particular has an uncanny ability to ONLY see gender confirming actions in my children. In a recent rain storm both twins were outside playing in the mud with some trucks for about an hour...when they came in my daughter wanted to play with a dolls house they both got given…

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  5. Rob Brooks
    Rob Brooks is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at University of New South Wales

    I was intrigued by the early part of this article, and wanted to learn more. But I finished completely frustrated at the lack of substance.

    There seems to be an almost mystic belief that "we" create, imagine, want to believe in gender differences (or sex differences). Yet the very ide of who the "we" is and why we are doing it goes unanswered.

    I completely see that women and men share a greater range of overlap on any measurable trait than gets reported. And I see how over-selling of reported…

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    1. Stephen S Holden

      Associate Professor, Marketing at Bond University

      In reply to Rob Brooks

      You might be better placed than most to answer the question about why cognitive biases exist. My limited reading in the area suggests that confirmation bias and other cognitive biases have not been eliminated by evolution either because they are adaptive (serve us in certain domains) or artifactual.

      As to substance, well 800 words is just the starting point to the discussion I'd really like to have which is about how simplistic interpretations oft-repeated stereotypes do not serve individuals…

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  6. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    i note that the author of this article is an a.prof of marketing.

    marketing and advertising have probably been more influential in promoting gender stereotypes over the past century than any other area.

    advertising and marketing are intrinsically pervasive thru all forms of media, and as such have subconsciously shaped and formed our ideas and opinions on gender roles.

    not the only influence of course, but to my mind the major contributor.

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  7. Andrea Shoebridge

    logged in via Facebook

    There is a confusion of argument here between sex differences (fe/male, determined chromosomatically in all their variety) and gender differences (the feminine/masculine divide demonstrated by people behaving as society determines the sexes should behave). That is, the prepubescent children peering into each others' underpants are looking for sex, not gender, differences. Sex differences most commonly relate to those necessary to perpetuate the species. Gender differences are manifest, for example…

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    1. Gordon Smith

      Private citizen

      In reply to Andrea Shoebridge

      Good clarificaation Andrea. Sex is defined by biological difference and gender is defined by the expectations we place as a society (and indivudualy) on that gender.

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  8. Stephen McCormick

    Ph.D. Candidate at School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

    I feel like you're taking a game of "spot the difference", and insisting that people shouldn't look for the 10 things that are different between the pictures; instead we should start listing every other aspect of the pictures, which are the same?
    Of course there differences between the genders, but aren't those things that we should acknowledge and embrace?

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    1. Stephen S Holden

      Associate Professor, Marketing at Bond University

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen McC and Stephen J.R.

      I'm not denying gender difference, I'm drawing attention to our over-indulgence in the importance of gender difference. I'm challenging when it is appropriate to make a distinction; in particular, I contest judgments about individuals based on stereotyped views of gender.

      Even if gender-differences are real, it is errorful to presume this applies to all individuals in that gender, especially if the distributions overlap considerably as they often do.

      For instance, I'm a male, but it would be dangerous to assume I am stereotypically male in all I think and do. For one thing, I chose to be a carer of my young child - despite judgments that it was unnecessary, inappropriate, not right, etc!

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    2. Stephen McCormick

      Ph.D. Candidate at School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

      In reply to Stephen S Holden

      Of course it's an averages thing, but I still feel like it's important to appreciate our differences.

      Last year Australian basketballer, Liz Cambage dunked during an Olympic basketball game. While this is part of any men's game, it was (rightly) a celebrated achievement; in fact, I think it was the first time it's happened. This is a case where the differences should definitely be acknowledged.

      For the same reason, I think it's admirable that you choose to be a carer for your young child. For whatever reason, men tend to shirk away from it; in this respect, I think you're better than the average man.

      I don't think we should force stereotypes on people ever. However, I think we should acknowledge that some things are more difficult (whether physically or artificial difficulties influenced by society) for a particular gender though, so we can better respect their accomplishments.

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Stephen McCormick

      "For whatever reason, men tend to shirk away from it [child caring]"

      Can you give some reliable statistics regards this?

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    4. Stephen McCormick

      Ph.D. Candidate at School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      No, I was just using it as an example because the author had said people expected him not to do so.
      I suspect that the statistics will agree with this, but I don't know for sure. Try scholar.google.com though, I'm sure it won't be too hard to find statistics on it if you're interested.

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Stephen S Holden

      hi
      i was agreeing with you - in a perhaps convoluted way.

      i hope we can all work together to accepting male and females as individuals who may or may not fit stereotypes.

      someone once said to me (a woman) - "for a gay man you dress terribly" apart from being funny, it says a lot tho.

      i guess we all have to learn to think twice about forming opinions about others.

      maggie thatcher is getting a lot of flack because on one hand she didn't do "anything" for feminism, and on the other she acted like a man in terms of politics.

      men and women assume a lot about each other in terms of perceived and stereotypical behaviour - so the shoe fits both feet.

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    6. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Stephen McCormick

      "Last year Australian basketballer, Liz Cambage dunked during an Olympic basketball game. While this is part of any men's game, it was (rightly) a celebrated achievement; in fact, I think it was the first time it's happened. This is a case where the differences should definitely be acknowledged."

      Really?

      Maybe it was the first time during Olympic competition... often young girls are prevented from trying to behave in such ways that are considered inappropropriate for females and similarly boys are prevented from behaviours considered 'unmasculine'.

