Drawing false conclusions

Must we react to all news about men or women as if it were attached to a moral barometer?
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE long believed that listening to Radio 4's Today programme is bad for my health. I cannot tell you the number of times I have gone to sleep thinking that I was OK, only to be woken up by a perfect stranger telling me otherwise.

The reason? Well, in the worst cases it is the fact that I am a woman. This is depressing, because there is no real cure.

The list of worrying things is long, and growing. I can think of alcohol, smoking, chocolate, red meat, white meat, pink meat, eggs, butter, coffee and, oh yes, housework. But what makes a story even better is if there is a gender angle. So, not just a chocolate story, but a chocolate story that pertains specially to women. It may be 1998 but we still cannot get over the fact that men and women react differently to certain things, be they a Toblerone bar, a toilet that needs cleaning or a glass of wine.

Sometimes such stories do little more than entertain. But this week we have had one of those that frighten instead. This was the study showing that women are more likely than men to develop the most dangerous form of lung cancer. Evidently, nearly twice as many women as men under 65 are diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, and this is inoperable in seven out of 10 cases. We know what that means. That means death.

What is a woman to make of this? Why is this the case? "The short answer is, we don't know. There are theories," says a spokesman for the group that conducted the study, the British Thoracic Society. Possible reasons include genetic susceptibility, the brands that women tend to smoke (low tar and "lite") and the way that women inhale. Apparently, we take shorter, sharper intakes, probably in a desperate attempt to get some nicotine and tar out of those lite brands. "Or," he says, "it could be any combination or perhaps all three."

The spokesman said that it was intellectually interesting to want to know why, but it missed the main point. Which is? "Worryingly, smoking in teenage girls is on the increase," said Dr Mike Pearson of the Society. "It is vitally important that young women know the greater risks they are running by smoking. We must prevent them from becoming the lung-cancer victims of the future."

Now, I am not going to try to argue that we need more lung- cancer victims. I liked smoking, but can see that it wasn't the smartest thing to take up at the age of 16. I wouldn't want my 16-year-old daughter, or anyone else's for that matter, to start smoking now. In fact, I wouldn't want any 16-year-old boy to smoke, either. The reason? Because lung cancer is a major cause of death for men and was responsible for the deaths of 24,000 men in 1994. And that is twice as many as in women. So, yes, we should take note of this study, but by no means is it the whole picture. And I don't believe that it will scare one girl into not smoking.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Earlier this year, I had been woken to discover that women who drink three glasses of wine per day are 41 per cent more likely to contract breast cancer than those who are teetotal. You can imagine the relief to discover that the risk starts to drop again if you drink seven glasses a day. So is it better to be drunk all the time, or to be only slightly drunk but at risk of breast cancer? It is the kind of question that is impossible to answer, but that didn't stop some from deciding that the gentler sex shouldn't really drink at all. "Not many women can hold their drink," announced one newspaper article. "When they have had a few, their laughs become loud and brittle and their mouths appallingly wide."

Over the past few years, there has been a steady stream of stories that highlight the point that women competing in a men's world are simply going to die sooner and more painfully. And bald too, evidently. This is because there is a theory - note that word - that women in high-stress jobs experience a hormonal change that can result in male-pattern baldness. Never mind that this theory does not hold up to scrutiny. It still made the headlines.

It's funny what does. Remember the fuss about boys performing badly in school? "Caught in the gender gap," said the headlines, as we all worried about how to make boys do better. In some cases, the news was accompanied by jolly little lists. "It's not all bad news, chaps... There are a few things that men, as they grow up, go on to do much, much better than women," said a headline in The Observer. These include belching, remembering dull trivia, reversing into parking spaces and reading maps. Odd, isn't it, that they shouldn't have added: performance at university level, and earning- power after university. Women in full-time employment are still earning just 72 per cent of a man's wage. Now there's an interesting statistic.

Barely had I controlled my anxiety about boys performing badly than I had another set of headlines to worry over. These were about girls performing badly. The Women's Unit says that it is going to find out why girls often don't live up to their potential and fall behind boys at university, or drop out as teenagers. Interestingly, none of these stories was accompanied by a list of a few things that women, as they grow up, go on to do much better than men.

It is time to get a grip, and to realise what is going on here. All of this is connected, in some way, with our obsession with the differences between the sexes. In many cases this is not based on any real curiosity about what is different about men and women, but on a desire somehow to make points and turn back the clock in what some insist on calling "the sex war". But clocks do not go back.

Make no mistake: we are in the middle of a revolution. I know this not from any study or politician's speech but because that is what is reflected in life. The school gate used to be a mothers-only zone. Now there are lots of dads, too. The same thing, in reverse, is going on in the workplace. Put simply, more women are working; more men are caring for children. It makes sense that more women will drink and smoke and suffer from stress- related illnesses. It also follows that more men will react to their new roles by suffering from depression and low self-esteem.

What doesn't follow is that women are becoming men, or vice versa. Nor should we see either as needing to be punished for their behaviour. We are not going simply to exchange places; we are going to mutate. It's called evolution. While we may not know how things are going to change, we must stop reacting to every piece of news about men or women as if it were attached to a moral barometer.

In the meantime, however, there is the problem of the Today programme. Can such a level of stress before breakfast be good for our health? Perhaps someone should commission a study on this. But then I realised that I needed to get the whole thing into perspective. After all, as a woman I will live longer than most men anyway. I should die at 79, while they will die at 74. Which is worrying, but only if you are a man. Why does that make me feel better?