Jordan Peterson on gender: An analysis

Note: I wrote this in early 2019 as part of a collective critique of Jordan Peterson’s ideologies. I was concerned about the influence he was apparently having on people within my social circles, and worried about the potential cultural ramifications as he gained a wider audience, particularly amongst impressionable young men.


When Peterson speaks of the “differences between men and women” a strong sense emerges that Peterson subscribes to a kind of evolutionary psychology in the realm of gender and sex (he also esteems Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind as a ‘great text’). Evolutionary psychology constitutes a theoretical approach that attempts to understand mental and psychological traits as functional products of natural selection. Many critiques have tackled it (including this one, worth watching for better understanding the foundational assumptions of evolutionary psychology and the problems with it). I will restrict myself to evolutionary psychology as it relates to what Peterson says about sex and gender, and will begin by fairly summarizing some of Peterson’s positions here.

Peterson’s position on women’s personalities

Peterson and his fans often claim he is taken out context. For a charitable representation of his position, this answer he gave is instructive:

“It’s not obvious to me that women’s nervous systems are actually – actually serve to function in the best interests of women. I think that they actually serve to function in the best interests of women and infants. Because if you think about our evolutionary past – and for that matter our present, now you’re quite a different creature when you’re a single person, male or female, than you are when you’re a female that has an infant. … they’re very fragile [infants], and so it seems to me quite likely that women’s nervous systems are optimised so that they’re more threat sensitive and more sensitive to emotional pain because they have to be more responsive to infants and they have to take care of them… I think that tilts women’s nervous systems hard in the direction of what men might regard as excessive negative emotionality

women are more enthusiastic, which means that not only do they have more negative emotion than men they also have more positive emotion. And so – so that’s the positive emotion to mention. The negative emotion to mention is neuroticism… it basically indexes anxiety and emotional pain: frustration, disappointment, grief, that sort of thing all on the same dimension. That breaks into volatility and volatility – volatile people are rather irritable and withdrawn and people who are withdrawn are less likely to do things that are threatening. And women are higher by about a third of a standard deviation in both of those

You might say ‘well, what’s your evidence that those differences in personality aren’t culturally constructed?’ – and the evidence for that is quite clear, you can go online, you can look up the Scandinavian studies. Go online and look up ‘gender differences in personality cross-culturally’. You’ll find the relevant studies, they’ve been done with tens of thousands of people and what they’ve showed quite clearly is that in those societies where the most has been done to move the social world into a position of radical equality – and so that would roughly be the Scandinavian countries, because they’ve done more of that than any other country – the personality differences between men and women maximise, they don’t minimise

…We’ve actually put the social constructionist hypothesis with regards to gender differences in sex and personality – we’ve put that to the test in a very intense way, and the social constructionist viewpoint failed…” (R 001, 2017)

Peterson paints a detailed picture of what he believes to be a woman’s defining personality trait: enthusiasm, which quickly breaks down into neuroticism and volatility. Peterson seems to believe women’s personalities are defined by their biology and evolutionary ties to childrearing. According to him, “Scandinavian studies” show “the personality differences between men and women maximise” in countries that have made the most gender equality progress.

Peterson’s sources

If you do conduct a search for “gender differences in personality cross-culturally”, a number of articles will come up. Here’s one, a review of the recent research on this topic. It vaguely matches Peterson’s claims. Cross-culturally, women rated higher in personality traits including “tender-mindedness”, “anxiety”, and “openness to aesthetics and feelings” (Terraciano & McCrae, 2006). Men scored higher in “assertiveness, excitement seeking and openness to ideas”. These gender differences were “more pronounced” among “European than African and Asian cultures”, although in this review there is no specific mention of Scandinavia (Terraciano & McCrae, 2006). It is difficult to locate a source for his claim that “women are higher by about a third of a standard deviation in [neuroticism and enthusiasm]” since he does not provide a reference.

Perhaps Peterson refers to this paper. The researchers found that in 37 nations, women scored higher than men on neuroticism, and this gender difference was not related to per capita GDP (Lynn & Martin, 1997). They concluded that because gender differences remained in countries with higher per capita GDP, the gender differences observed “may have a genetic basis” (Lynn & Martin, 1997, p. 372). This assumes ‘gender egalitarianism’ correlates with per capita GDP, and that gender differences in personality will decrease in more well-developed (higher per capita GDP) nations. Because the data shows the opposite, Peterson terms this “the Scandinavian conundrum”. He believes this means gender differences are innate to male and female biology (Peterson, 2018).

