Gender Differences

There are differences between men and women, but most scientific studies show that gender differences in psychological characteristics are small. Men and women do not have radically different brains, personality traits, cognitive skills, or behaviors. There are some differences on average, but men and women are not the black versus white opposites that many people believe. (Even the phrase opposite sex encourages this view.)

There have been numerous media reports about just how different men and women are. The former president of Harvard, Lawrence H. Summers, said that women are not naturally Gender Differencesinclined toward science. The media report that adolescent girls have extremely low self-esteem. A best-selling book claims that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. However, men and women are not from different planets, or even different continents here on Earth. The size of most gender differences is more consistent with men being from Minnesota and women being from Iowa.

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Referring to psychological gender differences as small means that the effects are between 1/4 and 1/2 of a standard deviation (a statistical term; 1/4 of a standard deviation is a small difference, 1/2 is moderate, and more than 3/4 is large). So that means that gender explains less than 5% of the variation among people in most psychological characteristics. In comparison, the gender difference in height, for example, is almost two standard deviations, so gender explains 50% of the variation among people in height. Yet there are many women who are taller than many men. That said, what does research say about the differences that exist? This entry will review four major areas of difference: cognitive abilities, personality traits and self-esteem, attitudes, and behavior.

Gender Differences in Cognitive Abilities

Stereotypes suggest that boys are good at math and girls are good at English. There is a small difference in verbal ability, with women a little better than men at this skill. A meta-analysis by Janet S. Hyde and her colleagues found that boys and girls show no differences in math ability in elementary school. By late adolescence and early adulthood, men do better at math, but the difference is small to moderate, explaining about 3% to 6% of the variation among people in math skills.

Spatial ability is one of these slightly larger differences; this means that men are somewhat better at rotating figures in their heads and finding their way around town. If the performance of men and women on spatial ability tests were graphed, there would be two curves that overlapped a huge amount, with men’s curves slightly ahead. This does mean that among those very talented in this area there are many more men than women, as a small average difference creates more of a discrepancy at the high and low ends of the curve. There is no gender difference at all in overall intelligence.

In the mid-1990s, several popular books suggested that girls get less attention in school and lose their academic confidence during adolescence. Although teachers may sometimes treat boys and girls differently, girls consistently earn better grades in high school and are more likely to go on to college. The Statistical Abstract of the United States notes that 57% of college degrees are awarded to women, and entering medical school and law school classes are now 50% female.

Gender Differences in Personality Traits and Self-Esteem

Gender differences in personality traits are also small. An analysis by Alan Feingold found that women tend to score higher in anxiety and neuroticism, but they also score higher in extraversion (linked with positive emotions). So there is some evidence that women experience more emotional ups and downs, but these are small differences, no more than 1/2 a standard deviation (or about 6% of the variation among people explained by gender). Even among adolescents, self-reports of symptoms linked with depression are only about 1/4 a standard deviation higher among girls (less than 2% of the variance). Clinical depression has a larger sex difference, with about twice as many women as men diagnosed with major depression.

A great deal of attention has also been paid to gender differences in self-esteem. There is a popular perception that girls lose their self-esteem during adolescence. Yet the most comprehensive study of gender differences in self-esteem, by Kristen Kling and colleagues, found that men score only 1/7 of a standard deviation higher than women in self-esteem (less than 1% of the variance). Even among adolescents, the difference is only 1/4 a standard deviation (less than 2%). Even this small difference is not caused by girls’ self-esteem going down; it just doesn’t go up quite as fast as boys’ self-esteem does during the teen years.

Gender Differences in Attitudes

There are also some small gender differences in attitudes. Women tend to be more liberal than men on social issues. As one might expect, women are more progressive in their attitudes about women’s roles. Women are also more tolerant of gay men (there are no gender differences in attitudes toward lesbians). Women are more likely to vote for Democrats than are men.

Gender Differences in Behavior

Men and women do differ in their desire for sex, as found in separate reviews by Janet Hyde and Roy Baumeister and colleagues. Men desire more sex with more partners. Men also masturbate more often and are more accepting of casual sex; both of these differences exceed 3/4 a standard deviation and explain about 20% of the variation among people. Many of these differences, of course, are much smaller than they were decades ago. In the 1960s and earlier, men were more likely than women to engage in premarital sex; now, however, there is virtually no gender difference in this practice.

One of the larger psychological sex differences lies in interests. Generally speaking, men (compared to women) are more interested in things (like cars, buildings, and machines), and women are more interested in people (e.g., how people think, and how their bodies work). For example, Richard Lippa found that men were more likely to prefer professions centered on the “manipulation of objects, tools, machines, and animals,” and women were more likely to prefer professions that involved “activities that entail the manipulation of others to inform, train, develop, cure, or enlighten” (note, however, that these differences could be caused by cultural expectations, biological sex differences, or—most likely—both). This is one reason why there are more men in fields like engineering (78% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering go to men) and more women in fields like psychology (76% of bachelor’s degrees in psychology go to women). However, the things versus people distinction makes some less sex-stereotypical predictions for the future: If women are more interested in people, women will eventually be the majority of doctors, lawyers, and politicians.


  1. Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Is there a gender difference in strength of sex drive? Theoretical views, conceptual distinctions, and a review of relevant evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 242-273.
  2. Kling, K. C., Hyde, J. S., Showers, C. J., & Buswell, B. N. (1999). Gender differences in self-esteem: A metaanalysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 470-500.
  3. Lippa, R. (1998). Gender-related individual differences and the structure of vocational interests: The importance of the people-things dimension. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 996-1009.