Public Release: 

Women less likely to endorse independence in gender-unequal societies

Society for Personality and Social Psychology

Women in countries with great gender inequality are more likely than men to support authoritarian values, according to a new study of 54 countries. The shift away from beliefs in independence and freedom is the result, social psychologists say, of authoritarianism helping such women cope with a threatening environment.

"If a person is authoritarian, they are more likely to follow what group leaders ask them to do, and to follow the crowd more generally," says Mark Brandt of DePaul University in Chicago, a co-author of the paper just published online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Prior research has found that adopting authoritarian beliefs gives people a sense of connection to others and protection against threats. "It might be one way to compensate for the social devaluing that is associated with being a member of a disadvantaged group."

Brandt and his co-author P.J. Henry thus predicted that the greater the gender inequality in a country, the greater the endorsement of authoritarianism by women compared to men. They investigated this relationship by analyzing survey data from 54 countries, from Argentina to Vietnam. They used the publicly available World Values Survey, which asks participants about their beliefs in authoritarian (e.g. "good manners" and "obedience") values versus autonomous ("independence" and "imagination") ones. They gathered gender inequality data from the United Nations Human Development Report, which has tracked gender inequality around the world for more than 10 years.

As predicted, they found a link between high gender inequality and a support of authoritarian values among women. "I think many people will be surprised to find out that women can be more authoritarian than men," Brandt says. Most past research on authoritarianism has failed to show gender differences, perhaps, Brandt says, because these data were collected in the United States and other developed nations with lower levels of gender inequality. "Step outside that cultural zone to locations of greater gender inequality, and you will find greater gender differences."

Countries such as Morocco, Turkey, and Malta all rank in the top 12 of most gender unequal countries in the sample and so they have a higher probability that women will be more authoritarian than men, the researchers found. In comparison Sweden, Norway, and Finland have the least amount of gender inequality. The United States ranks 38th out of 54 in gender inequality.

The relationship does not hold across every country in the world, however. "Countries that are more collectivist seem to be exempt from this inequality-authoritarianism relationship for women," Brandt says. Collectivist countries are those where people find themselves largely dependent on their families and social groups and include Indonesia, Colombia, and Venezuela, among others.

The researchers additionally found that men are more authoritarian than women when there are lower levels of gender inequality. "One possible, though speculative, explanation is that men in these countries feel threatened by the additional economic and political competition from women and become authoritarian to deal with these changes," Brandt says.

The research is important, Brandt says, in understanding the effects of gender inequality on psychological processes. "Inequality has psychological consequences, not just economic and health consequences," he says. "People's brains are not passive receptacles to being devalued and disadvantaged in a society; people adjust, adapt, and otherwise deal with devaluing in ways that they may not even be aware of."

"People often do not think of authoritarian values as being something that could be psychologically attractive for everyday people, and especially psychologically attractive to women," Brandt says, noting that people most often associate authoritarianism with oppressive regimes such as those of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. "Our research shows that, given the right environment of inequality and devaluing, you actually will see women endorse these values more than men."

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The paper "Gender Inequality and Gender Differences in Authoritarianism" was published online June 25, 2012, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). It is forthcoming in the October 2012 print edition.

SPSP promotes scientific research that explores how people think, behave, feel, and interact. With more than 7,000 members, the Society is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world. Follow us on Twitter: @SPSPnews

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