The science behind persistent gender gaps in developed countries

Research by the Karolinska Institutet shows that gender differences in psychological aspects persist in more developed countries, with some differences increasing and others decreasing. This study highlights the complexity of gender dynamics in relation to societal progress and living standards.

A recent study reveals that improved living conditions in countries lead to evolving yet persistent psychological differences between the sexes, challenging traditional views of the equality paradox.

Psychological gender differences persist in countries with better living conditions, according to a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science by researchers at Karolinska Institutet. Some differences become larger and others smaller as women appear to benefit more than men from improved living conditions. The findings confirm to some extent the so-called gender paradox.

“Our study shows that the pattern of strengths and weaknesses of men and women is the same regardless of age, location or living conditions.” — Agneta Herlitz, Professor of Psychology in the Department of Clinical Neurology, Karolinska Institute

The paradox of equality in gender differences

Whether psychological gender differences increase or decrease as living standards improve is a matter of debate, with some scholars arguing that the differences are smaller in more equal societies. However, earlier studies have shown greater differences between the sexes, a phenomenon that has been called the equality paradox.

In their paper, the researchers show that some differences are increasing while others are decreasing, and conclude that even if living standards improve, we should expect clear gender differences to persist.

“Our study shows that the pattern of strengths and weaknesses of men and women is the same, regardless of age, location or living conditions,” says first author of the study Agnetha Herlitz, Professor of Psychology at the Department of Clinical Neurology, Karolinska Institutet. “Some gender differences in personality, negative emotions and certain cognitive functions are greater in countries with a higher standard of living. But it is important to note that we cannot establish a causal relationship.

The research was conducted in two parts: a systematic review of 54 published articles and the researchers’ own analyzes of 27 large-scale studies and meta-analyses. In both analyses, they examined the relationship between a range of psychological gender differences and indicators of a country’s standard of living (eg GDP and equality indices).

Women show a higher degree of altruism

Their results show that gender differences in personality, verbal skills, episodic memory and negative emotions are even greater in countries with a higher standard of living. In terms of verbal skills and episodic memory, women seem to benefit from better conditions and increase their lead over men. In addition, they exhibit a higher degree of attributes such as altruism and the ability to cooperate, but also the occurrence of negative emotions.

“Men also demonstrate greater cognitive skills in countries with a higher standard of living, but at the same time the improvement seen in women is greater, which may mean that women are at a disadvantage in countries with more low standard of living,” says Professor Herlitz.

At the same time, the researchers found smaller differences between men and women in sexual behavior, partner preferences and mathematics. Here, women’s behavior approaches that of men in terms of thinking and having sex more often and choosing a partner more freely. In mathematics, the male lead has narrowed somewhat in countries with improved living standards.

“At the moment, we cannot say that these changes are due more to equality than to economic conditions,” continues Professor Herlitz. “Although our study does not reveal an explanation for the differences, previous research suggests that women appear to benefit more from higher living standards than men.”

Reference: “A Systematic Review and New Analyzes of the Gender Equality Paradox” by Agnetha Herlitz, Ida Hönig, Kore Hedebrandt, and Martin Asperholm, 2 Jan. 2024, Perspectives on Psychological Science.
DOI: 10.1177/17456916231202685

The study was mainly funded by the Swedish Research Council. The researchers declare no conflict of interest.

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