Deborah Cameron is a professor of language and communication at Oxford university.
She has written a book demolishing the notion that men and women have naturally different ways of using language – “the myth of Mars and Venus”.
Her primary target is the rash of books that have appeared peddling such ideas – notably John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
“In the 1990s this myth got a new lease of life when all these self-help books about male-female relationships started to appear,” says Deborah. “At the time I thought it was just a passing fad.
“But 15 years later these ideas hadn’t gone away and so I decided to write the book. I think that the myth answers a certain kind of social need – although in a very retrograde way.”
“The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci once wrote that when ‘the old is dying but the new cannot be born, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. And I think the myth of Mars and Venus is one of Gramsci’s morbid symptoms.
“We’re in a period when gender relations have altered very dramatically in a short space of time. I’m not saying paradise has arrived, but there has been a very considerable weakening of the traditional markers of gender difference.
“Now social change is not easy and it can make people nostalgic for the old certainties. That’s what they’re getting with the myth of Mars and Venus.”
So is this myth just the latest form of sexist ideology wheeled out to justify women’s oppression? “It certainly is sexist, but not in the old sense,” says Deborah. “It doesn’t explicitly say that women are inferior.
“But it does say that however similar we may look on the surface, underneath we’re profoundly different. Political questions are thus passed off as eternal problems that arise because of our different natures.”
Old-fashioned prejudices are given an egalitarian gloss. For instance, the emotionally savvy manner that women are supposed to speak in is celebrated by management gurus as “enabling” and “empowering”.
“Today’s prevailing ideology is ‘different but equal’,” says Deborah. “But if you look underneath, that’s always a lie – it was the motto of South African apartheid, for instance.
“What the myth of Mars and Venus says is that we’re not arguing about anything substantive – it’s all just a misunderstanding.”
Deborah’s book comes at a time when other authors are bringing out popular and accessible critiques of sexism in contemporary society, such as Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs which looks at the rise of “raunch culture”.
“I do see myself as doing something similar to Ariel Levy,” says Deborah. “I would see myself as part of that general questioning of what ‘post-feminism’ has done.
“Any progressive movement that is successful is going to provoke some kind of backlash. But in some ways I think this is a very impotent backlash.
“The kind of books that say we’d all be a lot happier if we went back to traditional gender arrangements – are essentially an impotent protest against changes that have gone too far to reverse.”
Deborah notes that the myth of Mars and Venus is now being given a more scientific spin by authors such as Simon Baron-Cohen, who uses evolutionary arguments to claim that male-female differences are “hard-wired” in the brain.
“The rise of the more scientific stuff deserves a book to itself,” she says. “In some ways this ‘brain sex’ crap worries me more, because it has enough clout to influence policy areas.
“For instance, there’s quite a lot of evidence that the myth of Mars and Venus is entering into what teachers are taught at training college – the notion that boys are naturally less gifted at language, for instance.
“Research projects in classrooms looking at why boys drop out of language subjects find both teachers and pupils parroting these clichés.
“What you’re doing is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want boys to be bad at something, tell them (a) they’re programmed to be no good at it, and (b) it’s a girl’s thing.
“The myth of Mars and Venus ends up exacerbating gender differences in education. And it stops us from looking at the fine detail which would tell us a very different story, a story that is above all about class, not sex.
“The boys who end up in my classes doing English at Oxford have never been told by their parents or their schools that boys are no good at languages. And they’re the merchant bankers and management consultants of the future.”
Deborah Cameron’s The Myth Of Mars And Venus (Oxford University Press) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £11. To order a copy phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com