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

A provocative study finds that nations with the most pronounced gender gaps nonetheless have the most shared characteristics between genders.

A boy and a girl sit on a barrel with their backs to the camera
Natacha Pisarenko / AP

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.

The results showed that greater gender equality is associated with stronger expressions of gender difference. Gender differences, “should not be interpreted as results of unequal treatment, but as indicator of successful gender-equality policies,” writes the study’s author, Tim Kaiser.

“It is important to note that the differences not only increase for ‘stereotypical female’ personality facets such as emotionality or compassion,” Kaiser told me. “In more egalitarian countries, women also score higher than men on facets such as assertiveness or achievement-striving.”

On the other side of things, says Kaiser, men experience more self-consciousness than women in countries with greater gender equality, “so it could very well be the case that personality adapts to changing societal conditions.”

Previous studies have found similar results of existing differences between men and women. A 1994 meta-analysis that looked at international data from between 1940 and 1992, consisting of more than 100,000 subjects, found that women scored higher for anxiety and extroversion. Another study looked at more than 10,000 Americans and found personality differences between genders, but these differences were more stereotypical than Kaiser’s findings: Women scored higher in sensitivity and warmth, while men scored higher in dominance and vigilance.

Still, research into these differences can be hotly contested, and the multitude of variables at play makes the reasons behind the results—which aren’t necessarily tied to gender—difficult to pin down. For instance, the dataset was based on an online questionnaire that study participants “discovered ... on their own or by word-of-mouth,” according to the paper accompanying the dataset. And this questionnaire was only offered in English. The study notes that because of these factors, people who don’t have internet access, don’t speak English, or are from less-developed countries were less likely to participate in the survey. That lack of diversity could potentially skew results.

Andrew Gelman, a statistics professor at Columbia University who was not involved in the study, has some questions about the data included—and not—in the study. “I’m concerned that the responses to the survey questions will have different meanings in different countries,” he says. For example, study participants asked to evaluate their “assertiveness” might interpret their own assertiveness differently if they live in Iran or Finland. “I could well imagine that these responses would have different interpretations in Latvia, Iceland, and Finland than in Iran, Mexico, and Jamaica,” he says. “I’m concerned that these issues will be correlated with key variables in the study.”

Markus Brauer, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 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.

* This article originally misstated Markus Brauer's place of employment.