An interesting claim about culture and gender

“Research has shown that cultures with greater gender equity have larger sex differences when it comes to job preferences, because in these societies, people are free to choose their occupations based on what they enjoy.”

A month ago, a Google employee wrote a memo about his take on Google’s gender diversity efforts; last week it went public (and then Google fired him).

Rather than adding my two cents to a now heated debate, I just want to highlight the research result that is expressed in the opening quote above. It says that the more female-friendly the hiring culture, the bigger the gender differences in occupations.

The research has come up a few times during the course of the memo debate. The paraphrasing above comes courtesy of the neuroscientist Debra Soh.

The same research is also discussed by psychiatrist Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex fame here. He points particularly to a paper in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures“.

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper essentially agrees with the apparently pre-existing idea 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.” So, the argument goes, there might be proportionately more female computer programmers in Guyana than in Sweden, because in Sweden women are much freer to become whatever they want to become – and computer programming isn’t that many women’s first preference.

In the context of the memo debate, this work is being used in service of the argument that differences in gender representation in workplace can be ascribed to “interests, not abilities”.

I’d never come across this claim before. I can see how it could be true. Still, it’s a remarkable idea. At the moment I haven’t seen anyone pushing back against it.

(Follow me on Twitter @shorewalker1.)

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS ( and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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6 Responses to An interesting claim about culture and gender

  1. Anto says:

    There’s a somewhat related claim too: the more parent-friendly a parental leave policy a nation has, the less likely women are to be found in senior positions in the workplace.

    Based on research in Scandinavia where longer, more generous parental leave policies were introduced.

  2. conrad says:

    Another alternative is that female friendly countries have wage structures for things that women have historically done more of that are better than those that don’t. Hence, if women want to do those jobs, then there are better incentives to do them. Thus smart women may still do jobs which are paid poorly in other countries (teaching is an example of this where wages differ a lot across countries).

  3. Paul Frijters says:

    I hadn’t heard the claim before and don’t know where it comes from. My immediate thought though is that this may well be an issue of classification. The number of job categories and occuptations has increased leaps and bounds in the last few decades, partly due to more specialisation byt also just due to bureaucrats adding boxes because they can make an argument that it is better to have more boxes. Countries with less wage disparities are generally better run countries. Perhaps the same countries in the same period have more boxes or are used to filling in these forms more diligently.
    In short, artifact statistics are a real danger in this line of work.

    • David Walker says:

      That last line of your comment is right on the money. As the Slate Star Codex piece puts it regarding artefacts in education statistics, which have the same problem:

      If an educational program shows amazing results, and there’s any possible way it’s selection bias – then it’s selection bias.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Developed countries with the strongest Troppo readership tended to do better in the global financial crisis than other developed countries.

    Known fact!

  5. I found the general lack of critical engagement with Damore’s manifesto disturbing, so I wrote my own.

    Like Paul, I am skeptical about the method, however, I also feel that it is dangerous to draw simplistic inferences from a complex social dynamic. This is what I wrote about the specific claim in question:

    Aside from any questions around the study’s methodology, I would suggest that its chief flaw in construction is the use of self-assessment rather than any objective measurement of populations.

    Research shows that people conform their presentation to match norms once they become aware of the existence of those norms, as with mentally ill people told about the typical symptoms of anorexia nervosa.

    It is entirely plausible that the greater reported difference between genders is a function of these populations being more self-aware about social norms than of any hardwired biological difference.

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