Peterson provides a large number of references in the description box of this video, 2017/08/08: James Damore and his Google Memo on Diversity (complete). Let’s look at one of Peterson’s references under the heading: “Larger/large and stable sex differences in more gender-neutral countries: (These findings run precisely contrary to social constructionist theory: it’s been tested, and it’s wrong)Personality and gender differences in global perspective (Schmitt et al., 2017).

On the topic of “gender and occupational interests across cultures”, Schmitt et al. write:

“In a related study of gender differences in occupational education, Charles and Bradley (2009) examined gender differences in the pursuit of science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related occupations across 44 nations and found the largest differences were observed in the most gender egalitarian nations (e.g., Finland, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland) and the smallest gender differences were found in the least gender egalitarian nations (e.g., Bulgaria, Colombia, Indonesia and Tunisia)” (Schmitt et. al, 2017, p. 48).

The conclusion Schmitt et. al draw from this study is similar to Peterson’s: because the largest gender differences in occupational interest are observed in “the most gender egalitarian nations”, “social role theory appears inadequate for explaining some of the observed cultural variations in men’s and women’s personalities” (Schmitt et al., p. 45). In Peterson’s words:

“The doctrine, ever more radically and loudly insisted upon by the politically correct, that sex differences are only socially constructed is wrong. Get it? Wrong.” (Peterson, 2018)

Peterson seems to believe this research is definitive proof that men and women’s personalities are inherently different.

Alternative ideas and a critique of Peterson’s position

Peterson’s conclusion runs contrary to the original source of the information cited. Charles and Bradley examined gender-based occupational interest in “industrial, transitioning, and developing countries” (2009, p. 926). In other words, “the relationship between economic development and sex segregation” (p. 959). Though Charles and Bradley did find that gender differences in occupational interest were highest in more advanced societies, their explanation for this is far from the biological explanation Peterson and Schmitt et al. imply. Charles and Bradley argue the opposite:

Conventional evolutionary models of women’s status cannot provide a satisfactory account of cross-national and historical variability in sex segregation by field of study because they underestimate the enduring cultural force of gender-essentialist ideology (i.e., cultural beliefs in fundamental and innate gender differences), which has proven to be extremely influential in shaping life experiences, expectations, and aspirations, even in the most liberal egalitarian societies” (p. 925).

The impact of gender-essentialist ideologies on men and women

Charles and Bradley cite several studies as evidence for this enduring impact of gender-essentialist ideologies. We will look at one of these.

Correll investigated the impact of perceived societal gender beliefs about mathematical competence on male and female self-assessment of their own mathematical competence (Correll, 2001). Correll writes:

“while empirical support for actual gender differences in mathematical competence is weak… the belief of male mathematical superiority itself is widely dispersed in American culture. Exposure to news reports that claim that males have greater natural mathematical ability has been found to increase mothers’ stereotypic perceptions of their daughters’ mathematical abilities…” (p. 1696).

Correll argues that from a young age, individuals are exposed to certain gendered beliefs about mathematics, and the perception that others hold these gendered beliefs influences the early career decisions men and women make (p. 1697). Correll’s results support this hypothesis; male students were more likely to assess their mathematical competence as being higher than female students of the same mathematical ability, and are therefore more likely to pursue mathematical careers than female students (p. 1724).

Correll cites another study in which males did better than females at tasks when all subjects were told males were better at the task (p. 1698). When subjects were told there were no gender differences in ability, both genders performed equally well (p. 1698). The impact of gender-essentialist ideologies may explain the underrepresentation of women in political, economic, and academic leadership positions despite high rates of academic performance in girls across the globe (Correll, 2001, p. 1725Stoet & Geary, 2015 – referenced by Peterson himself).

