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Men and Women Are Less Alike in More Feminist Countries

Places that score high for gender equality also show more sex differences on personality tests.

Berliner Verlag/Steinach/picture alliance / ZB/NewscomBerliner Verlag/Steinach/picture alliance / ZB/NewscomMen and women show more pronounced differences on personality tests in countries considered to have higher levels of "gender equality." That's the main takeaway from two recent research studies getting good media buzz.

More fuel for the culture wars? It shouldn't be. There are a number of ways to interpret the data, and the authors of both studies caution against taking their results as congruent with standard progressive or traditionalist narratives. The quirky nature of the findings is what makes this some of the interesting recent scholarship in sex and gender studies, presenting wiggle room for speculation and myriad questions for future research.

In the International Journal of Psychology, Swedish scientists Erik Gioola and Petri Kajonius look at personality trait differences between men and women in 22 countries. Their results include 130,602 participants between ages 19 and 69—57 percent of them women—who opted into an online personality survey (in English) after finding it via word of mouth or online search. Specifically, they looked at five broad personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness.

"Because personality is inherently multidimensional," write Gioola and Kajonius, they rely on complex multivariate model measures to come up with some composite personality data, rather than looking trait by trait or using an average of the five as in prior studies. To measure a country's cultural equality between men and women, they relied on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index rankings.

"Moderation analyses showed no significant effects of sex on the relationship between any [one] of the big five personality traits and gender equality," they write. Across countries, higher gender equality scores were correlated with:

  • higher scores for both men and women on agreeableness and openness;
  • lower scores for both men and women on conscientiousness
  • slightly lower scores on neuroticism among men and slightly higher neuroticism scores for women;
  • and lower extroversion scores for men but no change among women.

But comparing the composite personality data, they found that "sex differences in personality are larger in more gender equal countries." Specifically:

  • Men and women were the most different in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, the U.K., Germany, the U.S., Australia, France, Ireland, and Finland, scoring between 1.02 (Netherlands) and 0.8 on the gender gap scale in these countries.
  • Men and women showed the least personality difference in China (0.39), Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, and India.
  • In the middle (0.6-0.8) were the Philippines (on the low end) South Africa, Mexico, Singapore, Romania, and New Zealand.

So how do we interpret these results? The authors consider several ways. One theory is that when people are less confined by strict social norms and roles, their innate personalities and preferences can shine through—and these preferences aren't progressive. "A possible explanation," they write, "is that as gender equality increases both men and women gravitate toward their traditional gender roles."

The evolutionary perspective says that an environment with fewer cultural restraints allows men and women to reclaim their true—and quite different—selves. But proponents of this perspective need to grapple with another paradox: what is supposedly stopping those in less gender-equal countries from embracing traditionalism and sex differences? And how does all this square with the evolutionary theorists who say higher neuroticism, anxiety, and depression scores among women in modern liberal democracies is caused by women having to suppress their true traits and desires?

Ultimately, "a combination of social role theory"—that gendered traits are a product of culture and socialization—"and evolutionary perspectives may be needed to account for this curious result," the study authors write.

Perhaps countries with smaller social and economic gaps between men and women wind up valuing other sorts of differences between them more. Women, men, or both may have found that as more women entered schools, workplaces, politics, leadership roles, and more egalitarian relationships, embracing and emphasizing complementary or opposite traits—consciously or not—served as a competitive advantage or necessary survival skill.

Or maybe women's new cultural roles shifted expectations and stresses in ways that triggered aggregate personality shifts in both sexes as a byproduct. A 2008 study on male/female personality differences in 55 countries found that "overall, 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 "primary cause" of this differentiation was "changes in men's personality traits."

And let's not overlook reactionary motifs, either. As places grow more egalitarian in economic possibilities, legal rights, and social expectations—and women's status both in their homes and in the larger world grows—not everyone embraces it equally. Most modern states are made up of neither staunch traditionalists nor social radicals, yet folks with only minor ideological attachments to strictly divided gender norms may still embrace more symbolic aspects of them. Consciously or not, people often cling to outward markers of differences more staunchly when other lines start to blur (something we see far outside the realm of sex and gender).

Those who abhor or feel left out by the changes—which can be a large percentage of the population—may cling more fiercely to old roles and ways. And those who seek to subvert the old rules may consciously adopt conventional aspects of femininity or masculinity in order to get by, especially in more culturally homogeneous or strict societies.

