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The gender equality paradox is the paradoxical observation that in more egalitarian societies gender differences maximize.

This paper makes the following claims:

A common explanation put forward in some recent literature for the gender-equality paradox is that in more equal and developed countries, girls and boys have more freedom and ease to express their intrinsically distinct inner preferences and interests (10–12). This explanation gets its theoretical foundations from the tradition of evolutionary psychology, which posits the existence of innate gender differences in, e.g., personality or interests (20). In this contribution, in line with a strand of research in sociology, initiated by Charles and coworkers, relating horizontal educational and occupational segregation to gender essentialism (8, 9, 21, 22), we show that the gender-equality paradox could also be explained by differences across countries in culturally constructed gender identities.

More specifically, GMS is a country-level standardized index based on average differences between boys’ and girls’ beliefs that “doing well in math is completely up to them” (B1) and that “their parents think that math is important for their career” (B2), conditional on their math ability. B1 should be more affected by gender stereotypes regarding aptitudes for math, and B2 by stereotypes regarding appropriate educational and career choices. GMS is a valid measure of these stereotypes under the assumption that systematic differences in beliefs between girls and boys with similar measured ability are the product of social norms regarding gender roles in math. In this case, GMS recovers indirectly country-level social norms from the extent to which they are internalized by 15-y-old girls and boys. (Emphasis mine)

What explanatory benefit does the construct of gender math stereotype have (GMS) when the authors themself state that it is only an alternative explanation, which also rests on an assumption that seems impossible to falsify?

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1 Answer 1

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Science progresses through disagreements. Proposing alternative explanations for phenomena inspires tests of those explanations, adding to our confidence of whatever theory ultimately prevails. The Breda et al (2020) paper was well-received and highly cited, suggesting that it has successfully fulfilled this role whether or not its assumptions are well-founded.

The gender-equality paradox is explainable by a number of theories that roughly fall into the nature (evolutionary) vs nurture (social) categories - for good reviews see Kosakowska-Berezecka et al (2022), Balducci (2023), Block et al (2022), and Wikipedia. I don't think there is a clear leader among them currently as of yet, and likely both factors play some role. Breda et al's gender stereotype theory is a social theory.

That said, a few notes worth making:

  • The GMS index proposed by the authors is not a validated measure. It was not validated in the paper cited nor any subsequent paper that I can find.
  • The assumption that differences in stereotype beliefs are the result of social norms is both plausible and testable (eg, Stewart et al, 2021), but was not tested in the paper.
  • In my view, a more critical flaw of this paper that is typical of such associative literature, is the lack of evidence for cause-and-effect. That is, the paper implies that gender stereotype explains (causes) gender gap - suggesting that addressing stereotypes can decrease the gap - when the opposite can be true (gap causes stereotype), or they may both have a separate common cause.
  • Either way, the paper's shortcomings may spur on the kind of research that could help test its assumptions.
  • Gender-related research in general is susceptible to political bias, such that objectively resolving the gender-equality paradox may be unlikely in the foreseeable future anyway.
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