Can a man ever truly get inside a woman's head? He can if he's paid to.

Can a man understand women?
Jack Ellis

I’d like to share with you two fool-proof steps for raising eyebrows at dinner parties.

Step 1: Be a man – (looks down) – check.

Step 2: Publish a novel with female central characters – check .

As if controlled by an unseen remote, the shapely eyebrows in the room rise, chins tilt skyward, and eye-lines journey along noses. ‘Really…?’

There seems to be an almost irrefutable belief among women I meet that, no matter how hard we try, men can’t get inside women’s heads. And at the heart of this belief is the assumption that men and women are just… different. Okay, there are some differences that are easy to point to, but there are others that are less tangible. Aside from looking a bit different, there seems to be a general acceptance that we also think differently and want different things. Really?


Regardless of whether you start the day by tucking the bald butler into your Y-fronts, or helping the girls into a bra, men and women start the day as people. And I suspect most of the differences that do exist between us are essentially cultural. From Day One, boys are taught to value physical prowess, building and fixing, taught to focus on the external rather than internal world. Whereas the girls riding the same wave on the boogie board next to us are encouraged to value emotions and relationships, and to freely express love and caring.

Given these early messages, it’s no wonder girls tend to grow into women who regard their cultural role as the managers of emotion and relationships. And although women have swum against huge disadvantages in many areas, I think this cultural role comes with some power and privilege. Women tend to be the ones who look after the part of life that we’re all drawn to, the things in life that are most important. No-one looks back from old age and wishes they’d worked more or chopped the log harder – they wish they’d spent more time connecting better with their loved ones.

And, of course, women aren’t the only ones who are territorial about their traditional domains. I know men whose testicles shrink

Can a man understand women?
Jack Ellis with his wife, Alice.

when they see a woman wielding a circular saw.

But what this territorial approach seems to overlook is that we’re all just people. We all know women who feel more at home in the front bar than at a high tea, and we all have friends of the opposite sex that ‘get us’ better than those whose bits line up with ours.

When it comes to universal human needs and desires, I don’t think men need to get inside women’s heads. We’re already there.


So when I’m creating characters for a novel, I don’t set out to conform to gender expectations – that makes for inauthentic and bland archetypes, not people who feel real.

Instead, I identify what’s important to each character and what they fear most. Then I work out how these priorities and their histories influence how they think and talk. And once the character takes shape, the important thing is that they stay true to who they are, not to their gender.

So…(draws a deep breath)…I don’t think it’s harder to write female characters. I think the main hurdle for men writing women is that some women don’t want us to. Perhaps part of sustaining your privileged role is ensuring that men just… don’t… get it!

If we’re ever going to really understand each other – which is what we all want, isn’t it? – we’re going to have be less protective of our own domains and stop locking each other out. Building connection and understanding is at the core of who we are, and that’s surely more important than maintaining partitions between us. Ultimately, we all want to find and keep love, because that’s the best feeling of all. (And there’s a shameless plug for my book.)

Jack Ellis is the author of The Best Feeling of All (Arcadia) a new novel about girls becoming women. He’s also a family mediator.

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