      I long for a world where a slam dunk is celebrated simply for the skill and not the sex of the player.

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    7. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Stephen McCormick

      I don’t want to have to go into all this, but the majority of fathers removed from their children want to see their children more often, with about 55% saying their contact with their children was “Nowhere near enough”

      “The data suggest that more than one-third of Australian children do not see their fathers, while 17% have day-only contact. The levels of contact are a source of dissatisfaction for both mothers and fathers. Although the majority of resident mothers expressed satisfaction with…

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    8. Daryl Adair

      Associate Professor of Sport Management at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dear Dianna, I sympathise with your argument. However, at the elite level of sport, physiological differences - impacted upon by links between sex and physiology - can play a role in athletic performance. The key is to value athleticism in context. Michael Johnson won the men's 400m at Sydney 2000 in a time of 43.94, while Cathy Freeman won the women's 400m in a time of 49.11 seconds. Yet we applaud them both as great athletes without comparing their times. A gold medal is the same whether it is won in a 'men's' even or a 'women's' event.

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  9. David Tuck

    Scientist

    Cute article, thank you for proving that marketing and science do not mix.

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  10. Sue Hanley

    Owner, Coach Works , Sydney at Coach Works, Sydney

    I found this article 'slight'. Men and women have much in common, and gender stereotyping is risky. But we are also different based on both nature and nurture. I think it is hilarious that for millennia women have been treated as lesser mortals than men, and now that both science and society have elevated the feminine, some men need to suddenly decide that we are actually all the same. It is an interesting display of defensiveness. In particular, this article is unconvincing.

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  11. Mick Mac Andrew

    Rev Father

    This article does beg the question - if there seems no or little difference according to gender, then what questions should be asked about the differences between male and female to celebrate the differences nature has given?

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  12. G Curtis

    None of your beeswax

    Amazing example of fitting the "facts" to accommodate the bias.
    Well what about the physical difference between the female brain structure compared with that of the male brain?? No differences there, ehh? You reckon that the differences are tiny do you?

    Ever try explaining a car repair to your wife or your daughter??? Reckon the differences are tiny do you???

    For a professional academic to rely on bloody Google for any type of data or resource is just amazing.

    As for "various studies…

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    1. David Tuck

      Scientist

      In reply to G Curtis

      Yes, this article must be a joke. That's the only thing that would explain why it is on a website who's mandate states that 'The enemy of trusted journalism is disinformation and spin.' Not today it would seem.

      Here are some answers your and others' questions about proven gender differences:

      Children start to build stereotypes as early as 18 months old (Eichstedt et al., 2002)

      This is because of the limited cognitive capacity of children which makes them think that two things that look different…

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    2. G Curtis

      None of your beeswax

      In reply to David Tuck

      Like the cut of your jib David. On this forum it seems that correspondents run with the pack rather than contest facts. Is this a reflection of what some friends (professional academics) tell me is a dramatic fall in standards at our universities?
      Anyway, I am really impressed with what you wrote, and with the studies you cite on gender differences.

      In the eighties I was a student politician at U of Q and remember a heated debate with an ugly brute of a feminist who categorically stated to the chamber that women and mens brains were identical in all respects. I had tossed that question to her by way of an interjection. I was so shocked by the stupidity (or dishonesty) of her response that I was rendered momentarily speechless, a rare condition for me. And sadly, the moment passed.

      A big pat on the back from me for introducing facts into what was a stupid article in the first place.
      Cheers from Gordon.

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    3. David Tuck

      Scientist

      In reply to G Curtis

      Hi Gordon,

      Yes it's fallacy to suggest that two brains could be exactly identical. Due the influence of epigenetics even the brains of identical twins who share the same genome are not totally identical. There is a lot of information on epigenetics as well as other psychological phenomena available at http://www.psychinfo.org/ if you're interested in further reading.
      Ironically, the woman that you were talking about in your story may have been right about her own brain being masculinised if she…

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    4. David Tuck

      Scientist

      In reply to David Tuck

      Here is something further that help help to you understand the emotionally charged response you received from the girl in your story:

      Pressure to conform to gender roles is the extent to which a child feels family and peers disapprove of their gender related traits.
      This can lead to children not engaging in interests and activities that satisfy them but rather engaging in activities and interests that are deemed by parents and peers as appropriate. Gender atypical children who experience a great…

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    5. G Curtis

      None of your beeswax

      In reply to David Tuck

      G'day David,

      You have a lot of info at your disposal. I like that!
      I have been thinking about your previous post which has given me a good deal to think about. I was thinking of commenting in due course.

      Regarding the feminist I referred to earlier; she was of the boiler suit brigade. She espoused the politics of the Lesbian Feminist Marxist Separatist. This is how they described themselves back then. You have been too kind in your analysis of this woman. She was a deeply committed activist…

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    6. David Tuck

      Scientist

      In reply to G Curtis

      Hi Gordon,

      Yeah, I do have a lot of info in this topic because co-incidentally we're studying it at uni at the moment. I would hope that others could gain some benefit from my knowledge as is the alleged purpose of a public forum. Also, I guess that the opportunity to speak out against radical feminism is always welcome haha.
      To further our discussion, I should have, and though that I did but can't seem to find where, make the point that radical feminism is not the same as main stream feminism…

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