Why Dr. Peterson is wrong about the gender equality paradox
Picture: Gage Skidmore https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/42026121325
The research Dr Peterson references does not at all support his claim that the gender equality paradox reveals the biological underpinnings of differences in preferences between men and women. While we do observe that larger differences in preferences by gender correlate with gender equality across countries, this observation is consistent with both social and biological factors as fundamental drivers.
Dr Jordan Peterson sparked a controversy with his recent appearance on the TV-show Skavlan on 27th of October. In a discussion with the Leader of the Centre Party, Annie Lööf, he asserted that differences in preferences between men and women are larger in richer, more gender-equal countries. Moreover, he argued that this phenomenon indicates that differences in preferences and observed outcomes between genders are mainly a reflection of underlying biological differences. He concluded that many of the egalitarian policies adopted by Scandinavian countries are misguided, as they are trying to make outcomes more similar .
In his argument, Peterson explicitly referenced a recently published paper in Science by economists Armin Falk, Professor of Economics at the University of Bonn, and Johannes Hermle, PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley. In this article we argue that Peterson’s interpretation of the so-called gender equality paradox and the supposed political implications are not supported by the referenced study .
In order to see why Dr Peterson’s conclusions do not follow from the results in the paper it is important to know what the paper says and – perhaps even more important – what it does not.
Two Views on Equality and Differences By Gender
The paper attempts to test two contesting hypotheses, the social role hypothesis, and the resource hypothesis:
- The social role hypothesis states that gender differences in preferences stem from from inequality in economic, political, and social realms. More gender equality in economic, political and social matters leads to an attenuation of gender-specific social roles which then should decrease observed differences in preferences between men and women.
- The resource hypothesis states that women and men will not act on gender-specific preferences unless they have covered their basic social and material needs. A greater availability of material and social resources removes the gender-neutral goal of subsistence and creates a scope for gender-specific ambitions and desires and thus increases observed differences between men and women.
These two hypotheses have opposite predictions about the relationship between equality and differences in preferences by gender. According to the former, more equality should result in smaller differences. The latter hypothesis instead predicts larger differences as countries become more equal. The authors show that the data is more in line with the resource hypothesis.
In other words, Peterson’s first claim is supported by the study; countries that are richer and more gender-equal do exhibit larger differences in preferences between men and women. However, Peterson’s second claim is not correct: we cannot infer from this paper that these differences have biological underpinnings. In fact, the authors explicitly stress the role of the social environment:
“Our findings do not rule out an influence of gender-specific roles that drive gender differences in preferences. They also do not preclude a role for biological or evolutionary determinants of gender differences. Our results highlight, however, that theories not attributing a significant role to the social environment are incomplete.” (page 4)
Cultural Factors Might Drive Preferences Independently of the Social Role Hypothesis
This might seem paradoxical at first glance, but it makes sense if we look at the claims of the two hypotheses. Evidence in favor of the resource hypothesis is not the same as evidence in favor of a hypothesis claiming biological underpinnings of gender differences in preferences. Likewise, rejecting the social role hypothesis is not equivalent to rejecting cultural factors as fundamental drivers of gender differences in preferences.
To see this, note the following. The social role hypothesis consists of two premises:
- More equality in economic, political, and social realms results in a loosening of gender-specific social roles and norms.
- The attenuation of gender-specific social roles and norms reduces differences in preferences.
The paper test these premises jointly, not separately. Thus, rejecting them together does not mean we can reject each one of them alone. It is possible that reforms that increase gender equality in general do not immediately affect the strictness of gender-specific social roles and norms. It may be the case that only specific reforms, or slow-moving cultural evolution, can change those social roles. If so, we would reject the social role hypothesis despite there being no biological underpinnings of the observed differences and a rejection would still leave room for cultural factors.
Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to say that Peterson’s point is void of content. If the evidence instead showed a negative relationship between equality and gender differences in preferences we would be tempted to conclude that general increases in measurable gender equality per se will eliminate gender differences in preferences. This does not seem to be the case if we look at the data.
