New Data on the Gender-Equality Paradox

In a somewhat surprising finding, men and women show more-pronounced differences on personality tests in those countries that have higher levels of “gender equality,” according to recent studies. Gender equality is measured in terms of the proportions of men and women in a country’s professional and technical workforce and by their representation in the country’s politics. Two Swedish scientists looked at personality trait differences between the sexes in 22 countries. More than 130,000 participants, ages 19 to 69, a majority of whom were women, responded to a detailed questionnaire. In comparing the composite personality data, the researchers found that “sex differences in personality are larger in more gender equal countries.” For example, differences between the sexes were greatest in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, the U.K., Germany, the United States, Australia, France, Ireland, and Finland. Men and women showed the least personality difference in China, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, and India.

A further study, published in Science, reports that differences between men and women in terms of personality traits like risk-taking, patience, and trust also were greater in countries that are richer and more gender-equal. In addition, an earlier study from 2008 discovered that, in general, “higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality.” The converse finding is that men and women in less gender-equal countries embrace traditional gender roles and also express sex differences to a lesser extent.

These findings are complex and, to some, counterintuitive. The gender-equality paradox invites argument, in part because the findings seem to go against a seemingly logical assumption—that the more equal a society becomes in terms of gender roles, then the less that sex differences would show up. Theories as to why this assumption is contradicted by the data are varied. One perspective on these issues emphasizes the centrality of biology. Another supposes that people who are less restricted by social roles and norms by gender, they are freer to follow innate personal preferences. Still another interpretive approach is social role theory, which says that many important differences can be explained by cultural history—such as the degree to which girls and boys are raised differently, or how long women have had the vote in a given country. One result of these various interpretations is that many questions remain open for future research.

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