The representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) is increasing, albeit more slowly than many observers would like. But a focus on this issue has begun throwing up head-scratching anomalies, such as Finland, which has one of the larger gender gaps in STEM occupations, despite being one of the more gender equal societies, and boasting a higher science literacy rate in its girls than boys. Now a study in Psychological Science has used an international dataset of almost half a million participants that confirms what they call the “STEM gender-equality paradox”: more gender-equal societies have fewer women taking STEM degrees. And the research goes much further, exploring the causes that are driving these counterintuitive findings.
You may have seen the recent viral TV interview in which the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson claimed that an important part of the reason there are fewer women than men in leadership positions is to do with personality differences between the sexes. Specifically, he said that women on average score lower than men on traits, such as assertiveness, that are known to be associated with reaching senior roles, and higher on others that work against promotion, especially agreeableness and emotional sensitivity.
While these observations are largely backed byevidence, what’s far less clear – because the question simply hasn’t been studied much before – is whether women who reach senior management tend to share the traits of men in these positions, or if instead female bosses have a contrasting personality profile, indicative of an alternative, “feminine” route to the top.
These are pertinent questions for any one who would like more gender diversity in leadership roles because the findings could point to clues for how to ease the promotion path for women. For a new paper in Journal of Vocational Behaviour, a team led by Bart Wille at the University of Antwerp has investigated.
You and your partner have had a tiff. Of all the things they could do to try to make up with you, what would be the most effective? A group of evolutionary psychologists recently put this question to 164 young adults. They presented them with 21 categories of reconciliatory behaviour, including giving a gift, cooking a meal and communicating better (derived from an earlier survey of 74 other young adults about ways to make up).
Men and women agreed that the most effective reconciliatory behaviour of all is communicating (for instance, by talking or texting). To varying degrees, both sexes also rated apologising, forgiving, spending time together and compromising as among the things their partner could do that would most likely heal wounds.
But some behaviours men thought would be more effective for making up than women, and these were their partner performing nice gestures (such as chores, favours and compliments), and offering sex or sexual favours. On the other hand, women thought their partner apologising or crying would be more a more effective way for their partner to make up than did the men.
Joel Wade at Bucknell University and his colleagues said these differences are in line with the predictions of evolutionary psychology, namely that thanks to sex differences in mating strategies shaped through our deep ancestral past, men are generally more concerned about opportunities for sex whereas women are more concerned about emotional commitment. The findings also complement past research, in the same vein, that’s found men are more likely to end a relationship if their partner is sexually unavailable, while women are more likely to end the relationship if their partner is emotionally distant.
“Evolutionary theory predicts a number of sex differences in mate selection, mate retention, and mate expulsion,” the researchers wrote in Evolutionary Psychological Science. “The present research expands this literature by documenting systematic differences in which actions men and women perceive as most effective in promoting conflict reconciliation within romantic relationships.”
Any context that encourages us to focus on a person’s body, more than their mind, is said to lead to objectification, such as when, in a previous era, a Formula One fan looked upon an attractive “grid girl” dressed in revealing clothes.
Perhaps the most serious concern about objectification is that it can lead us to disregard the rights and experiences of the objectified person. For instance, past research has shown that we’re more inclined to blame a rape victim depicted in a bikini, and more willing to (hypothetically) administer painful tablets to men and women shown wearing swim wear, rather than fully clothed.
Now a study in Cortex has taken things further by showing that volunteers’ empathy-related brain activity was diminished when they saw an objectified woman suffering social rejection, as compared with a woman who wasn’t objectified.
Update: Today, 15 March 2018, the authors of the research reported below have alerted us to a major correction to their analyses: read their full correction. In short, the sex differences in regional brain volumes in one-month-old infants were no longer statistically significant after controlling for sex differences in total brain volume. Much of our discussion below is now nullified because it pertained to results that were not in fact obtained.
On average, men and women differ psychologically in small but reliable ways, such as in personality, interests, and cognitive performance, but the basis of these differences is up for debate. Are they innate or due to how we’re socialised?
