Opinion: understanding male-female differences in behaviour is scientifically difficult and politically fraught, but these differences cannot be ignored

Mass shootings have become an all too frequent occurrence in the United States. The most recent shooting had one very unusual characteristic, in that the shooter was a woman. However, over 90 percent of mass killers are men and the proportion of male homicide offenders is nearly as large. Nearly 80 percent of the individuals committed to Irish prisons in the last 10 years are men and the gender ratio is even more extreme worldwide. About 95 percent of sexual assault offenders are men and the proportions of men among those found guilty of sexual harassment also extremely high.

Corporate corruption has been in the news recently. For instance, allegations of systematic cheating on diesel emission tests by Volkswagen rocked this once-admired company. One thing is striking when you review reports and news clips of Volkswagen, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Worldcom, AIG, Wells Fargo and scores of other corporations engaged in widespread fraud, cheating, and financial misbehaviour: there are very few women involved.

Numerous TV shows and movies portray police using sophisticated profiling techniques to catch criminals. There are significant controversies over whether such profiling works, but it is clear that if you were going to construct a profile for just about any type of criminal or anti-social behaviour, you would start with men. While many types of crime are thought to be a young man’s game, serious financial crimes are essentially often limited to older men, who have had the time to rise in the corporate ranks to a position where they can commit such misdemeanours.

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All of this leads to the question of why men are so much more likely than women to engage in a wide range of misbehaviours. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that competition for resources in early human society led to the selection for and development of higher levels of aggressiveness in males, the so-called "male warrior" hypothesis.  

Social psychologists and sociologists note that there are persistent male-female differences in self-control, and that these differences are at the root of a wide range of misbehaviours. They also note that differences in the ways male and female sex roles are defined often give women fewer opportunities to engage in criminal behaviours, arguing that women are more frequently kept at home as a result of different types and levels of family responsibilities (particularly when children are young) and are often more tightly supervised.  

Criminologists often point to differences in the way boys and girls are socialised towards dealing with risk, leading to higher levels of risk-seeking for men and higher levels of risk-avoidance for women. Studies of gender and corporate crime suggest that women are less likely to occupy the positions of power and influence that allow them opportunities to participate in large-scale corporate frauds, such as those reported at Volkswagen or Enron. Similarly, sexual harassment is often thought to be about power rather than sex, in the sense that it is a strategy used by many men to build and maintain power over women in the workplace.

Male-female differences in misbehaviour are a worldwide phenomenon and we are still far from an explanation that fully accounts for this

It seems clear that each of these perspectives offers a partial explanation for male-female differences in crime and other sorts of misbehaviour, but none offers a complete solution. The only thing we can say with real certainty is that local explanations are unlikely to work because of the near-universal pattern of male misbehaviour. Therefore, we are unlikely to explain male-female differences in a wide range of misbehaviours in terms of something that is particular to our own society (e.g., Irish child-rearing practices) or even something that is particular to a wider range of societies (e.g., the position of women relative to men in Western societies). Male-female differences in misbehaviour are a worldwide phenomenon and we are still far from an explanation of these differences that fully accounts for this. 

In thinking about male-female differences in this regard, it is useful to distinguish between sex and gender. "Sex" refers to biology: men and women have different chromosomes and different reproductive organs, but they also differ in a number of related physical characteristics (e.g., average height and weight, average levels of upper body strength). It has become increasingly clear that biological differences between men and women play a role in their different patterns of behaviour. For example, male brains are typically exposed to androgens during the second semester of gestation that are related to the development of personality traits (e.g., thrill-seeking, aggressiveness) and preferences for different types of behaviour (e.g. rough and tumble play).

"Gender" refers to refers to a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, preferences and behaviours that are socially associated with the different sexes. Gender roles are thought to be the product of socialisation and to be influenced by a wide array of messages from parents, peers, the media, etc. about what sorts of behaviours are expected for men or women.

"Local explanations are unlikely to work because of the near-universal pattern of male misbehaviour"

Male-female differences in behaviour are a complex function of biology and culture, sex and gender, and it is often difficult to disentangle these two factors. For example, women in many societies show higher levels of empathy and concern for others on average than men. Is this because of biological differences, or is it a pure product of cultural assumptions about how men and women should behave? 

The answer is almost certain that both are involved. Consider, for example, the effects of societal efforts to reduce culturally-imposed differences in sex roles. Scandinavian countries have made concerted efforts to develop norms of equality in the treatment of men and women, reducing socially imposed barriers to womens’ participation in a wide range of roles and reducing the emphasis on separate sex roles for men and women.

If differences in the behavior and experiences of men and women were solely a cultural invention, we might expect that this culture change would lead to a decrease in sex differences, but this is not what has occurred. For example, women are less likely to reach the top levels of organisations than men in most cultures, but this difference is much larger in Scandinavian countries than in less egalitarian cultures such as the United States

Social psychologists and sociologists note persistent male-female differences in self-control and these differences are at the root of a wide range of misbehaviours

Finally, we usually talk and think about sex and gender in strictly binary terms, but the world is not that simple. Throughout history, a number of societies around the world have recognised third genders - and sometimes more than three - and the classification of individuals into one sex or one gender is not always easy. Understanding the meaning of male-female differences is both scientifically difficult and politically fraught, but in some cases, these differences are sufficiently large and important that they cannot be ignored.

Misbehaviour is certainly one of these cases. Men are so much more likely than women to engage in a wide range of criminal and anti-social actions that it is more likely to be a man than a woman when you're trying to determine who did something bad or wrong. But we still do not know why and the pursuit of this question is one that is likely to involve a number of competing explanations.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