In lecturers and training on personality, people are often surprised by the research that demonstrates that men and women differ in personality traits on average. The "on average" is important here. Research does not suggest that men and women are different species. Rather when we compare men and women in a population, we find two bell curves that are overlapping but not the same. So for the most part, men and women are very similar. So it is possible for an individual woman to be far more aggressive than an individual man, but in the population as a whole, they show a bias in the opposite direction. As we move to either end of the extremes, the differences between men and women increases.
In a recent discussion, I said that this effect had been found across a wide range of cultures. Furthermore, a surprising finding in the research was that these gender differences are greater in democratic, egalitarian and developed countries than in the developing world. As people seemed interested in these debates, I thought that I would share the research and references for people to explore these issues for themselves in more detail.
A recent study caught my eye, which once again, found this effect to be true. This study examined the preferences and traits of 80,000 people in 76 different countries who participated in a Global Preference Survey and compared the data with country-level variables such as gross domestic product and indices of gender inequality. Samples were carefully selected to ensure that they represented 90 per cent of the world population in term of culture and income. So this is a highly representative sample. This study found that as equal opportunities increase in a society, the more men and women differ in their gender preferences. To read the original research study click here.
This research challenges a key assumption of what is called Social Role Hypothesis. This is the idea that as a society becomes more equal, gender discrimination should diminish as people have access to equal opportunities. Therefore the gender differences should decrease as society become more equal. However, this research contradicts this idea by revealing that the more equal a society becomes the more freer people become to express their own individual preferences. This culminates in greater gender bias in a population not less.
The original research team shy away from explaining why gender difference increase with social equality. One explanation is that the basic drive to survive in poorer countries negates gender differences. If you have few resources, limited access to food and shelter and are battling poverty, men and women engage in similar activities to simply survive. This is because survival opportunities are narrower in poor countries so people crowd around them whether it be farming or street vendoring regardless of gender. In terms of values and preferences, as Bertold Brecht summarized "Grub first: Ethics second." As people achieve an increased level of subsistence, food security and choice, they can express more preference and so gender differences increase across a population, though not necessarily every individual in that population. It follows a bell curve of preference.
This idea has proved problematic to some. Whilst it might explain gender similarity in the developing world, it does not account for the increasing divergence in gender choice in the developed world. One explanation is that of gender stereotyping. From a young age we are socialized into certain gender performances by the society and culture we grow up in. These are reinforced through parenting, education systems and mass media. And the suspicion is that they are cemented by discrimination. Men are idealized as strong risk takers whilst women are idealized as nurturing home makers. Culture has a clear role in gender definition. We are cultural animals and therefore our behaviors are always adaptable to the cultural worlds we inhabit. The problem with this idea though is that gender roles are often more clearly defined and enforced in developing countries than in developed ones. This explanation of greater gender difference would suggest that social pressures to conform to gender roles is greater in liberal San Francisco that it is in zealous Saudi Arabia.
Another explanation is that of gender segregation. Men in male orientated careers are more likely to hear of similar emerging opportunities for career progression. Whereas women are not inhabiting these networks and therefore are out of the social network loop. This would be to miss the whole conclusion of the research. It shows that the greater access to opportunity reveals greater gender differences. This would suggest that the more accessible opportunities become then the less access people have to them.
The difficulty some have with this research is that it is difficult accept that these differences emerge from the fact that men and women may differ in temperament and in choices that that they make at a more fundamental level than the political. Research has found that that men and women's temperaments do vary on the Big Five in a similar pattern of overlapping but staggered bell curves. Studies of the inheritablity of temperament is one of the most robust and consistent fields of human study (click here for a deep review). The Big Five refers to the temperament domains that we inherit from our parents. These include:
openness – “curiosity about and tolerance for diverse cultural and intellectual experiences”
conscientiousness – “being dutiful, diligent, and orderly”
extraversion – “tendency to experience positive emotions and being active and sociable”
agreeableness – “being friendly, modest, and accommodating”
neuroticism – “tendency to experience negative and unstable emotions"
Large scale research across cultures find staggered bell curves for men and women. For example, analysis of personality types from 26 cultures (N = 23,031) suggest that gender differences are small relative to individual variation within genders but differences are broadly consistent with gender stereotypes: Women reported themselves to be higher in Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Warmth, and Openness to Feelings, whereas men were higher in Assertiveness and Openness to Ideas. Once again these gender differences were most pronounced in European and American cultures in which traditional sex roles are minimized (click here). For a large scale review of studies click here.
These gender differences are also found in values. For example findings from 127 samples in 70 countries (N = 77,528) reveal that men attribute consistently more importance than women do to power, stimulation, hedonism, achievement, and self-direction values; the reverse is true for benevolence and universalism values and less consistently for security values. Men and women do not different on traits which are necessary to cohere a society such as tradition and conformity values (click here). Again this does not suggest culture has no role in these studies. It does suggest that culture is not the only role.
Again, it is importance to recognize variance within the population. I stress that these studies deal with trends in populations and there can be considerable variance within each gender at an individual level. For example, research studies of the personality structures of transgendered individuals suggests that their personalities are a more akin to the opposite genders which they feel greater affinity too. In a cross comparison study of gay, straight and transgendered individuals, it found that M-to-F transsexuals were quite similar to gay men on all gender-related traits except self-ascribed femininity, but F-to-M transsexuals were considerably more masculine than lesbian women on all gender-related traits except for instrumentality and expressiveness (click here). Oddly enough, some research has also shown that gay men are far more likely to be left handed but not lesbian women (click here).
Why are these issues important? The main thrust behind including this research is recognizing there can be differences between the people we work with. For example, some research suggests that traits are a stronger predictor than talents in terms of life and job satisfaction. Asking people what kind of a person they are may be more helpful in goal formulations than asking people to identify what they are good at. Furthermore, in the case of supporting with transsexual people, it may help resolve conflicting aspects of self between personality traits, sexual orientation and identity which may all inhabit different zones of self. At a political level poverty and subsistence robs people of their individualism which is forsaken for survival, whether it is genetically or culturally sited. In the developed world it may also help us understand that people do not necessarily have to be identical in order to be equal. Variance appears to be the natural order for human beings with a multiplicity of diverse individuals falling into bigger patterns. A stay at home dad is no more an anathema than the high flying CEO mom. In order to support humans to thrive, we should continue to build societies of equality, human rights and challenge discrimination around the world whilst at the same time respecting the decisions people make within these hard fought for freedoms.