Research Article

Relationship of gender differences in preferences to economic development and gender equality

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Science  19 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6412, eaas9899
DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9899

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Assessing gender differences

What contributes to gender-associated differences in preferences such as the willingness to take risks, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust? Falk and Hermle studied 80,000 individuals in 76 countries who participated in a Global Preference Survey and compared the data with country-level variables such as gross domestic product and indices of gender inequality. They observed that the more that women have equal opportunities, the more they differ from men in their preferences.

Science, this issue p. eaas9899

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

Understanding determinants of gender differences in economic and social domains has been of interest, both in academic and public debates. Previous research has shown that gender differences in fundamental economic preferences are important in explaining gender differences in economic outcomes, such as for occupational choice, financial investment, or educational decisions, among many others. However, gaps remain in understanding the sources of gender differences in preferences and their variation.

RATIONALE

We contrasted and tested two hypotheses that make opposite predictions concerning the cross-country association of gender differences in preferences with economic development and gender equality. On one hand, the attenuation of gender-specific social roles that arises in more developed and gender-egalitarian countries may alleviate differences in preferences between women and men. As a consequence, one would expect gender differences in preferences to be negatively associated with higher levels of economic development and gender equality (social role hypothesis). On the other hand, greater availability of material and social resources removes the gender-neutral goal of subsistence, which creates the scope for gender-specific ambitions and desires. In addition, more gender-equal access to those resources may allow women and men to express preferences independently from each other. As a consequence, one would expect gender differences in preferences to be positively associated with higher levels of economic development and gender equality (resource hypothesis).

We tested these competing predictions using data on experimentally validated measures of willingness to take risks, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust for 80,000 individuals in 76 representative country samples. So that the data would be geographically representative, the dataset was chosen so as to include all continents and a broad range of cultures and economic development levels. In total, the data represent about 90% of both the world population and global income.

RESULTS

The data revealed substantial cross-country variation in gender differences in preferences. Gender differences were found to be strongly positively associated with economic development as well as gender equality. These relationships held for each preference separately as well as for a summary index of differences in all preferences jointly. Quantitatively, this summary index exhibited correlations of 0.67 (P < 0.0001) with log GDP per capita and 0.56 (P < 0.0001) with a Gender Equality Index (a joint measure of four indices of gender equality), respectively. To isolate the separate impacts of economic development and gender equality, we conducted a conditional analysis, finding a quantitatively large and statistically significant association between gender differences and log GDP per capita conditional on the Gender Equality Index, and vice versa. These findings remained robust in several validation tests, such as accounting for potential culture-specific survey response behavior, aggregation bias, and nonlinear relationships.

CONCLUSION

The reported evidence indicates that higher levels of economic development and gender equality favor the manifestation of gender differences in preferences across countries. Our results highlight the critical role of availability of material and social resources, as well as gender-equal access to these resources, in facilitating the independent formation and expression of gender-specific preferences.

Gender differences in preferences across countries and their association with economic development and gender equality.

(Left) World map visualizing a summary index of gender differences in all six preferences (risk-taking, patience, altruism, trust, and positive and negative reciprocity). (Right) The relationship between the summary index of gender differences in preferences and (top) log GDP per capita and (bottom) a Gender Equality Index comprising measures of material, social, and political gender equality. The relationships are predicted from local polynomial regressions. Shaded areas indicate 95% confidence intervals.

Abstract

Preferences concerning time, risk, and social interactions systematically shape human behavior and contribute to differential economic and social outcomes between women and men. We present a global investigation of gender differences in six fundamental preferences. Our data consist of measures of willingness to take risks, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust for 80,000 individuals in 76 representative country samples. Gender differences in preferences were positively related to economic development and gender equality. This finding suggests that greater availability of and gender-equal access to material and social resources favor the manifestation of gender-differentiated preferences across countries.

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