A key part of feminism is the claim that gender is a social construct –  the differences  between men and women, in all areas (economic, personality, interests, preferences) emerge only because people are socialised into those roles through patriarchal and traditional norms and stereotypes. If this is true it means then that as a culture shifts away from those traditional norms to more egalitarian progressive norms then differences in personality, preferences and interests between the genders should become smaller.

However a large body of research has found what they call the gender equality paradox. The more gender equal (in certain areas), progressive and economically developed a country becomes the larger the gender differences across a number of psychological and personality traits.

Traits such as risk taking, altruism, trust, patience, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, self-esteem, depression. Even differences in what people value such as benevolence, universalism, power, and hedonism get bigger in more egalitarian countries.

The Nordic countries are typically known for their progressive and egalitarian norms and yet the biggest gender differences in personality traits emerge there. This is surprising and the exact opposite of what you would expect if traditional patriarchal norms and socialisation through gender stereotypes was driving gender differences.

Figure 1 – Differences in personality between men and women according to how gender equal a country is. Source – Relationship of gender differences in preferences to economic development and gender equality

Some commentators have tried to explain this by arguing that the greater economic and equality in certain areas, led to individuals being “freer to express the gender differences that have been created in them by social pressures”. This response does not make sense. It leaves unexplained why countries moving away from traditional and patriarchal social pressures (towards greater gender equality) should actually increase the effect of those traditional social pressures.

The more obvious conclusion is that there are in general natural differences between the genders which are for some unknown reason expressed more acutely in those contexts. Some researchers speculate that where there is greater equality and freedom; and choices are not motivated by simply surviving; then the choices will reflect gender specific preference (I’m not entirely convinced by this explanation). 

Whatever the reasons are the fact remains then that one cannot simply boil down gender differences in personality and interests  down to socialization – Men and women are not blank slates which patriarchy socially constructs.

Another general point this fact illustrates is that inequality in whatever outcomes we choose to look at; cannot simply be boiled down to bias and discrimination. There are far too many variables at work interacting in often hidden ways to produce the outcomes we observe.

For Further Reading

  1. Inconvenient truths on gender inequality in STEM – How differences in choices explains disparities better than the discrimination narrative
  2. Inconvenient truths on gender inequality in STEM – The myth of gender as a social construct