Margaret Mead

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In Mead’s Sex and Temperament, in which Mead refutes the idea that there is a biological basis for masculine and feminine temperament, how are gender-linked expectations of behavior reinforced by society? Does society expect different behavior from men than from women? If so, in what ways? How is this possibly harmful to people?

Of the "Big Five" personality traits used to assess temperament by psychologists, agreeableness is the one which differs most according to gender, with women being significantly more agreeable than men. Society expects women to be conciliatory and men to be confrontational, an expectation which causes problems, as it tends to limit the ways in which both male and female leaders can resolve conflict without forfeiting public approval.

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Margaret Mead argues that whether your temperament is regarded as masculine or feminine depends on the society in which you live. Psychologists in Western societies often rely on the so-called "Big Five" personality traits to assess a person's temperament. These are extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness.

Studies differ in their precise findings, but one consistent result is that women score higher in agreeableness than men. Toronto University clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson, who has conducted many of these tests, points out that agreeableness is a mixed blessing. Highly disagreeable people are overrepresented in prison but also among billionaires and multimillionaires.

To see how society reinforces expectations of agreeableness from women, look at newspaper coverage of women in prominent positions: Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Kamala Harris, or Hillary Clinton. Of these women, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, receives the most consistently positive press for her self-deprecating manner and preference for conciliation over confrontation. Angela Merkel, by contrast, is often criticized for being too "masculine" in her style of leadership.

There are several reasons why such stereotypes are harmful, but one obvious problem is that they tend to limit the ways in which conflicts can be solved. A leader should have the widest possible range of solutions at their disposal. Expecting a female leader to be conciliatory and a male leader to be confrontational—and punishing them with social disapproval when they fail to display these characteristics—clearly makes conflict more difficult to solve.

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