Which raises the possibility that country-level differences in trait distribution may not be linked to gender equality per se so much as the phenomenon's corollaries: economic liberalism and prosperity, increasing levels of cultural and political openness, individual rights and potential.

"Cries of 'correlation isn't causation' tend to accompany any studies like these, but they're oddly absent from conversations about the paradox," notes Cathleen O'Grady at Ars Technica. "That might be because it seems unnecessary—when you're talking about gender equality and gender differences, there's such an obvious relationship that it seems like, for once, we could ignore the niceties about correlation and just assume that one causes the other."

But there are limitations to the World Economic Forum rankings. "The index looks at progress on measures like economic participation and political empowerment, but it isn't able to capture wobblier human factors like cultural beliefs and stereotyping," writes O'Grady. "This is illustrated by looking at Rwanda, which has made enormous strides in political representation of women while making little progress in changes to traditional gender roles; it currently ranks sixth on the index". And while "data on whether the differences increase as countries climb the ranks of gender equality" could help clear up some clutter here, "there could be something else underlying the pattern: cultural history."

One interesting thing to study would be the degree to which gender gaps in personality traits map to a place's slant toward individualism or collectivism. In the Gioola and Kajonius study, countries with strong individualist traditions (the U.S., France, Australia) tended to show higher variance, while those that have put more emphasis on the collective good (China, South Korea, Japan) showed less.

Another new study, this one published in Science, looked at data on 80,000 people from 76 countries with an emphasis on traits such as altruism, trust, patience, and risk taking. Authors Armin Falk, an economics professor at the University of Bonn, and Johannes Hermle, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, found that both higher levels of gender equality and wealth corresponded to bigger differences between men and women on these traits.

In a previous paper from Kajonius using the same data, researchers found that "within-country sex differences for the five personality traits showed similar patterns across countries," and that "the relationship between a country and an individual's personality traits, however interesting, are small"—overall, they found that an "average 1.8% of the variance in personality traits could be accounted for by country belonging. Put differently, within-country differences in personality traits are of more interest than between-country differences."

Photo Credit: Berliner Verlag/Steinach/picture alliance / ZB/Newscom

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  • CGN||

    I ENJOY the differences between men and women, and I imagine most women do as well. This is why the two sexes (and there are only two) are attracted to one another. And the differences I am talking about are not the obvious physical differences, although that is cool too, but the differences in cogitation, caring, etc. Women will ALWAYS be better at rearing children than men, and men will always be better at defending women than other women will be. I am a bit shocked that the above thoughts are a surprise to a lot of folks, as it seems about as evident as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening.

  • Cathy L||

    Cool story bro

  • TuIpa||

    Why are you crying about his post?

  • Red Tony||

    Why are you being a whiny bitch about Cathy's passive-aggressive comment?

  • TuIpa||

    You posted that in the wrong place.

  • ||

    Because it is a generalization, and even if it was largely true, it still wouldn´t justify treating men and women differently and creating separate societal, let alone legal rules for them - which is exactly what this line of thinking has been constantly used for.

  • BYODB||

    Separate legal rules seem logical in some arena's, such as just for example abortion. I mean, men can't physically have an abortion.

    But sure, same legal rules for both everywhere it's actually logical to do so.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    This, of course, and it's certainly no reason not to recognize the truth. I mean, "that scary truth might mean bad things if taken to an extreme!" is a very, very, very stupid way to look at things.

  • BYODB||

    Precisely. I've never really understood the concept of absolute equality between dimorphic sex's. They're not even chemically the same, even while they are incredibly similar.

    Legally it makes sense, I mean the loony toons that believe in absolute equality in every measure. That simply doesn't happen naturally.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    "line of thinking"... you mean science and logic?

  • TuIpa||

    "Because it is a generalization"

    No, that's not why.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Careful with the absolutes and generalization, there. Collectivism is known to lead to bad assumptions.

  • Tony||

    I enjoy the similarities among men. Things might be more predictable, but that's not such a bad thing.

  • BYODB||

    Well, for one thing they all have a penis and my gay friends all assure me that's a good thing for them. My lesbian friends seem less convinced.

  • esteve7||

    Jordan Peterson has said this for a long time, this is not news. Well, maybe it is for Reason

  • Cathy L||

    Lol. Which of the many things in this post is it that Jordan Peterson has said, exactly?

  • Mickey Rat||

    That when free to make their own decisions, the sexes behave differently in the aggregate (individual results do vary). Therefore you are not ever going to get an even representation in the labor force, for instance.

