Deborah Tannen and Katha Pollitt both explore the controversial issue of innate and developed differences in the behavior of men and women. In her essay “Why Boys Don’t Play with Dolls”, Katha Pollitt argues that innate differences are not as important as upbringing and social setting that forms the behavior of boys and girls in a stereotypical way. Deborah Tannen, in her “Conversational Styles”, presents an entirely opposite point of view, claiming that men and women have profound innate differences that are reflected in the significant disparities between their conversational styles. Deborah Tannen justifies differentiated approach to teaching boys and girls, while Katha Pollitt is highly critical of any such differentiation in education and upbringing.
Katha Pollitt argues that, despite numerous advances of the feminist movement it is still far from completion because of the domination of sex-differentiated approach to raising children in the society. Girls indeed prefer to play with dolls, while boys prefer cars, but the reason for this difference may lie in the behavior of parents, not in the innate cognitive peculiarities of children. The author observes that even those progressive women that claim their commitment to the feminist principles, prefer to raise their children with sexual differentiation in mind, for them to be more comfortable in the stereotype-dominated society. The author thus demonstrates how the behavior of parents reinforces gender stereotypes in the world instead of trying to combat them. Nonetheless, Katha Pollitt is sure that the situation is changing to the better as the increasing number of children refuses to fit into stereotypical sex roles and express their preference for activities that are not traditionally associated with their gender.
The argument of the author is mostly based on her personal observations and experience of interaction with parents. The author admits that much recent research testifies to the existence of innate cognitive differences between males and females. However, she claims that the real problem is that these differences are made more profound and accentuated by sex-differentiated upbringing. In the view of Katha Pollitt, such scientific research is dangerous as it serves to justify the existence of gender stereotypes in our society and precludes males and females from developing their abilities and talents. The author argues that parents should be careful about the type of messages they impose upon their children or allow the media and surrounding to impose upon them.
Deborah Tannen focuses on innately different conversational styles of men and women, arguing for the need of sexual differentiation of learning activities in class. Based on her personal observations as a teacher in mixed class, Deborah Tannen claims that class discussion is mostly dominated by males, while females prefer to remain silent. In her view, speaking – being a central class activity – is more congenial to boys who use it intensely and purposefully in group interactions. She claims that agonism or opposition is more inherent to boys, and they are more comfortable with learning activities that imply competition or confrontation. Therefore, the application of debates as a learning tool is more favourable to boys than to girls, which has important implications for their confidence and future success.
While the argument of Deborah Tannen is mostly based on her own observations, she supports her statements with anthropological evidence. Thus, she refers to the research of Janet Lever, Marjorie Goodwin and Donna Eder who have demonstrated that girls and boys tend to use language in different ways when they study in separate-sex classes. Language is crucial for boys when they need to self-affirm in established hierarchies in a group, while for girls language is most important for secret-sharing with their friends. The author also mentions the research that has shown profound differences between the verbal rituals of men and women throughout the world. Based on these findings, she suggests that male and female students may benefit from different learning styles, with discussion being more suitable for boys and reflection being more preferable for girls. Based on her own experiment in class, Deborah Tannen demonstrates how useful it can be to separate students into smaller groups according to their conversational styles. She argues for the need to introduce small-group activities into every classroom to achieve better educational results and fully develop the potential of all students, particularly women.
In their essays, Katha Pollitt and Deborah Tannen both explore the far-reaching implications of differences between males and females. However, while Deborah Tannen argues that these differences are innate, Katha Pollitt is convinced that parents and media instil them in children in the process of upbringing. Both essays are mostly based on personal experiences of the authors, while they also extensively refer to modern psychological and anthropological research. The messages that the authors leave to their audience are diametrically opposed. Deborah Tannen views the fundamental differences in female and male conversational styles as the main reason why women who attend single-sex schools are more successful in their later life and why men talk more in class when sitting next to young women. She thus argues for the need to break classes into smaller one-gender groups where males and females would feel more comfortable in sharing their thoughts. In contrast, Katha Pollitt views sex-differentiated educational approaches as detrimental to the identities of boys and girls and calls on parents and teachers to treat the children as equal, without regards for their gender.
Since the dawn of time, it has been customary for human society to emphasize physical and cognitive differences between men and women and to divide social responsibilities accordingly to them. Though over the centuries women have finally gained equal rights and opportunities, and social responsibilities of the two genders have largely merged, the society is still dominated with gender stereotypes, which often find support in scientific research. Deborah Tannen advocates the conventional view of innate differences between males and females, while Katha Pollitt expresses less popular opinion that gender differences are promoted by social stereotypes. This discussion, which is likely to continue in the upcoming years, is of crucial importance for educators and parents because it has major implications for the approach they take to teaching the children.