What would you expect to find if you compared the personalities of men and women? Psychologists have been studying personality for decades, and while it would be too extreme to say that “men are from Mars and women from Venus”, they have identified some key ways in which the genders differ. Today’s predominant model of personality contains five traits: openness to experience; conscientiousness; extraversion; agreeableness; and neuroticism (proneness to negative emotion).

By studying cultures from around the world, researchers have found that there are reliable gender differences in some of these five traits. It may not be surprising that the sexes are far more similar than they are different, however. The difference is such that if you picked man and a woman at random from the population, and made a bet that the man was less agreeable (read as less polite and compassionate), you would be correct about 60% of the time. This represents one of the larger gender differences in personality. Generally, the differences are smaller. And of course, these being averages, one cannot infer the personality of another person merely by knowing their sex.

By studying cultures from around the world, researchers have found that there are reliable gender differences in some of these five traits

As with most things psychological, a nature/nurture debate rages on this topic. To what extent can these differences be attributed to the society in which one grows up? It would be reasonable to assume that gender differences in personality are greater in societies where men and women are not treated equally. Surely societies which teach women supposedly “traditional” ideals create women with a more dominant ‘agreeable’ personality, for example? As it turns out, this is where our intuitions fail us. A large number of studies have repeatedly shown that the opposite is true. In the countries with the highest levels of gender equality, the personality differences between the sexes are the largest.

In the countries with the highest levels of gender equality, the personality differences between the sexes are the largest.

This surprising finding has stirred a lot of debate as to the most reasonable interpretation of these data. At present, the most widely-accepted theory is that in societies where men and women are most free to live as they please, there is less of a need to adopt the opposite-gender personality traits that lead to successful functioning in that society. In gender-equal societies, the idea goes, men can be men without needing to change themselves, and women can be women without needing to change themselves. Where cultural constraints on behaviour are removed, the evolutionary biological differences between the sexes become more apparent.

This idea is supported by the occupational choices of men and women in these countries. In countries which rate highly on measures of gender equality like Norway and Sweden, there are more female nurses and male engineers than in less gender-equal countries like India. One could point out here that notions of masculinity and femininity vary cross-culturally, such that in countries like India, where the sexes are far from equal, engineering is not seen as a masculine field. This is also the case in Middle Eastern countries, where unlike in the West, STEM subjects are not stereotypically masculine. So, while gender differences in personality may maximise in more gender-equal countries, this may in part be due to the different notions of what masculinity and femininity entails.

On average, men are more interested in things, and women are more interested in people.

Contrary to this is research which points out that men and women differ in terms of their interest in things and people, on average, men are more interested in things, and women are more interested in people. This even holds in other primates, with research showing that male infant monkeys gravitate towards gadgets and toys, while female infant monkeys prefer dolls. This would suggest that the STEM subjects, with their almost infamous narrow focus on things, would be preferred by men. This supports the mainstream interpretation of the data on cross-cultural gender differences in personality and occupation, which holds that men and women in gender-equal societies are free to gravitate towards those areas in which they are interested, rather than those which offer the best. This is likely due in part to the fact that gender equality is highly correlated with measures of economic prosperity.

The data are in, but the jury is out. The debate over the most plausible explanation of this phenomenon is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Most researchers agree that this problem needs to be approached from a variety of angles – sociological, psychological, anthropological, and evolutionarily.