  • TuIpa||

    God damn Cry More Cathy are you going to cry about every post in this thread? Please do I love watching you cry!!!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Lol. Which of the many things in this post is it that Jordan Peterson has said, exactly?

    Pretty much all of them.

  • ||

    Which of the many things in this post is it that Jordan Peterson has said, exactly?

    He's repeatedly said that women are more agreeable than men. Without question. He just points out that agreeability isn't always more desirable.

    Also, if you look at the lopsidedness of the traits and increase:

    -higher scores for both men and women on agreeableness and openness;
    -lower scores for both men and women on conscientiousness
    -slightly lower scores on neuroticism among men and slightly higher neuroticism scores for women;
    -and lower extroversion scores for men but no change among women.

    In more 'equal' societies, women are more likely to be neurotic and the men more likely to acquiesce.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Or maybe people don't like being told what to do? Perhaps knowing they could be transgender is enough?

  • LynchPin1477||

    I read the one in Science and was a bit skeptical. There seemed to be a lot of scatter in their correlations and it wasn't clear how uniform the samples from each country were. It could all be true and it certainly aligns with one hypothesis about gender differences, but I'd caution against putting too much weight on this.

  • Hugh Akston||

    More fuel for the culture wars? It shouldn't be.

    Well too bad. If the culture wars did anything of any value they would be the most flexible and efficient engines ever devised by mankind.

  • Tony||

    So one interpretation is that liberal, wealthy societies produce men who think they're all potential kings. Western society it encourages people not to accept a certain lot in life, which is good for many reasons but, interestingly, seems to have the side effect of generating excess douchebaggery.

  • LynchPin1477||

    But there are no (literal) kings in liberal, wealthy societies. And the studies claim that gender differences are higher in northern European countries that are supposed to be especially friendly, happy, and egalitarian, than in the US (which is where I *think* you were going with the douchebag thing). On that point, I don't think the studies even measure douchebaggery. And why aren't the more gender-equal countries producing women who think they are all potential queens in equal proportion?

    Anyway, I don't find your interpretation very convincing.

  • Tony||

    Me either.

  • ||

    side effect of generating excess douchebaggery

    Facts not in evidence. I see metrics for neuroticism and conscientiousness, but not douchebaggery.

  • SIV||

    "scholarship in sex and gender studies"

    Lol!

  • Ecoli||

    Yeah. Dogma maybe. Indoctrination definitely.

    Scholarship? Nope.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    All I know is I'm citing this article for why the gender pay gap. There's no way I'm shelling out for a soft, silly woman who doesn't think the way I do when there's man just as qualified and who isn't a complete mental with different notions swimming around in his head.

  • Kivlor||

    Old news ENB. Yawn. Do some real journalism, stop being lazy

  • TuIpa||

    That is something that even I can't blame you for crying about Cathy.

  • Kivlor||

    You really shouldn't let your hatred for Cathy spill over onto others. I'm completely worthy of being hated for my own comments, no need to bring her/him/xer into it ;)

  • TuIpa||

    Fuck off Cathy.

  • Mickey Rat||

    The biggest takeaway from this is that any policy that seeks equality of outcomes has to limit choices. That California's new policy of requiring token female members on a corporate board is inherently foolish and anti liberty.

    Basically, you cannot get there from here because left to their own devices, most people do not want to go to outcomes feminists want.

  • Kivlor||

    I thought the biggest takeaway was that it took ENB 10 years to catch wind of this story.

  • Mickey Rat||

    I doubt it was a result she wants to be true.

  • BlueStarDragon||

    All I got out of this, is most people do not care about sex difference in till it is time for sex. All we need to do is make sure all are equal under the law, free to live as they choose and let the pieces fall were they may. In short stop social engineering.

  • Ecoli||

    If you do that, how will you ever get equal outcomes?

    #stillwither
    #mathishard

  • Red Tony||

    #soami

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Ugh. I hate how conservatives seize on information like this to say "See? Maybe men and women are just naturally different, and we shouldn't expect equal gender representation everywhere."

    That's such misogyny. In fact, since women make up about 50% of the adult population (some people are non-binary, of course) then logically they should make up about 50% of US Senators, CEOs, Nobel Prize Winners, and STEM professionals. And if they don't, that's proof the patriarchy is holding them back.

    #LibertariansForAffirmativeAction
    #Diversity
    #WomenInSTEM

  • Dillinger||

    >>>That's such misogyny.

    chicks are fun for all the right reasons.