Peterson insists: “I haven’t heard any such hypothesis that is the least bit credible, and have been unable to formulate one myself.” (Peterson, 2018). One such hypothesis could be that women in more gender-egalitarian societies are voluntarily entering traditionally female occupations, because even in more well-developed and gender-egalitarian societies, gender-essentialist beliefs about stereotypically male and female abilities and career options prevail. The fact that gender differences in career are highest in the more gender-egalitarian societies is likely to be because in these societies, more women are able to enter the workforce in their chosen profession (because gender-egalitarian policies give women more job opportunities). England also offers some insight on this point:

“In the United States and many Western societies today, a certain kind of gender egalitarianism has taken hold ideologically and institutionally. The logic is that individuals should have equal rights to education and jobs of their choice… The common ethos is a combination of “the American dream” and liberal individualism… While liberal individualism encourages a commitment to “free choice” gender egalitarianism (such as legal equality of opportunity), ironically, orienting toward gender-typical paths has probably been encouraged by the emerging form of individualism that stresses finding and expressing one’s ‘true self.’ Notions of self will in fact be largely socially constructed, pulling from socially salient identities. Because of the omnipresent nature of gender in the culture, gender often becomes the most available material from which to construct aspirations and may be used even more when a job choice is seen as a deep statement about self” (England 2010, pp. 158-159).

This OECD report notes that “the internalisation of social norms is partly unconscious, but may also reflect perceived hurdles in accessing a profession” (p. 24). If traditionally male fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics appear male dominated, women may feel unwelcome in them, or may simply not perceive them as a viable career path because there is no female representation to encourage the idea that they could belong in such professions.

The felt presence of gender-essentialist ideologies by women across the globe is made apparent not only by feminist movements but by prevailing inequalities and gender-based discrimination in even the most ‘gender-egalitarian’ countries (André & Bourrousse, 2017OECD, 2019). Ironically, Peterson himself is a good example of gender-essentialist ideologies prevailing in Western society. Many of Peterson’s claims about women indicate this. For example, Peterson believes that if a woman does not choose to have children over her career, there is either something wrong with her or she is lying to herself:

“the ones that don’t consider [having a child at thirty to be their primary desire] that – generally in my observation – there’s something that isn’t quite right in the way that they’re constituted or looking at the world. Sometimes you get women that are truly non-maternal, you know, by temperament, they have a masculine temperament – disagreeable, they’re not particularly compassionate, they’re not maternal, they’re not that interested in kids. Fair enough man, but there aren’t that many of them. And there’s plenty who will not admit to themselves that that’s what they most desperately want.” (Peterson, 2017)

Even with the most charitable interpretation of Peterson it is difficult to ignore his arrogance in assuming that women who do not want children are simply lying to themselves, and the strange connection Peterson makes between women not wanting children and having a lack of compassion. This reveals a deeply held prejudice against women who contradict his world-view.

The impact of history on current gender ideologies

It is useful to consider the impact of history on the kinds of gender-related ideologies we see in the world today. Understanding the history of the countries in the cross-cultural studies examined earlier may also help explain some of the data observed in Peterson’s so-called “Scandinavian studies”.

In this book, William Mandel describes in detail the lives of Soviet women, covering topics such as education, employment prospects, abortion, marriage, motherhood, and sex roles (1975, pp. 337-350), in many cases marking notable legal and social distinctions between Soviet and American women at the time. For instance, there were “more women engineers in the Soviet Union than in the rest of the world combined” (p. 127). Mandel, who visited the Soviet Union multiple times, writes:

“Personnel of the Leningrad Institute of High-Molecular Compounds tell of the world-famous Western chemist who visited it, and, after seeing several laboratories, asked in obvious perplexity: ‘And tell me, please, what are these beautiful ladies doing here?’ As of 1962, 180 women in that one institute were graduate chemists or other scientists, of whom 37 were Ph.Ds and 2 had the super degree of doktor, which usually takes ten years of postdoctoral work plus a really creative thesis…

…By contrast, 99 per cent of the one thousand firms of consulting engineers in the United States reported to a survey that they employ no women engineers. In a space for comments, there were some owners who actually said: ‘As long as I can hire a man to do an engineering job, I won’t hire a woman’… ‘I hate women’.” (p. 127).

At the time of writing, the United States was far behind the Soviet Union with regards to legal equality of men and women. Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution was stalled. Meanwhile, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 read:

“Women in the U.S.S.R are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, government, cultural, political, and other public activity. The exercise of these rights is guaranteed by according women equal rights with men to jobs, in payment for their work, rest and leisure, social insurance, education, and by government protection of the interests of mother and child, government assistance to mothers of large families and to unmarried mothers, maternity leave with pay, and the provision of an extensive network of maternity homes, nurseries, and kindergartens” (pp. 114-115).

