Ivory Towers: A right carry-on about gender differences

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DISTINGUISHING men from women is not as easy as it used to be. According to recent research, you can no longer tell a person's gender from the way he or she carries books, writes William Hartston.

Gender-related book carrying behaviour: a re-examination (Perceptual and Motor Skills, April 1993) is a report on a six-year study by Evelyne Thommen, Emiel Reith and Christiane Steffen at the University of Geneva. Under their supervision, 70 observers recorded 2602 adults carrying books and documents.

Previous studies had identified five positions for carrying books: cradled in one arm against the front of the torso; in two arms in front of the torso; held at the side gripped from on top with arm straight; at the side gripped from below with arm bent; and at the side gripped from below with arm straight. The first two had been identified as characteristically female, the others as male.

These differences emerge around primary school age and are most marked in adolescents. Scheman, Lockard and Mehler in a 1978 paper, Influences of anatomical factors as determinants of sex-typed carrying behaviour in humans (Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society), thought it might have something to do with differences in pelvic formation.

They 'computed an index value of relative protrusion of the hips from the rest of the body for each subject they observed . . . the index was generally smaller for individuals who carried books on the side than for those who carried books in front of the body.' In another study, grip strength and book weight were found to have no relation on carrying style.

The Geneva study found that whereas men have always carried books in the same way, Swiss women in the late 1980s differed significantly from American women in 1978. In New York, El Salvador and Costa Rica, less than 20 per cent of women were observed carrying books at their side in 1978, while in Geneva a decade later, it was up to between 43 per cent and 60 per cent. In all cases, the figure for men was around 95 per cent.

Their conclusion is clear: 'If a person is a man then he carries on the side, but if a person carries on the side then that person is not necessarily a man. The relevant question is not why men and women tend to adopt different positions, but why men's carrying behaviour is uniform and stable, whereas women's behaviour is more varied and changing.'