Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Men and Women are More Different in Rich Countries

In the course of a long diatribe about the firing of that poor Google engineer, Scott Alexander discusses some research that I had never heard of before. Whatever the reason that only 20 to 25 percent of computer science majors in the US are women, it is true across the wealthy parts of the world. But it is not true in the rest:
Galpin investigated the percent of women in computer classes all around the world. Her number of 26% for the US is slightly higher than I usually hear, probably because it’s older (the percent women in computing has actually gone down over time!). The least sexist countries I can think of – Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, etc – all have somewhere around the same number (30%, 20%, and 24%, respectively). The most sexist countries do extremely well on this metric! The highest numbers on the chart are all from non-Western, non-First-World countries that do middling-to-poor on the Gender Development Index: Thailand with 55%, Guyana with 54%, Malaysia with 51%, Iran with 41%, Zimbabwe with 41%, and Mexico with 39%. Needless to say, Zimbabwe is not exactly famous for its deep commitment to gender equality.
So the richer and on the whole more egalitarian a country is, the fewer of its software writers are female. That seems weird, but not nearly as weird as what Alexander offers as an explanation:
Why is this? It’s a very common and well-replicated finding that the more progressive and gender-equal a country, the larger gender differences in personality of the sort Hyde found become. I agree this is a very strange finding, but it’s definitely true. See eg Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sex Differences In Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures:

Previous research suggested that sex differences in personality traits are larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with those of men. In this article, the authors report cross-cultural findings in which this unintuitive result was replicated across samples from 55 nations (n = 17,637).

In case you’re wondering, the countries with the highest gender differences in personality are France, Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. The countries with the lowest sex differences are Indonesia, Fiji, and the Congo.
I have to say that this bowls me over. What is this about?

The Big Five personality traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism; the test used in the study is described here.

To get back to the article cited above:
On responses to the Big Five Inventory, women reported higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than did men across most nations. These findings converge with previous studies in which different Big Five measures and more limited samples of nations were used.
Ok, so men and women are different from each other across the whole planet, and in some of the same ways. It is just the degree of difference that is under discussion. The scale of the difference is described as being less than the difference in physical strength, but on the other much larger than any difference in cognitive ability. Now for the weird part:
Overall, higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality. Changes in men’s personality traits appeared to be the primary cause of sex difference variation across cultures.
Note that while women are somewhat more feminine in the richer nations, most of the difference found in this study comes from men being more masculine. (Alexander adds in the discussion that other studies come to a different conclusion, especially about values: the difference between men's and women's values is greater in rich countries, and that is mostly because women have become more feminine.)
It is proposed that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations. In less fortunate social and economic conditions, innate personality differences between men and women may be attenuated.
Maybe. I can see how women adopting more empathic, less competitive values could very well be a result of living in rich, safe countries. But maybe the change is men's personalities is partly a reaction to everything else about life becoming more equal; that is, men are emphasizing masculine personality traits because in every other way their lives are just like women's lives.

When I was young, I was taken in by people who argued that once we took sexism out of the equation men and women would get along great and marriages would be happier and family life would be simpler and more fair and so on. It turns out that with the new economic opportunities for women we have mainly exchanged one set of problems for another. Men and women still want different things, and if this research is right those differences have only gotten bigger. Mothers' lives are still shaped around children much  more than fathers', but everyone is more stressed about it.

I remain a complete egalitarian, vehemently opposed to all limits on the lives women can pursue. But I no longer think this will by itself lead to a just or happy society, and it seems to have made it even more difficult for many men and women to get along.

4 comments:

David said...

An interesting wrinkle here would be the role that computer and tech involvement plays in a given culture. In the US, at least when I was growing up, tech was thought of as the refuge for young males who couldn't compete in more classically masculine ways, such as sports, physical aggression, defying teachers, getting girls, etc. Tech-bound males would of course then start to compete with each other, masculinizing the tech field.

As a corollary to this, overall it seems to me that in the US, tech is thought of as something that defines you as a person: it's thought of as a place for people of certain types, and we often expect them to have been at it since their early teens if not earlier.

In places like South Asia and Africa, I wouldn't be surprised if the culture presents tech as a more gender- and personality-neutral, "good way to earn a living," a ticket to modernity and the middle class. I suspect the cultural anxiety is more to define oneself by class and location (city, not village) rather than by gender or what Americans think of as personality. The expectation may be that men and women working in an office in Bangalore or Mumbai have much more in common with each other, regardless of gender, than they do with low-caste street cleaners or village rice farmers (reflected in turn in the tremendous bitterness in movements like the Taliban and the Khmer Rouge, or that incident between madames and maids that you posted about a while back).

szopen said...

How it's possible you have not heard about this research before? I thought this is pretty much a common knowledge, especially after Brainwashed gained notoriety on the net.

G. Verloren said...

"I remain a complete egalitarian, vehemently opposed to all limits on the lives women can pursue. But I no longer think this will by itself lead to a just or happy society, and it seems to have made it even more difficult for many men and women to get along."

Why would you think this? We've never seen a situation in which there are no limits on the lives women (and men!) can pursue.

My take away is that sexism is more than just systemic - it's cultural. You can change the laws of a society to be totall non-sexist, but until the culture itself catches up, you'll get distortions.

Look at David's example of technology. The single biggest reason there aren't more women in the tech field is because of the cultural expectations surrounding it. There are certain systemic biases, of course, but they have a lot smaller of an effect than our cultural biases.

Technology has been built up as a place of "masculine" refuge in our culture, and we unwittingly communicate that to children. Little boys are "supposed to" like vehicles and weapons and technology, and little girls are "supposed to" -NOT- like those things, and instead like things related with domesticity and emotions. Our society think it's weird and even concerning if a little girl wants a toy helicopter instead of a toy house, wants plastic army men instead of dress-up dolls, and shows a fascination for machines and science instead of dreaming about getting married and fantasizing about their emotional future.

There's nothing actually stopping little girls from embracing technology in our society, except for our own cultural expectations. As egalitarian as our laws and systems might be (and they're still imperfect, sometimes very badly so), our culure is nowhere near as egalitarian as even that. And that's the bottleneck that is holding things back, and which creates the distortions we're seeing.

szopen said...

Verloren, and somehow the one group of girls suspiciously immune to the cultural expectations are those with raised testosterone levels.

Moreover, you really should read Scott's piece. I don't know why the fact that girls choose to become veterinarians with 88k annual income over being programmer with 80k annual income somehow means things are being held back.