Does the language that you speak influence what you think? And do languages that assign a gender to most nouns — such as French and Spanish — lead speakers to feel differently about women versus men, compared with languages that don’t — such as Chinese? Both questions have been hotly debated. But now a major new study, involving an analysis of millions of pages of text in 45 different languages from all over the world, concludes that gendered languages shape prejudice against women.
When you picture God, who do you see: a young black woman, or an old white man? Chances are it’s the latter — and a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that that image has its consequences.
The “dark triad” of personality traits — narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism — do not make for the nicest individuals. People who score highly on the dark triad are vain, callous and manipulative. They adopt a so-called “fast-life” strategy, characterised by impulsivity, opportunism and selfishness. Such individuals can succeed in the workplace, while failing to get on with others. They’re also more likely to cheat on their partners, and are deemed more alluring in speed-dating sessions.
Though these traits can bring advantages to the individual, they are clearly detrimental to those around them. So it’s important to understand what fosters them. Could particular attitudes in society, for example, help to encourage these dark traits?
A new study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, concludes that this may in fact be the case. Melissa Gluck at the University of Florida and her colleagues gathered evidence suggesting that sexism — “and the socially-supported, unearned male power and privilege that sexism reflects” — is linked to higher scores on measures of the dark triad. “If scholars can demonstrate that these malevolent traits are partly learned by growing up in sexist cultures, agents of personal and social change can help people recognise, understand, alter and replace these malevolent aspects of humanity,” the researchers write.
An imbalance in power — personal and political — is at the heart of many of the conversations we have around gender. #MeToo sparked a global conversation on the topic, and issues around the gender pay gap and women in leadership roles also deal with matters of unequal power.
But our assumptions about how gender and power interact may start far before we even reach the workplace, new research suggests. In a paper published in Sex Roles, Rawan Charafeddine from the CNRS in Paris and colleagues conclude that associations between power and masculinity start when we’re barely out of nappies, with children as young as four making the link.
Gender inequality in the business world has been much discussed over the last few years, with a host of mentoring schemes, grants, business books and political activity all aimed at getting women into leadership positions.
But what happens when this goal is achieved? According to new research, unequal gender dynamics still prevail even at the very top. Nicole Votolato Montgomery and Amanda P. Cowen from the University of Virginia found that women CEOs are judged far more harshly than their male counterparts when a business fails ethically. However, when a failure is down to incompetence, they find, women receive less negative backlash.
Whether we like it or not, our parents play a big part in who we become as adults. From our taste in music to our social values, their imprint often stays with us, good or bad, well past childhood.
Now new research suggests that we still rely on them well into mid-life — at least when it comes to our health, that is. Alexandra Kissling and Corinne Reczek, a team from the Ohio State University, found that while we look to our mothers in much the same way we do when we’re children — asking them for advice and hoping they’ll be there to help us through periods of bad health, for instance — fathers act more like “cautionary tales”, examples of what not to do.
In many countries, the proportion of girls opting to pursue careers in lucrative fields such as engineering and computer science has stagnated. Despite the best efforts of schools, universities and governments, women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called “STEM” subjects. The shortage of women is particularly acute in professions with a heavy focus on maths. But why?
A recent study in PNAS suggests that the answer may lie in differences in ability between boys and girls. But surprisingly, the ability in question is not maths, but reading. In a nutshell, girls who are good at maths tend to be even better at reading, and as a result, many turn away from maths and opt instead to pursue careers that utilise their even stronger language skills. By contrast, boys who are good at maths tend not to show this same advantage in reading, making their decision to stick with STEM subjects much more straightforward.
The role of birth order in shaping who we are has been a matter of some debate in psychology. Recent research has cast doubt on the idea that an individual’s position in relation to their siblings influences their personality, for instance. But there may be other domains where birth order is still important: in particular, researchers have found that children with a greater number of older siblings seem to have worse verbal skills.
However, a new study published in Psychological Science has found that the situation is a bit more complicated than that. Young children with an older sibling do indeed perform worse on language measures, the authors find — but only if that sibling is a brother.
Over the last half century Western European countries have enjoyed a large increase in gender equality. There is a long way to go, but some statistics are striking: for instance, in Germany the employment rate for women has increased from 48 per cent in 1980 to 73 per cent in 2014. Psychologists are interested in whether, and how, these kind of societal-level changes filter down and affect children’s conceptions of gender.
To find out, a team at the University of Münster and Osnabrück University, led by Bettina Lamm, has compared the way that young German children in 1977 drew a human figure with the way that age-matched German children in 2015 drew a figure. The results, published in Sex Roles, suggest two parallel changes: girls in 2015 more often chose to draw a female figure than girls in 1977; at the same time, the children tested in 2015 depicted female figures as more distinctly feminine than the children in the 1970s.
“Societal changes over the last four decades in West Germany have clearly generated two trends,” the researchers said. “… growing status equality between the genders on the one hand, and increasing gender differentiation, on the other.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is an ongoing debate about the existence of differences between women’s and men’s brains, and the extent to which these might be linked to biological or to cultural factors. In this debate, a real game-changer of a study would involve the identification of clear-cut sex differences in foetal brains: that is, in brains that have not yet been exposed to all the different expectations and experiences that the world might offer. A recent open-access study published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience by Muriah Wheelock at the University of Washington and her colleagues, including senior researcher Moriah Thomason at New York University School of Medicine, claims to have done just that, hailed by the researchers themselves as “confirmation that sexual dimorphism in functional brain systems emerges during human gestation” and in various ways by the popular press as, for example, The Times of London’s headline: “Proof at last: women and men are born to be different”.
Does this study live up to the claims made by its authors and, more excitedly, those passing the message on? I think not.