Tracing the impact of this history on these countries today is not easy. Pollert discussed the transformation of gender relations in central Eastern European countries (CEECs) following the change from communism to the present day (2005, at the time the article was published) (Pollert, 2005). Pollert found that the UN gender development index (GDI) in CEECs was “eroded”. Contributing factors to this decline include “the decline in social support for families, the drop in the real value of social benefits, the rising costs of childcare, and absence of work-family harmonisation policies – in sum, the reversal of those communist social policies which benefited women workers” (Pollert, 2005, p. 224).

Though much of the legacy left by any kind of former gender equality may have been erased, when compared to the West, central and Eastern European countries have greater proportions of women amongst directors and chief executives, and appear to have greater female representation in engineering students compared to Western countries (Charles & Bradley, 2009, p. 942). Some of this information may help in explaining the data seen in the cross-cultural studies examined earlier. The point here is certainly not to be a Stalin apologist or to deny the harsh political repression and violence against civilians under the Soviet Union. It is purely to indicate the problem with making universal claims about gender based on cross-cultural studies without considering the unique histories of each nation participating in the study, especially in relation to gender.

Why progressive gender policy may not create significant change

Since it is relevant to Peterson’s theory that gender-egalitarian legislation should reduce sex segregation if men and women were truly psychologically equal, here is Pollett on the impact (or lack thereof) of the EU’s progressive gender policies:

“If legislation and enforcement on discrimination and equal pay, for example, were beginning to work, then there would be less evidence of continuing and often widening pay gaps, women’s disproportionate unemployment, and sectoral and occupational sex segregation…. A key theme is that gender equality has been relegated to a superfluous concern in the grand march towards economic ‘reform’… Neither men nor women appear concerned with sex equality; and although non-governmental organisations have sprung up everywhere, they represent very few people and tend to deal with the effects, rather than the causes, of inequality. Trade unions are weak and few are concerned with women’s issues. In this context, it is not surprising that equality legislation is flagrantly violated. Employers are either unaware of the law or disregard it, while workers are also often unaware, or frightened of victimisation and more concerned to keep their job than to protect their rights. The barriers to progress are that conventions, laws and formal accession processes may become tokens subordinated to the economic accession criteria of free competition.” (Pollett, 2005, p. 228).

The Scandinavian paradox

Much has been written on the gender paradox in the Scandinavian and Nordic countries. According to Sanandaji, historically Nordic women had better rights than women in the rest of Europe, and Nordic countries hold more gender-equal attitudes than the rest of the world (2018). However, Sanandaji outlines a number of ways in which the welfare state has limited women’s opportunities in these countries (2018). Public monopolies in women-dominated fields such as education, health and elderly care have limited opportunities for women relative to men. This is not the maximisation of equality of opportunity Peterson claims Scandinavian countries have (Sanandaji, 2018). Generous parental leave policies give women added incentive to take time off work, however this can impact their employment opportunities later in life (Sanandaji, 2018). Higher taxes also make household services less affordable for families in Nordic countries, putting more pressure on women who try to juggle careers with housework (Sanandaji, 2018). Benefit systems and high taxes reduce the incentive for both parents to work full-time (Sanandaji, 2018).

Men and women may fall back on traditional roles in circumstances where it is more beneficial for only one member of a heterosexual marriage or partnership to work full-time. Even when women were equal to men according to the law in the Soviet Union, women carried an unequal burden of housework (Mandel, 1975, p. 107). Today, women in Sweden still do (Fuwa, 2004). Peterson may argue this is because women’s personalities are naturally more suited to housework, but we find there is no evidence to support this (and continue to, below). Also, if Peterson is right in claiming women are more volatile and neurotic than men, surely they would not make great housekeepers. A simpler explanation is, at least in the Soviet Union, the rates of alcoholism, smoking and absenteeism from work were much higher amongst men, who refused to do housework (because if they could get away with making women do it, why wouldn’t they?) (Mandel, 1975).