Neuroscientists look for traction on this question by studying sex differences in the brain, premised on the idea that these might contribute to the observed psychological differences. However, studying the brains of adults, or even teenagers, still leads to spinning wheels, because culturally produced differences will show up in the brain too. But how about one-month old infants, the subjects of a paper published in the journal Brain Structure and Function? Since birth, babies at this age have spent most of their time sleeping and suckling with limited eyesight, so profound socialisation effects aren’t going to be a factor. And yet, the new findings reveal that sex differences in a number of brain areas are already apparent.
New research on gender identity disorder (also known as gender dysphoria, in which a person does not identify with their biological sex) questions how best to handle the condition when it arises in children and adolescents. Should biological treatments be used as early as possible to help a young client transition, or is caution required, in case of complicating psychological issues?
Melanie Bechard of the University of Toronto and her colleagues examined the prevalence of “psychosocial and psychological vulnerabilities” in 50 child and teen cases of gender dysphoria, and writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, they argue their findings show that physicians should be considering these factors more seriously when deciding on a treatment plan. Salting the situation, one of the paper’s co-authors is Kenneth Zucker, an expert on gender dysphoria who was last year considered too controversial for Canadian state television.
Imagine you’re out one evening with someone you met recently – you take your date’s hand in yours, or compliment your date’s appearance, or you kiss him or her passionately. For each behaviour, how likely is it that you wanted to have sex with that person for the first time? Researchers have put this question to heterosexual women, then they’ve asked men how they would interpret a woman’s intentions if she had behaved in these ways. The contrast in their answers is striking: men judge woman’s sexual intent as much higher than women do.
We could conclude from this that men read sex into situations where it isn’t there. But another explanation could be that men aren’t far off – it’s just that women under-report their true intentions. Which is closer to the truth? And what about men’s own sexual intentions – do women get those right?
In a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,involving hundreds of US participants recruited online, Isabelle Engeler from IESE Business School and Priya Raghubir at New York University shine some light on the different ways men and women interpret the same dating behaviours.
Stereotype threat is one of those social psychology concepts that has managed to break out of the academic world and into everyday conversation: the idea that a fear of conforming to stereotypes – for example, that girls struggle at maths – can make those stereotypes self-fulfilling, thanks to the adverse effect of anxiety and excessive self-consciousness on performance.
A recent review suggested that stereotype threat has a robust but small-to-medium sized effect on performance, but a meta-analysis suggests that publication bias may be a problem in this literature, inflating the apparent size of the effect. Also, the majority of the work has been done under laboratory conditions, which may not reflect what happens in the wider world. So when a field study comes along, it’s worth paying attention to, and a paper published as a pre-print at PsyArXiv from Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield looks at a domain involving high pressure, clear success criteria, and a presupposition that’s it’s more a guy thing: chess.
There are behavioural differences, on average, between the sexes – few would dispute that. Where the debate rages is over how much these differences are the result of social pressures versus being rooted in our biology (the answer often is that there is a complex interaction between the two).
For example, when differences are observed between girls and boys, such as in preferences for play, one possibility is that this is partly or wholly because of the contrasting ways that girls and boys are influenced by their peers, parents and other adults (because of the ideas they have about how the sexes ought to behave). Studying non-human primates allows us to identity sex differences in behavior that can’t be due to human culture and gender beliefs.
Learning more about the biological roots of behavioural sex differences should not be used as an excuse for harmful stereotyping or discrimination, but it can help us better understand our human nature and the part that evolved sex differences play in some of the most important issues that affect our lives, including around diversity, relationships, mental health, crime and education.
“Many sex differences in behavioral development exist in nonhuman primates,” she writes, “despite a comparative lack of sex-biased treatment by mothers and other social partners”. Here is a digested account of five of these behavioural sex differences:
If you want to know what a woman is really thinking, ask another woman. That’s the message of a new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, which was designed to probe our ability to use other people’s posture, facial expressions and behaviours, as well our interpretations of ambiguous statements, to infer what’s going on in their mind – no matter what they’re actually saying.
The research team, led by Renata Wacker at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, recruited 304 women and 241 men, ranging in age from 17 to 70. The volunteers were put through possibly the most irritating – though potentially clinically useful – movie-watching experience imaginable.