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Psychology of Women Quarterly

36(2) 145-148
Nation-Level Indicators of Gender ª The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
Equity in Psychological Research: DOI: 10.1177/0361684312441448
Theoretical and Methodological Issues

Janet Shibley Hyde1

Power and inequality are central concepts in feminist theory although not as specifically tied to gender, has come from
and practice (Enns, 2004; Millett, 1969; Rosenthal & Levy, Keltner, Gruenfeld, and Anderson (2003). Additionally, Sida-
2010; Yoder & Kahn, 1992). Yet, with a few notable excep- nius and Pratto’s social dominance theory and research ema-
tions, there is relatively little empirical research on gender nating from it have tackled both gender-based inequality and
and power within feminist psychology. A search of race-based inequality (Pratto, Stallworth, Sidanius, & Siers,
PsycINFO for articles published in Psychology of Women 1997; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).
Quarterly for the years 2000–2011 yielded only 14 empirical That said, power and inequality of power were underre-
articles with the term power in the abstract (after eliminating searched. Then, the nation-level indicators of gender inequal-
nonempirical articles such as book reviews) but, in compari- ity became available, spurring a new approach to research,
son, there were 34 empirical articles with the term objectifi- perhaps even offering a new paradigm. The nation became
cation, which has been a very popular research topic. the unit of analysis (the subject), with variations from one
Moreover, for most of the 14 articles with power in the nation to another in the extent of gender inequality. The
abstract, power was actually not a central concept in the question then became, do these measures of gender inequality
research. In short, feminist psychological researchers have correlate, across nations, with other variables that are of
talked about power a lot more than they have collected data theoretical or practical interest? Feminist theory in psychol-
on it. ogy should lead to a clear set of predictions about the corre-
Into this dearth of empirical research on gender and power lates of gender inequality, and these indicators provide a way
came new, nation-level measures of gender inequality in to test those predictions.
power. Developed by organizations such as the United
Nations (UN) and the Organization for Economic Coopera-
tion and Development, these measures are publicly available. The First Generation of Nation-Level
As the Else-Quest and Grabe (2012) article explains in detail, Gender Inequality Research
the measures involve a wide variety of aspects of power rela- To me, this stream of research was kicked off with Eagly and
tions and gender equity, including women’s health, power in Wood’s (1999) brilliant article articulating social-structural
the government, education and literacy, income, and success theory. The context for this article was, at least in part, the
in high-level occupations. persistent claims of evolutionary psychologists that many
Before proceeding, I do not want to overlook some of the human gender differences, such as gender differences in mat-
notable exceptions to the dearth of empirical research on gen- ing preferences, are universal across cultures and are the
der and power, research that emerged separately from the result of evolutionary selection many, many years ago (e.g.,
development of the nation-level indicators of gender inequal- Buss, 1989). Eagly and Wood offered a much different
ity. Chief among these exceptions is Susan Fiske’s theorizing approach. They theorized that psychological gender
and empirical studies on gender and power (Fiske, 1993,
2001). This research speaks to the intimate, bidirectional
influence between power and stereotyping. Powerful people Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison,
tend to stereotype the less powerful, and in turn, stereotyping WI, USA
serves to create and maintain power inequalities. One
Corresponding Author:
strength of Fiske’s work is that it applies not only to gender Janet Shibley Hyde, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin–
inequality but also to other dimensions of inequality such Madison, 1202 W. Johnson Street, Madison, WI 53706, USA
as racial inequality. Other notable research on power, Email:
146 Psychology of Women Quarterly 36(2)