  • inoyu||

    Men don't like to be in a female majority environment where the maternal point of view prevails. Compassion over reason is a good example. The best 50% of everything argument is. "women have been responsible for more than 50% of the success and advancement of the human species". I like reason, that's why I'm here.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||


    Men and Women Are Less Alike in More Feminist Countries
    Places that score high for gender equality also show more sex differences on personality tests.

    Jordan Peterson referred to these very studies a multitude of times and it got him labeled "controversial" and misogynist.

  • Cathy L||

    Believe me, that's not all that's gotten him labeled a misogynist.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Uh huh.

  • TuIpa||

    Jesus you CANNOT post without crying! So hilarious!

  • Here for the outrage||

    It's gotta be tough convincing yourself every day you're a victim when women are getting stoned and whipped on the regular outside of western civilization.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    This also produced the quip from Peterson, where when he described the study, he said, "You know social scientists have discovered something important when they're not happy with the result."

  • Mickey Rat||

    And true, as well.

  • MattXIV||

    "who opted into an online personality survey (in English) after finding it via word of mouth or online search"

    IE an self-selected sample. The only thing this tells is is International Journal of Psychology's peer review process sucks.

  • ||

    Not entirely self-selected.

    In more gender-equal countries women were more likely to say "Dear, you should take this quiz too!" and the men were more likely to say "All right!" and then do what she said.

  • ||

    If that was the case, however, it wouldn´t prove that men and women in more equal countries are that much more different than in unequal ones, it would only hint at the possibility that in the less equal countries, it were only the most enlightened men who took the quiz.

  • Dont Tread On My Lawn||

  • Red Tony||

    How much of this is because the test was created in a Western country by those intellectuals? Not saying that Western culture is bad or anything, but the ones that score highest on sex differences are in Europe/U.S. and the ones that score lowest are in East Asia. Maybe this just tells us "hey! People in Western cultures exhibit more sex/gender differences stereotypical to Western cultures than people in other parts of the world!"

  • ||

    Maybe this just tells us "hey! People in Western cultures exhibit more sex/gender differences stereotypical to Western cultures than people in other parts of the world!"

    Americans and Asians were more likely to tell us to go fuck ourselves, but they were equally likely to do so. So we arrived at the conclusion that more gender equal cultures display a greater differences between the genders.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    So, people are making choices as individuals rather than as members of some gender studies group? Wow! We gotta have some legislation, do something about this right now! We can't have people refusing to listen to their betters!

  • Ken Shultz||

    My understanding is that adrenaline is processed differently in men and women.

    Here's an example:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/959463

    One of the differences is the length of time it takes for adrenaline to dissipate from the system. For women, the adrenaline takes a long time (relative to men) to dissipate. With men, being angry or scared can stop on a dime, but with women, once they get angry or scared, they're heart rate, etc. remains elevated long afterward. Women's emotional states are also more in tune, relative to men, with how they're feeling physiologically.

  • Ken Shultz||

    This all translates into some common experiences, or so I've read. For instance, women can know they're angry (elevated heart rate, etc.) before they know precisely what they're angry about, but men may not realize they're angry--until they know what they're angry about. Ever seen a woman get angry over something that turned out to be a false alarm, and once they realize it wasn't really an issue, they start to bring up things that happened weeks ago? If it wasn't what they thought they were angry about, then, subconsciously or otherwise, they know they're angry and it must be about something!

    When guys get angry about a false alarm, it stops on a dime when they realize it as a false alarm, but it also means they sometimes don't know they're angry--until they know exactly what's bothering them. Ever had women ask what you're angry about, and honestly replied, "nothing". They look at you like you're being evasive because they see that you're angry. It's just that if you don't know what it is that's bothering you, you may not even realize that you're angry. Incidentally, these two responses would seem to complement each other.

    Anyway, that's just one example. If the physiological effects of testosterone and estrogen are different, it would be insane to assume that humanity has evolved men and women to think, act, and feel exactly alike. The psychological impact of hormones on male to female and female to male sex reassignment cases has been long documented.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "The psychological impact of hormones on male to female and female to male sex reassignment cases has been long documented."

    Isn't it contradictory to argue that biological women can feel like men and biological men can feel like women, but, on the other hand, argue that there's no difference between the way men and women feel?

    Everyone should be treated equally before the law. I suspect the idea that we're all basically the same is a noble lie people tell themselves and each other in the hope of creating a society where people are treated the same. But, no, because we believe that men and women should be treated equally before the law doesn't mean we also need to believe falsehoods--just because such falsehoods would seem to imply that everyone should be treated equally.

