Everyone knows that men and women can think and behave differently in various situations. But what does scientific research actually tell us about personality differences between the genders? New psychological findings are shedding light on this complex topic.
This article will analyze research on gender gaps across major personality traits like emotional sensitivity, interest in people versus things, and the desire to empathize versus systemize. We’ll also look at how innate dispositions can steer men and women towards different career choices on average. However, important caveats apply regarding viewing any individuals through sweeping stereotypes. Ultimately, while average statistical differences exist between large populations, we are all unique complex human beings at the individual level.
Key Personality Differences Between Men and Women
Studies show that women on average tend to experience negative emotions like anxiety, stress or sadness more intensely than men. The effect size of this difference is moderate to large, with women scoring about 0.4 standard deviations higher on emotional sensitivity. To put this in perspective, about 64% of women are above average for the general population on this trait.
Interestingly, women also tend to be more emotionally expressive regarding these feelings. Men score higher on emotional control and are more likely to hide sensitive emotions like grief or vulnerability. Socialization plays a key role here, as boys are often taught from a young age to “man up” while girls are allowed to be more openly emotional without stigma. However, innate biology is also at play, as newborn female babies already cry more easily than newborn males.
People Versus Things Focus
Psychology research reveals noticeable differences in what captures men versus women’s interest. On traits like curiosity and openness to new ideas, the genders score very similarly. However, men on average show more interest in “things” – understanding abstract systems, analyzing how mechanical objects work, or mastering rule-based hierarchies. Women lean more towards interest in “people” – understanding personalities, forming interpersonal connections, or caring for living things.
Once again, social influences play a role. Young boys are often encouraged to play with toys like Lego that stimulate systemizing skills, while girls face pressure to play with dolls and focus on nurturing activities. But biology is also at play, as girls as young as one day old look longer at faces while boys look longer at moving mechanical objects. This suggests innate preferences exist alongside social factors.
Empathizing Versus Systemizing
Tying into the above differences, research shows women on average score higher on empathizing – understanding thoughts and emotions in people and responding with appropriate emotion. Men, on the other hand, tend to systemize more – analyzing the rules within a system in order to predict behavior. So women lean more towards modeling the mental states of living beings, while men analyze the formal logic of non-living systems.
Simon Baron-Cohen’s widely-cited studies on systemizing versus empathizing theory argue these differences exist on a biological level and drive men towards fields like science, math or engineering which require strong systemizing skills. Women’s superior empathizing makes them gravitate towards people-focused fields like education, healthcare and social work. Critics argue gaps are influenced by social norms, but Baron-Cohen points to data on newborn babies as well as cross-cultural studies showing consistency across societies.
In summary, men focus more on applying logic and structure to understand the behavior of objects and systems. Women infer what people are feeling based on social cues, facial expressions and tone of voice. On average, the male brain seems wired to analyze rule-based frameworks, while the female brain draws more on emotion and intuition to understand living beings.
Aggregate differences in personality lead women and men towards systematically different career choices in many (though not all) fields. Research across hundreds of job types shows men gravitate more towards areas like science, engineering, computing, construction, and law enforcement. Women dominate education, childcare, healthcare, counseling, admin roles and creative arts. The more a job emphasizes emotional sensitivity, people skills and creativity, the more women enter the field. The more systematic logic, danger and abstract technical analysis dominates, the more male-heavy the occupation.
Why does this happen? Personality research points to qualities like emotional sensitivity, empathizing focus and people interest – all areas women score higher on. This shapes job satisfaction and life priorities. Men’s higher systemizing makes them gravitate towards analyzing technical systems. And greater risk-taking among men due to testosterone likely explains attraction towards physically dangerous careers. Social factors play a role too, like awareness of discrimination in male-dominated fields putting women off. But psychology implies biology influences what types of career best fit our innate talents.
In egalitarian Scandinavian countries, these job gender divides decrease substantially while still staying moderately in place. This suggests social pressures play some role, but innate factors also drive men and women’s career tendencies. No matter how neutral Norway’s culture becomes, psychology implies large numbers will still gravitate towards certain fields. However, we should never discourage individuals from any career based on gender norms. Variability among individuals within each sex is vastly bigger than average differences between the sexes. While group statistics reveal trends, we must treat everyone as unique.
The Evolutionary Biology Perspective
Evolutionary psychologists argue gendered personality differences were adaptive in our hunter-gatherer past. Before civilized society existed, men who were less emotionally sensitive but better at hunting prey survived more successfully. Women with superior people skills raised offspring more collaboratively in tribes, securing the future gene pool. We are all descendants of ancestors whose inborn traits best solved survival challenges in prehistoric times.
This perspective helps explain widespread consistency in gender differences across cultures. If gaps were only due to social norms, we would expect more variation between countries. The fact that most basic differences remain moderately stable implies an innate biological component passed down over thousands of generations. Of course, culture plays a huge role too – but underneath lies a fundamental evolutionary legacy shaping masculinity and femininity.
Criticisms of Gender Personality Research
This field faces serious criticism as well. Firstly, results often get misconstrued to fuel stereotypical assumptions about men and women in daily life. Just because strong statistical patterns exist between very large single-sex populations measured across decades does not mean we can accurately pigeon-hole individuals. There is vastly greater personality variation among women or among men than there is on average between women and men.
Secondly, explicitly highlighting differences risks exacerbating discrimination against minorities who do not conform to traditional expectations. The field remains controversial for this reason. However, proponents argue if handled responsibly, evidence-based insights can increase tolerance of both differences and individual uniqueness between and within groups. The key is striking the right balance between discussing broad trends while confronting those who wrongly apply them to judge individuals.
Finally, there are many open questions on how much gaps are wired into biology versus a result purely from social influences and culture. The ubiquitous nature of differences across eras and societies clearly implicates biology as a driving factor according to evolving theories. But long-established cultural biases also wire young brains to conform to gender norms from a very early age. Untangling these complex interacting influences remains an open scientific problem. However, both biology and environment clearly play significant roles.
In conclusion, modern personality research reveals intriguing average differences between men as a group and women as a group. Gender gaps in emotional sensitivity, interest in people versus things, systemizing versus empathizing, and career choices have real-world consequences for achievement gaps, discrimination, relationship conflicts and societal imbalances of power. Evidence implies biology and culture both perpetuate gaps.
However, the critical caveat is that differences between individuals within genders dwarf the far smaller divergences between the big-picture averages of men and women. There is huge personality variation among women and equally wide diversity among men across these trait spectrums. We must therefore avoid simplistic stereotypes, respect individuals as complex beings, and give everyone equal rights and opportunities to make their own choices regardless of gender.
If we can understand evidence for overall statistical patterns while confronting unjust assumptions about individuals that wrongly extrapolate from group averages, research in this field can lead to greater enlightenment. However, the ethical challenges are real and criticisms carry substantial weight given the risks of perpetuating discrimination against those who do not fit their gender norms. Treading this fine line continues to pose challenges for an interesting but controversial field still rife with open questions.