Micah Zenko obviously doesn't know my mother.
In his Foreign Policy column this week, he cites recent evidence of a gender gap in support for U.S. drone strikes and notes that a "female-male divergence of opinions is an enduring characteristic of polls on the use of military force." Specifically, studies of global polling data suggest that women are consistently less likely than men to favor the use of military force, leading Zenko, with whom I usually agree, to speculate that perhaps "force would be used less" if there were more women in senior national leadership positions.
I'm skeptical on this one. There are plenty of tough, not-exactly-pacifistic gals out there -- have I mentioned my mother? -- and there is a distinct dearth of evidence supporting the idea that "the world would be more peaceful if more women held political office." That's a sentiment apparently held by 65 percent of the 43 women leaders polled by Foreign Policy in 2012, but at the moment it represents wishful thinking more than anything else. This rosy view reflects a misunderstanding of the existing evidence on gender differences and an even deeper misunderstanding of the complex web of cultural and institutional factors that drive decisions about the use of military force.
We hear all the time that men are different from women, and in certain crushingly obvious ways, it's true. There are biological differences between the sexes. The life trajectories of men and women tend to differ in measurable ways. There are male-dominated professions and female-dominated professions. And, as Zenko points out, there are some persistent gender gaps in opinions on numerous issues, from the use of military force to health care policy.
We all know the stereotypes: Men are more "aggressive" than women; women are more "nurturing" than men. Those looking for evidence that these are enduring, hard-wired differences can find plenty of grist for the mill: Men commit the overwhelming majority of violent crimes, for instance, while women make up the overwhelming majority of early childhood teachers and daycare workers. See? Men are violent; women are kind.
Ah, but not so fast. It's a big mistake to go from patterns of individual behavior to assumptions about inherent gender differences -- and a bigger mistake to assume that gender differences translate predictably into different policy outcomes on the scale of an entire nation.
Recent research on gender suggests that men and women are far less different in their psychological makeup than most people think. In 2005, psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde analyzed dozens of prior meta-analyses of studies looking at gender differences in aggression, leadership, moral reasoning, communication, cognition, and a range of other psychological traits. By and large, she found, the effect of gender differences on most psychological variables was small: In fact, "78% of gender differences are small or close to zero."
In Hyde's analysis, there were a few areas in which gender differences loomed larger, but these mostly related to physical difference, such as throwing speed and distance. Hyde also found "large" gender differences in "some, but not all, measures of sexuality," including attitudes towards casual sex outside of committed relationships (men were more in favor).
When it came to aggression, the evidence was more ambiguous: Hyde found a "moderate" gender difference in physical aggression (men were, on average, moderately more physically aggressive than women), but the picture was more complex when other forms of aggression were factored in: Women, for instance, may be slightly more "relationally aggressive." In certain contexts, different studies suggest, women may be as (or even slightly more) physically aggressive than men, although men's greater strength makes them more dangerous when they become aggressive.