Gender Equality Could Push Men’s and Women’s Personalities Apart

The question of whether or not there are fundamental differences between men’s and women’s personalities has long been debated by psychologists. A number of studies show that certain personality traits are more consistent with one gender over another. At the same time, other research contends that these differences between the genders are still negligible, and that more broadly the brains of both are substantially similar. The American Psychological Association questions whether there is even a difference at all.

Now, a new study by a researcher at the University of Salzburg in Austria adds even more fuel to the fire with international data that suggests men and women not only have particular personality differences, but those differences grow in nations that have the greatest gender equality.

The study, available as a preprint before peer review, employed a version of a personality survey called the NEO Personality Inventory, which uses a tool common in psychology, the “Big Five” personality traits—Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness—to determine an overarching picture of one’s personality. The study evaluated two already existing datasets totaling nearly a million people from more than 70 countries. It found that the biggest differences between the genders were that female participants were more likely to be more agreeable, open, and neurotic.

The study also squared its personality findings against “gender equality,” as measured by the Global Gender Gap Index, a report that tracks progress toward greater equality in more than 100 countries by evaluating factors like economic opportunity, educational attainment, health, and positions at high levels of government for men and women.

Markus Brauer, a professor of psychology at University of Michigan, agrees with the study’s acknowledged limitations regarding inadequate subject diversity. While he believes the study “did many things right,” he says that, most likely, “the result is due to the samples being rather unrepresentative in countries with low gender equality.”

Brauer also points out that the study includes Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, countries with extremely high scores on the Global Gender Gap Index. “It could be that some regional social norm in these four Scandinavian countries causes the women to respond differently than the men. This means the result could have nothing to do with gender equality,” he says. “I am surprised the author did not conduct outlier analyses.”

“My quick reaction is that it’s a good step for these findings to be published,” Gelman says, “but I think they are being way overinterpreted.”

Kaiser hopes to include further details in the final version of the paper. His aim with the research was to help unpack what has come to be called “Gender Equality Paradox”: the counterintuitive finding that women in countries with less gender equality actually go into more science and math careers—traditionally male-dominated professions—than women in countries with greater gender equality. Personality may play an underappreciated role in shaping this paradox, but as Kaiser notes in his conclusion, a lot more research needs to be done before scientists will arrive at any definitive answers.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to [email protected]