The Resource Hypothesis Might Be True Even if Biology Has No Impact
Moreover, the resource hypothesis can be affirmed for reasons that are also largely disconnected from any biological underpinnings of differences in preferences between genders.
Consider the following example:
Suppose you observe that Swedish women wear makeup to work more often than women from, say, Pakistan. Suppose further that Swedish men and Pakistani men never wear makeup to work. Then the observed differences in wearing makeup to work between Swedish men and women would be larger than the difference between Pakistani men and women. Would this necessarily be a revelation of the biological underpinnings of preferences for wearing makeup to work? No, obviously not.
The differences could be driven by differences in income between the countries (which is partly why the paper controls for log GDP per capita differences between countries), but it could also be driven by a combination of income and social roles. Since Sweden is richer, Swedish women can afford to wear makeup to work. Since they can afford this, social roles might have evolved that induce women to wear makeup to work, even if they’d rather not.
While the above example might seem silly, the logic holds more generally. Consider the following example. Suppose you can raise children to be either “competitive” or “nurturing”, qualities associated with masculine and feminine social roles respectively. Suppose further that if you raise them to be competitive, they are more likely to become engineers and if you raise them to be nurturing they are more likely to become nurses.
In a poor and gender-unequal country, the difference between a nurse and an engineer might be the difference between being quite wealthy and quite poor. Hence, in such a country, it would be essential to be competitive in order to avoid poverty – regardless of gender. There is therefore a substantial cost associated with raising children in accordance with the gender-specific roles.
In contrast, in a rich and gender-equal country, the difference between being a nurse and being an engineer is not the difference between being very wealthy or living at subsistence level, hence you can “afford” to raise children according to gender-specific social roles – even if this social pressure could lead children on another path than they would have actually preferred.
This is could be one of the mechanisms behind the resource hypothesis. Notably, this mechanism is social rather than biological. In other words, when the data supports the resource hypothesis, we cannot be sure if it is culture or biology that drives the results.
Be Careful with Your Words
A recurring theme in Peterson’s YouTube lectures is that we should be very careful when describing what we know and what we do not know. In this case we do not know why more equal countries have larger differences in preferences between women and men, but Dr Peterson still makes very confident claims such as “for all social constructivists, you are wrong”.
Dr Peterson asserts that because of these results, promoting egalitarian policies that strive for equality of outcome is playing a fool’s game. But there seems to be many policies – such as subsidised kindergarten and shared maternity/paternity leave – that might be well worth implementing. It is not clear how Peterson comes to the conclusion that such policies are misguided by simply referring to the gender equality paradox. Subsidising kindergarten can be a good idea whether or not it affects the difference in preferences between men and women.
Needless to say that the implications for whether or not equality-enhancing policies should be adopted are not as much affected by the results discussed above and certainly not to the extent that Peterson seems to claim.
However, the study does interestingly point out that the relationship between measurable gender equality, gender-specific social roles and gender differences in preferences between men and women is less straightforward than many might think. As an empirical fact, the gender equality paradox seems real, so gender differences in preferences might not be reduced by simply implementing policies that increase gender equality.
 In the Skavlan show, Peterson states that to strive for equality of outcome is a fool’s game and that differences between Scandinavian men and women have been “maximized due to the egalitarian policies”. He also states that “when you minimize the cultural differences, you maximize the biological” and that the equality paradox shows that there are differences in labor force participation rates that “aren’t a consequence of socialization”. He also says that “[differences in occupational choice] are mostly due to biological differences and you can not minimize that by social engineering”. Finally, when Lööf states that she believes that it is rather social values that determine how men and women behave he states that “[Well,] that is what people who think that differences between people are primarily constructed believe, but it is not what the evidence suggest”.
 In writing this post, we benefited tremendously from an email correspondence with Hermle, who was generous enough to answer all our questions about the paper and even ran some additional regressions at our request.