The more you question why the cross-cultural data Peterson refers to indicates certain trends in gender differences, the more potential conclusions you can draw from it. Given Peterson’s claim that there are no credible hypotheses to explain the data other than the one he believes in (Peterson, 2018), one could conclude he has not considered these other hypotheses, or else has some counter-arguments he has not shared.

Is there a biological basis for gender differences?

Peterson’s claims about innate gender differences seem primarily founded on “the Scandinavian studies”. However, to be charitable, we can look for evidence supporting a biological basis for gender differences. Innate gender differences caused by biology is a difficult concept to prove. While most people (with the exception of intersex people) are born appearing within a distinct sexual binary (with either male or female external genitalia), this does not determine the gender that a person identifies as. Transgender people are indicative of this. Furthermore, the outward appearance of a person does not always correlate with their genetic makeup. For example, people with Swyer syndrome are born with XY chromosomes, but have external female genitalia and are typically raised as girls. With this brief overview, the challenges of trying to make links between an individual’s biological makeup and their gender identity, personality, and life choices start to become apparent.

What is the direct evidence Peterson provides to attribute personality differences between men and women to biology? Direct evidence would, for example, be a particular hormone or area of the brain in either men or women, but not both, that significantly impacts the personality and life choices of people in that gender category. “The Scandinavian studies” have already been discussed, and offer no direct link between biology and male and female personality trends. None of Peterson’s personality lectures on biology and traits include references.

One of the few Peterson videos that does provide references is 2017/08/08: James Damore and his Google Memo on Diversity (complete). Therefore, we will use this as our guide to find Peterson’s evidence for biological causes of gender differences. Under the heading, “Primarily biological basis of personality sex differences”, Peterson provides two studies: Lippa, 2008, and Ngun et al., 2011. In the first, Lippa finds that cross-culturally, men and women differ significantly on the traits of extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and male-vs-female occupational preferences (2008, p. 619). Its interpretation is left open to the difficulties and complexities that were seen when discussing Peterson’s “Scandinavian studies”. The study itself does not provide a direct link between a specific biological mechanism and gender differences, which is the evidence that we are looking for and is the responsibility of Peterson to provide if he is to reasonably support his claims.

The second study is more promising. Ngun et al. reviewed the evidence for genetic effects on behaviour and brain sex differences (2010). They noted that biological differences between men and women “should never be used to justify discrimination or sexism”, however, by studying how genetic sex (X chromosomes and Y chromosomes) impacts men and women differently, researchers and clinicians can better understand the progression of certain diseases, and how genetics can impact cognition and behaviour. Due to the important distinction between sex and gender, Ngun et al. noted that the best approach to studying the biological basis of gender identity is to study transgender people, particularly those who are also transsexual. They found the scope of literature on genetic bases for transsexualism is extremely limited, and a review of the existing literature shows no clear evidence for a genetic basis to transsexualism.

The majority of the remaining research came from rats, rather than human subjects. It almost seems evolutionary psychologists believe human men are more similar to male rats, and human women more similar to female rats, than human men and women are to each other. At best, it indicates how extremely complex human genetics is and how incomplete our knowledge is of its impact on personality traits. For example, it tells us that “estrogen influences word and declarative memory abilities in women, [and] testosterone influences word memory in men”, and in vague table form, links this to the information that “women perform better on episodic memory and verbal fluency tasks [and] men are better at visuospatial reasoning” (Ngun et al., 2011). Out of interest, a quick search for Peterson’s terms to describe women (“volatile”, “enthusiastic”, “neurotic”, and “compassionate”) yields no hits. There is no direct evidence of the kind that we are looking for.

Whilst genetic research is important, particularly for indicating susceptibility to certain diseases, it is not a useful guide for understanding gender roles within our society. With research finding that women are extremely capable in traditionally male fields, yet are underrepresented in these fields, Peterson’s argument that women’s personality traits come from an evolutionary tie to child-rearing and his implication that a woman’s primary goal in life must be to raise children, is deeply flawed and sorely lacking in convincing evidence. Using the idea that men and women’s brains evolved differently to explain gender differences in our current society is appealingly simple. However it does indicate a rather basic understanding of evolution (see this critique of evolutionary psychology to understand why), and the current research suggests socialisation and culture have a much greater impact on an individual’s personality than the sex they were born as.


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Bite-sized Philosophy. (2017). Jordan Peterson – Women in High Paying Jobs. Youtube video.

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