Research Highlights

Debunking Myths About Sex/Gender Differences

Joe Magee

Overview: In the paper, “Are Many Sex/Gender Differences Really Power Differences?,” NYU Stern Professor Joe Magee, with co-authors Adam Galinsky (Columbia), Aurora Turek (Harvard), Grusha Agarwal (University of Toronto), Eric Anicich (USC), Derek Rucker (Northwestern), Hannah Bowles (Harvard), Nira Liberman (Tel Aviv University), and Chloe Levin (Columbia), seek evidence to debunk false perceptions about what drives psychological and behavioral differences between men and women. 

Why study this now: Previous research has shown distinct differences between men and women (e.g., men tend to take more risks, and women tend to be better at emotion recognition). However, academics have yet to come to agreement about the fundamental causes of such differences. The aim of this new paper is to explore one of those potential causes: the psychological experience of power, which the authors define as having control over valued resources. 

What the authors found: By comparing meta-analyses of sex/gender differences and research on the psychological effects of power, the researchers found that different behavioral tendencies of men as compared to women (e.g., greater risk-taking, lower concern for others, more positive self-evaluations, and cognitive processes) may be driven, at least in part, by men tending to have more power than women in society.

What does this change: There are many broadly accepted generalizations about sex/gender differences that are attributed to essential differences between men and women. These researchers argue that underestimating the impact of power differences between women and men reinforces these inequalities. The researchers claim that more clearly understanding how power contributes to sex/gender differences could help produce more “level playing fields for men and women.”

Key insight: “We are not claiming that every sex/gender difference is driven, even in part, by power differences, nor are we arguing that all the variance in sex/gender differences is accounted for by power,” said the researchers. Rather, they offer the most comprehensive evidence up to now that “power is likely one important explanatory factor that has contributed to observed differences between men and women.”

This research was published in PNAS Nexus.