Sex Differences as a Sign of Social Health
A recurring theme of discussions of occupational gender disparities is the often-unspoken assumption that sex differences are inherently problematic, or that they constitute direct evidence of sexism and the curbing of women’s opportunities. Some research, however, points to the opposite conclusion. A growing body of evidence suggests that, in nations with greater wealth and higher levels of gender equality, sex differences are often larger than they are in less wealthy, less equal nations. This is true for a wide range of variables, including attachment styles, the Big Five personality traits, choice of academic speciality and occupation, crying, depression, enjoyment of casual sex, intimate partner violence, mathematical ability, mental rotation, self-esteem, subjective wellbeing, and values. Importantly, it is also true of objectively measurable traits such as height, BMI, and blood pressure, which gives us some reason to think that the pattern is not simply a product of cross-cultural differences in the ways that people answer questionnaires or take tests.
What, then, is the cause of the pattern? One possibility is that when people are free to develop relatively unrestrainedly, nascent differences between individuals – and average differences between the sexes – have more opportunity to emerge and grow. In the case of psychological traits, the suggestion would be that men and women in wealthier, more developed nations have greater freedom to pursue what interests them and to nurture their own individuality. This freedom may, in turn, result in larger psychological sex differences.
Regardless of the explanation, though, if certain sex differences are larger in societies with better social indicators, then rather than being products of a sexist or oppressive society, these differences may be indicators of the opposite: a comparatively free and fair one. If so, this casts society’s efforts to eradicate the sex differences in an entirely new light. Rather than furthering gender equality, such efforts may involve attacking a positive symptom of gender equality. By mistaking the fruits of our freedom for evidence of oppression, we may institute policies that, at best, burn up time and resources in a futile effort to cure a misdiagnosed disease, and at worst actively limit people’s freedom to pursue their own interests and ambitions on a fair and level playing field.