differences result from individuals’ adaptations to the partic- gender equity was good not only for girls but also for
ular restrictions on or opportunities for their gender in their boys—possibly because when mothers fare better, so do
society. Rather than focusing on cross-cultural universals in sons. The overall point is that Fryer and Levitt’s (2010) arti-
patterns of gender differences, they noted variations across cle using gender equity indicators produced misleading
nations in the magnitude of gender differences. conclusions.
Armed with this understanding, they reanalyzed Buss’s I have a second concern about potential misuses of nation-
data from 37 cultures and found that the magnitude of the level indicators of gender equality: the issue of multiple sta-
gender difference in mating preferences, using the d statistic, tistical tests (Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2011). Else-
correlated positively with a UN measure of gender inequality Quest and Grabe list five composite indicators and nine
for each nation. For example, the UN Gender Empowerment domain-specific indicators, for a total of 14 possible mea-
Measure correlated .43 with the magnitude of the gender sures, and the number of measures will only increase in the
difference in preference for a mate with good earning capac- future. The problem is that a researcher could ‘‘try’’ all 14
ity. That is, in nations with more gender inequality, women of these measures for correlations with a particular outcome,
cared a lot more about a spouse’s earning capacity then men find only one of the correlations to be significant, and report
did, whereas in nations with more equality, men and women that correlation, suppressing information about the other 13
cared more equally about earning capacity in a spouse. The correlations that were not significant. I see two solutions to
findings reported in their article provided an elegant demon- this problem. (a) Researchers should report all statistical tests
stration of how variations in gender equity across nations that they conducted using the various measures of gender
could be linked to psychological outcomes, in this case mat- equity, including both significant and nonsignificant findings.
ing preferences. To this day, I remain amazed that a measure (b) Researchers should choose specific gender equity indica-
constructed by an agency such as the UN could correlate sig- tors in advance, based on theoretical considerations, and test
nificantly with psychological data collected from individuals just those. I return to this point below.
living in these nations.
The Second Generation of Nation-Level
Misuses of the Nation-Level Indicators Gender Inequality Research
From the first generation of nation-level research came many My hope is that Else-Quest and Grabe’s (2012) article will
important articles, but also some confusion as well as misuse stimulate a new, second generation of research using the
of these measures. Else-Quest and Grabe (2012) note some of nation-level indicators. One of their points that should be
these, particularly in regard to the composite indicators. As highlighted is that nations’ gender equity is not unidimen-
one example, economists Fryer and Levitt (2010) examined sional, but rather multidimensional, including aspects such
the correlation between the gender gap index, explained in as political representation in parliaments, access to education,
the Else-Quest and Grabe article, and the gender difference and health (including life expectancy and reproductive
in mathematics performance across nations. They claimed health). As shown in their Table 2, some of these indicators
that the relationship between gender equity and the gender are in fact uncorrelated. For example, women’s parliamentary
difference in math performance disappears when a larger representation is uncorrelated with female-to-male life
sample of nations is included, compared with previous arti- expectancy, and the ratio of female:male earned income is
cles on the topic. That is, they concluded that gender equity uncorrelated with contraceptive prevalence. Researchers
is irrelevant to the gender gap in math. In particular, they using any of the composite indicators will need to dig down
included Bahrain and Iran, both of which score near the bot- to the details of what the indicator includes and therefore
tom on gender equity but, Fryer and Levitt claimed, girls what it means. The domain-specific indicators will probably
score better than boys in those countries. Fryer and Levitt be much more useful in getting at process questions—that is,
even went on to argue that these countries in which girls are determining the specific processes of inequity that contribute
performing better than boys are Muslim countries that use to various psychological outcomes for women and girls, or
gender-segregated education and that the gender segregation that contribute to gender differences in psychological
must be a reason why girls are flourishing. outcomes.
Kane and Mertz (2012) took on these conclusions and dis- With the large array of both composite- and domain-
missed both the Muslim culture hypothesis and the gender- specific indicators catalogued by Else-Quest and Grabe
segregated schooling hypothesis. For example, in Bahrain, (2012), researchers should now be able to conduct theory-
girls score better than boys in single-sex schools, but girls driven or hypothesis-driven analyses based on a much more
in mixed-sex schools score better than girls in single-sex refined understanding of the multiple aspects of gender
schools. A particularly fascinating finding was that the Gen- inequality in a nation, as well as which aspects are predicted
der Equity Index correlated positively not only with eighth- to correlate with which psychological outcomes. For exam-
grade girls’ math performance (r ¼ .48) but also with ple, in our work on cross-cultural patterns of gender differ-
eighth-grade boys’ math performance (r ¼ .51). That is, ences in mathematics performance (Else-Quest, Hyde, &
Hyde 147

Case 1
Magnitude of Gender Difference,


0 20 40 60 80 100

Gender Equality 0 20 40 60 80 100

Gender Equality

Figure 1. Two hypothetical cases of negative correlations between nation-level indicators of gender equality and the magnitude of a
psychological gender difference; d is computed as (MM  MF)/sw. Each data point represents a nation.

