The Equality Problem: Research Says Men and Women Are Different, No Matter What We Think

These days there is no shortage of dialogue on the topic of gender. Between wage disputes, famous female fathers and “Trampedes” caught on camera, the equality motif, as it related to sex, is a hot and heavy one. It’s also a tricky one.


While biological differences between sexes can often be acknowledged with little conflict, the social, psychological and romantic ones tend to come with a little more room for debate. But recently, science has stepped in and forced us to wonder how much we can really compartmentalize and isolate behavioural pillars from the foundations of our innate biology.

Because at the end of the day, some of us get pregnant… and some of us don’t.

Think about this for a moment: after conducting an extensive study, several researchers found that they could tell, with 92% accuracy, if someone was a woman or a heterosexual male simply by looking at how they prioritized and ranked the desirability of 18 traits available to a potential romantic partner.

So perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh, well duh, women and men are obviously attracted to different things.” But why are you thinking that? And are you thinking that within a local or global context? Because what was unique about this study, aside from its analysis of multiple traits at once, is that it involved over 10,000 participants from across 33 different countries and 37 different cultures.

When it came to stated preferences of characteristics in romantic partners, heterosexual men and women showed only a 22% overlap.

That is a profoundly low number.

What were the most significantly sex-differentiating traits? Financial Prospects, Physical Appearance, Chastity and Ambition & Industriousness. Across more than thirty cultures, analyzing how desirable someone finds each of those traits in a partner will tell you their gender more than 90% of the time.

“…In long-term mating, women more severely faced the adaptive problem of acquiring resources to produce and support offspring,” writes Daniel Conroy-Beam and his University of Texas colleagues. “Women are therefore predicted to greater prefer long-term, committed mates who possess resources and qualities linked to resource acquisition such as status, ambition, and slightly older age… men, more than women, prefer their partners to be physically attractive, but they must also be kind, educated, and share their political values.”

Overall, according to the research, “multivariate analyses show that these individual dimensions contribute to a much larger (and under appreciated) sexual dimorphism in the overall pattern of preferences.”

It is that last statement that makes this so interesting; cross-cultural studies like this challenge our tendencies to draw thick lines around “romantic preferences” as though they are not reflections, or perhaps even drivers, of broader ideologies, priorities and biological frameworks.

What does that mean for the economics debate? Or for our impressions and emotions surrounding sub-cultures, trends and biases? What does it mean for monogamy and divorce rates? What does it mean for gender movements? Nothing? Everything?

Many of us have thought for a while, to some degree of tongue-in-cheek, that men are from one planet and women from another.

What is really interesting to consider, however, is that if OR when we find that to be true, how much of a difference does it really make?