Sex Differences in Self-Esteem
Global self-esteem is defined as an individual’s subjective evaluation of his or her worth as a person (Leary and Baumeister 2000). This entry focuses on differences between men and women in self-esteem.
There is widespread interest among academics as well as the general public in various aspects of self-esteem. One particularly interesting question is whether there is a difference in self-esteem between men and women.
Sex Differences in Self-Esteem
Many studies have examined gender and age differences in self-esteem. Although there were conflicting results in earlier studies in that some studies found higher self-esteem for men and other studies found no significant difference at all, several meta-analyses (e.g., Kling et al. 1999; Twenge and Campbell 2001) and recent longitudinal studies (e.g., Orth et al. 2010) suggest that men tend to have slightly higher self-esteem than women. However, the difference is rather small and not consistent across the life-span (Donnellan et al. 2011). A comprehensive meta-analysis by Kling et al. (1999) with 184 studies and 216 effect sizes suggests that the first gender difference in self-esteem between boys and girls emerges in adolescence and is greatest in late adolescence (d = 0.33). However, the overall effect size across age groups is .21, which corresponds to a small effect size. Furthermore, a recent cross-cultural study found that the gender difference in global self-esteem was consistent across 48 countries, but the effect size of the difference changed considerably between cultures (Bleidorn et al. 2015). Although for level of self-esteem there seems to be a small gender difference favoring men, the developmental trajectory of self-esteem is similar for both men and women: increasing self-esteem from adolescence to young adulthood, a peak in midlife, and then declining in old age (Orth et al. 2012; Wagner et al. 2013).
Although the reason for this difference has been debated extensively, there seems to be no single factor that can explain all the mechanisms that lead to this small difference in global self-esteem. For instance, one theory focuses on the fostering of different qualities in boys and girls during schooling that may lead to differences in academic achievements, whereas another theory focuses on the changes in physical appearance in boys and girls during adolescence that may have differential effects on their sense of self-worth (for a review see Zeigler-Hill and Myers 2012). Overall, it seems that the difference emerges due to a complex interplay of various factors that affect boys and girls differently.
As self-esteem is a multifaceted construct, it is also possible to look at the sense of self-worth in specific areas. For instance, one can evaluate oneself as more competent and worthy in one area like sport but less competent in another area like academic achievement. When self-esteem is conceptualized at the domain-specific level, there is not a consistent pattern of higher self-esteem in all domains for males over females. On the contrary, males report higher levels of self-worth on some domains, but lower levels of self-worth on others, and there are also several domains in which males and females report roughly equivalent levels of self-esteem. In a meta-analysis by Gentile et al. (2009) with 115 studies and 428 effect sizes, it was found that men reported higher self-esteem than women for athletics (d = 0.41), physical appearance (d = 0.35), self-satisfaction (d = 0.33), and personal self (d = 0.28). Women reported higher self-esteem than men for moral self-esteem (d = 0.38) and behavioral conduct (d = 0.17). There were no gender differences in academic, social acceptance, family, and affect self-esteem. Therefore, it seems that there are more fine-grained mechanisms that function differently in men and women in both global and domain-specific self-esteem.
To sum up, self-esteem is a complex construct, and gender differences exist only for some facets of it (with small to medium effect sizes). For global self-esteem, men tend to have slightly higher levels of self-esteem than women. However, in terms of domain-specific self-esteem, men tend to have higher scores in some domains (e.g., athletic self-esteem), whereas women tend to have higher scores in others (e.g., behavioral conduct self-esteem), and in some domains, there is no significant difference at all (e.g., social acceptance self-esteem). Overall, it is important to acknowledge these gender differences but also to bear in mind that their magnitude is quite small.
- Bleidorn, W., Arslan, R. C., Denissen, J. J. A., Rentfrow, P. J., Gebauer, J. E., Potter, J., & Gosling, S. D. (2015). Age and gender differences in self-esteem - a cross-cultural window. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(3), 396–410. Advance online publication.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2011). Self-esteem: Enduring issues and controversies. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. von Stumm, & A. Furnham (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences (pp. 718–746). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
- Leary, M. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). The nature and function of self-esteem: Sociometer theory. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social Psychology (Vol. 32, pp. 1–62). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
- Zeigler-Hill, V., & Myers, E. M. (2012). A review of gender differences in self-esteem. In S. P. McGeown (Ed.), Psychology of gender differences (pp. 131–143). Hauppauge: Nova.Google Scholar