Linn, 2010), we reasoned that females’ performance relative negative correlations, but the underlying data are quite differ-
to males’ might have little to do with women’s political ent. In Case 1, nations with greater inequality tend to have a
power in a nation but might be strongly influenced by the large gender difference favoring males (males score higher)
availability of role models (e.g., by the representation of in the outcome under study, whereas in nations with gender
women in professional and technical occupations in engineer- equality, the difference disappears. In Case 2, nations with
ing and the sciences). With available role models, girls are greater inequality tend to show a gender difference favoring
more likely to aspire to those careers and to be motivated males in the outcome, whereas in nations with gender equal-
to learn mathematics better than under conditions in which ity, the gender difference is reversed and females score
girls foresee no access to these careers and therefore no higher.
need for mathematics in adulthood. Interestingly, the mea- As a concrete example, consider the case of gender differ-
sure of women’s share of research positions (WR) did not ences in mathematics performance. In Case 1, males score
correlate significantly with women’s share of parliamen- substantially higher than females in nations with great gender
tary seats (Parl), r ¼ .04, so these two indicators really inequality, and this gender difference shrinks to zero in
are getting at different aspects of gender equality. Consis- nations characterized by greater equality. In Case 2, males
tent with this hypothesis, for one of the international math score higher than females in nations with greater gender
assessments (TIMSS), there was a significant negative inequality, but the gender difference reverses itself in nations
relationship between WR and the gender difference in with gender equality such that females score higher than
math self-confidence and in valuing math, but the relation- males do. The reported correlation might be the same in Case
ship was not significant for Parl and these gender differ- 1 and Case 2, but the interpretation is quite different.
ences. This differential pattern was not as clean with the To date, researchers using the nation-level indicators have
other international math assessment, PISA. Nonetheless, not recognized this interpretational ambiguity. More serious
the point is to illustrate ways in which hypotheses can is the fact that they have not given readers the information
be framed about what specific aspects of gender inequality necessary to make the correct interpretation themselves. That
in a nation should correlate with gender differences on a is, they have not provided basic descriptive statistics on the
specific psychological outcome. effect sizes for gender differences that constituted the raw
data for the correlation.
I recommend that all articles using this paradigm provide a
Interpretational Ambiguities table that lists each nation, its gender equality value (X), and
At this point, a number of studies using the nation-level indi- the d value for the gender difference (Y). An alternative
cators have found negative correlations between nations’ would be a scatterplot of the type shown in Figure 1. Readers
gender equality and the magnitude of the gender difference will then be able to determine whether gender differences dis-
on some psychological attribute. There is an interpretational appear under conditions of gender equality, or whether gen-
ambiguity in such findings, which I illustrate in Figure 1, in der differences actually reverse under such conditions.
simplified version, as Case 1 and Case 2. Both show these Additionally, correlations between the nation-level indicator
148 Psychology of Women Quarterly 36(2)

and females’ scores, and between the nation-level indicators Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power
and males’ scores will provide clarity (Kane & Mertz, 2012). on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.
Fiske, S. T. (2001). Effects of power on bias: Power explains
and maintains individual, group, and societal disparities. In A.
Lee-Chai & J. Bargh (Eds.), The use and abuse of power (pp.
My hope is that Else-Quest and Grabe’s (2012) article will 181-193). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
usher in a second generation of research using the nation- Fryer, R. G., & Levitt, S. D. (2010). An empirical analysis of the
level gender equity indicators. This research will be character- gender gap in mathematics. American Economic Journal:
ized by a much more detailed knowledge of what the indicators Applied Economics, 2, 210-240.
do and do not measure, as well as by an appreciation of the Kane, J. M., & Mertz, J. E. (2012). Debunking myths about gender
multidimensional nature of gender equity. This research will and mathematics performance. Notices of the AMS, 59, 10-21.
be driven by theory-based hypothesis testing leading to the Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power,
use of domain-specific indicators which, in turn, can point to approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265-284.
the processes by which gender inequality at the national level Millett, K. (1969). Sexual politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
translates into psychological outcomes at the individual level. Pratto, F., Stallworth, L. M., Sidanius, J., & Siers, B. (1997). The
gender gap in occupational role attainment: A social dominance
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