  • BYODB||


    I suspect the idea that we're all basically the same is a noble lie people tell themselves and each other in the hope of creating a society where people are treated the same.

    Why suspect when it's observably true. There is no equality in nature. For some it's a noble lie, for most I would hope it's simply an inspirational goal. While that goal may be unreachable, it gives humanity something to strive for.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Well you just described my marriage of 38 years. Except my wife brings up shit I did decades ago. Or so she claims.

  • Ken Shultz||

    You know what's worse than the gerbils eating your post?

    No, the answer is not "Hitler".

    What's worse than the gerbils eating your post is not knowing whether the gerbils ate your post.

  • lap83||

    My interpretation is that focusing on gender differences, whether for or against, is a privilege for people in prosperous, i.e. Westernized, countries. Feminism is a result of that prosperity as much as people naming their kids "Diesel" or "Lilac"

    A woman who works all day or has to walk several miles to get water for her family doesn't have time or money to post on feminist blogs or paint her daughter's room pink

  • Ken Shultz||

    FWIW, one of the cross-cultural things that are associated with lower birth rates is the participation of women in the workforce. The more opportunities there are for women to contribute to family income by working outside the home, the fewer children they have per capita.

    Even in Catholic countries, where birth control and abortion are frowned on culturally, Italy has a graying population because as more women entered the workforce, the fertility rate dropped from far above replacement to far below replacement level.

    This would suggest that when women have more time to spend at home, fetching water, they also have more time to devote to raising children in the hope that their children will be productive and contribute to family income themselves--especially once the parents get too old to work.

  • lap83||

    I guess I wasn't clear, but I wasn't necessarily talking about working outside the home. Women in developing economies don't have as much free time as women in the first world, even if they have children, unless they are wealthy.

  • lap83||

    And, while I haven't seen it, I'm guessing a "gender differences" personality test isn't so much about biological differences between men and women. It's about stereotypes, a concept that developed from the minds of people who have a ton of time on their hands.

  • BYODB||

    So, ENB gets gender and sex confused as well. It's almost like they love writing about this shit, but can't get it straight themselves.


    I give her pass, obviously, because it's pretty dumb but Reason seems to take it seriously so it's curious they get the basic facts wrong.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    You lost me at "In the International Journal of Psychology..."

  • BYODB||

    Good point.

  • Longtobefree||

    Fake News.
    Unless the study finds that all men are rapist thugs, and all women are the personification of deity, it's bullshit.

  • Echospinner||

    Self reported data from those who responded to an open website.

    "The mean Cronbach's alpha reliability for the five trait factors were high (Neuroticism = .90, Extraversion = .89, Openness = .81, Agreeableness = .85, Conscientiousness = .90)."

    Cronbach was obviously a genius. /s

  • ||

    Nice that the "systemic sexism" people take that as gospel, but when systemic egalitarianism leads to even greater sex differences, then somehow that's not prima facie evidence -- except for more hidden systemic sexism. As for the cultural history narrative, does anyone believe Sweden et al don't have one of gender-sameness ideology? Also worth noting that these sex diffs are pretty much universal. They simple become larger. "More progressivism -> more false sex-typical consciousness" sounds like comedy. And all this is supposed to occur while these more sex-typical people continue to complain about systemic sexism? So not only do they have false consciousness, they also have split consciousness. Remarkably, this is the first time cognitive dissonance isn't used as explanation – because it would ruin the story.
    Similarly, all of a sudden there's a call for scrutiny (correlation doesn't equal causation. etc). Just what that scrutiny is supposed to be is fairly funny. Have you ever seen a compendium of the gender neutrality efforts (indoctrination, education, anti-discrimination law, quotas, affirmative action, feminist/women [in tech, X, Y, Z] groups, ...) & policies in place? I haven't. At times, something rises to the surface, such as massive useless investments in implicit bias training. (The British Nudge Unit noted that, and proceeds to nudge toward parity, arbitrarily.) Impressively, not even correlation has to be established here (see stereotype threat too).

  • ||

    Side note on Elizabeth's last paragraph: It seems to mean that whatever countries do, personal sex differences stay pretty much the same. If that's so, and also if women/men somehow prefer to be different/opposite/complementary, then it would be time to question the aims of policy and to ask what morality requires. Aiming for parity and prohibiting self-segregation suddenly seem like less good ideas, especially in more feminist countries.

    I recommend Maccoby, The Two Sexes.

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