Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Distance Between Mars and Venus – How Wide is the Gender Gap?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Are men and woman really so different?  Newly published research suggests that how men and women think may be even more different than we suspect!

You have probably noticed that we humans come in two genetically distinct sub-groups, males and females.  Almost without exception we are either one of the other. All other genetic distinctions are trivial by comparison distinction.  We usually assume that our genetic differences are merely physiological. We take for granted that all of our social differences are the result of our physical differences while brain functions in men and woman are identical.  More recently we have accepted that gender roles may be malleable characteristics molded in childhood according to the prevailing social norms.  Strip away the gender imprinting from society and we might find almost no psycho/social differences at all, right?

Support for this idea has come from prior scientific research in which the frequencies with which various personality traits are exhibited in males and females are not so broad (see Hyde's “gender similarities hypothesis”, 2005, Am Psychol 60: 581–592.).  This suggested a lot of overlap in the constellation of personality traits between men and woman.  Yet there is now a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to a genetic component in personality development.  This support the idea that both nature and nurture contribute to the person we become.

A recent, statistically sophisticated meta-analysis of this earlier data on gender and personality traits appears to have turned the previous findings upside down.

 In a paper entitled “The Distance Between Mars and Venus: Measuring global sex differences in personality,” three researchers named Marco Del Guidice, Tom Booth and Paul Irwing looked not at the frequency of distinct personality traits in males and females, but at multi-variant patterns of personality traits that appear to be associated with gender.

In their analysis of these statistically correlated patterns, the researchers concluded there may be as little as a 10% overlap in the personality make-up of men and women.  This difference in gender personality traits is larger than previous differences found in other specific traits, such as aggression rates between the sexes, according to the researchers.  In their paper they also bring in the views of some evolutionary psychologist who hold that: 

 divergent selection pressures on males and females are expected to produce consistent – and often substantial – psychological differences between the sexesBy the logic of sexual selection theory and parental investment theory large sex differences are most likely to be found in traits and behaviors that ultimately relate to mating and parenting. More generally, sex differences are expected in those domains in which males and females have consistently faced different adaptive problems.” 

From their academic perspective the authors go on to say, Given the contrast between the predictions derived from evolutionary theory and those based on the gender similarities hypothesis, there is a pressing need for accurate empirical estimates of sex differences in personality.”  From an academic point of view this study will almost certainly intensify research and professional debate in this area of study.  Findings of this magnitude always do, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs, which take time to develop.  

From my perspective, if future evidence does convinces society that men and women have innately different templates from which our personalities emerge, this belief will have profound and far reaching consequences.  For one thing, it is a forceful argument for inclusion of woman in management and government institutions. If men and and woman very different, they are also obviously complementary.  Excluding woman from government, for example, is an unnatural development. I believe that organizational balance in all of our social institutions is more likely to be achieved when there is a gender balance in organizational leadership. 

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