Does More Gender Egalitarianism Reduce Gender Differences?

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Perhaps surprisingly, the answer appears to be “no.” A 2017 study in the International Journal of Psychology found,1

Gender differences in most psychological traits—Big Five, Dark Triad, self-esteem, subjective well-being, depression and values—are larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism. Gendered socialization practices, sociopolitical institutions and gender role stereotypes—some of which appear universal across cultures (Low, 1989; Nosek et al., 2009; Williams & Best, 1990)—undoubtedly influence men’s and women’s personalities to some degree (Kring & Gordon, 1998; Twenge, 1997). Nevertheless, the limited evidence reviewed here casts serious doubts on social role theory’s ability to accurately predict and explain cross-cultural variations in the relative size of psychological gender differences. Simply put, when the men and women of a nation perceive the most similar gender roles, receive the most similar gender role socialization, and experience the greatest sociopolitical gender equity, gender differences in personality are almost always at their largest.

Beyond personality traits, similar disconfirmations of social role theory’s cross-cultural predictions have been demonstrated across a variety of human attributes. For instance, gender differences in romantic attitudes and behaviours—including dismissing attachment, intimate partner violence, love, enjoying casual sex and mate preferences for attractiveness—also appear noticeably larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism (Schmitt, 2015; for notable exceptions, see Schmitt, 2005; Zentner & Eagly, 2015). Gender differences in many objectively tested cognitive measures—such as spatial location, spatial rotation and episodic memory abilities—also appear larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism (Silverman, Choi, & Peters, 2007; Weber, Skirbekk, Freund, & Herlitz, 2014). Lippa, Collaer, and Peters (2010) tested spatial rotation abilities in men and women across 40 nations, the largest gender differences in spatial rotation ability were found in Norway, the smallest were found in Pakistan. In a review of gender differences in mathematics test scores within and across cultures, Stoet and Geary (2013) concluded the evidence is mixed, but “If anything, economically developed countries with strong gender-equality and human development scores tended to have a larger sex difference in mathematics” (p. 4). Even gender differences in physical characteristics such as height, obesity and blood pressure are conspicuously larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism (Schmitt, 2015) (pg. 49).

In short,

the vast weight of the extant evidence suggests the relatively large gender differences observed in Northern European nations are unlikely to be the result of psychological blank slates in boys and girls being written on by especially potent gender role socialization practices or especially strong sociopolitical patriarchy within Scandinavian cultures. Instead, psychological gender differences—in Big Five traits, Dark Triad traits, self-esteem, subjective well-being, depression and values—are demonstrably the largest in cultures with the lowest levels of bifurcated gender role socialization or sociopolitical patriarchy. Ultimately, the view that men and women start from a blank slate simply does not jibe with the current findings, and scholars who continue to assert gender invariably starts from a psychological blank slate should find these recurring cross-cultural patterns challenging to their foundational assumptions (pg. 50).

The researchers conclude,

It is undeniably true that men and women are more similar than different genetically, physically and psychologically. Even so, important gender differences in personality exist that likely stem, at least in part, from evolved psychological adaptations. Some of these adaptations generate culturally-universal gender differences, and many are further designed to be sensitive to local socioecological contexts in ways that facultatively generate varying sizes of gender differences across cultures. It is also true evolved gender differences in personality can be accentuated or attenuated by factors that have little to do with evolved sensitivities to socioecological contexts (Schmitt, 2015). Even gender differences in our bones can embody peculiarities of local cultural forms (Fausto-Sterling, 2005). To shift away from the dominant gender difference paradigm in psychological science—the view that perceived gender roles, gendered socialization and patriarchal sociocultural institutions are the primary causes of psychological gender differentiation (also called the Standard Social Science Model; Tooby & Cosmides,1992)—will no doubt take some time (pg. 52).

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