Authentic Self-Esteem & Well-Being, Part VII: Gender/Culture

Do gender and culture really have an impact on self-esteem?

Posted Feb 06, 2019

The Relationship Between Gender, Culture, and Self-Esteem

This blog continues to focus on how defining self-esteem as a relationship between two factors does a better job of accounting for what we know about self-esteem than other approaches. Understanding self-esteem as an interaction between competence (facing challenges successfully) and worthiness (being a good and mature person) was shown to be helpful when discussing various self-esteem topics on this blog and elsewhere (Mruk, 2019, 2013). This entry examines how the two-factor approach helps deal with some of the issues associated with self-esteem, gender, and culture.

Self-Esteem and Gender

Some research on self-esteem and gender focuses on differences. For example, it shows that in general men had higher self-esteem than women. This difference is especially pronounced when self-esteem is defined in terms of competence, perhaps because of culturally biased opportunities for success favoring males. Other work indicates that as opportunities for women open up, their self-esteem picture changes. As women become more successful, their self-esteem tends to increase, except for those in two groups. One is adolescent girls who, as a group, seem to frequently experience a temporary drop in self-esteem during that period. The other is young women who adopt very traditional, if not stereotypical, forms of gender identity (Harter, 1999).

However, research based on defining self-esteem in terms of both competence and worthiness shows that if both factors are included in the way self-esteem is measured, overall scores for men and women become more similar (O'Brien, Leitzel, & Mensky, 1996). It appears that with some exceptions, men and women often emphasize one of the two factors more than the other in regard to their self-esteem, but the overall scores for both factors combined are similar. In other words, while many men may emphasize competence or success more than feelings of worth for their self-esteem, many women reverse this basic self-esteem “formula.” The idea that two factors can produce similar “amounts” of self-esteem in different ways allows us to integrate both types of findings on gender and self-esteem. How much each gender “loads” one factor over the other creates the possibility of measurable differences, though authentic self-esteem still requires a positive degree of  both factors.       

Self-Esteem and Culture

Researchers have long noted several important issues concerning self-esteem and culture. One is that when it is defined as worthiness or feeling good about oneself as a person, self-esteem in North America has been increasing for some time (Twenge & Crocker, 2002). Interestingly enough, so has the incidence of mental health problems, which suggest there is a problem with defining self-esteem in terms of just feeling good about oneself.

Another cultural problem involves self-esteem differences among groups. For instance, Twenge and Crocker also found that in America there are notable differences in self-esteem levels for blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics. Others found significant group differences when comparing self-esteem in different cultures. Consequently, there is general agreement that socioeconomic and cultural factors can affect self-esteem within and between cultures.

However, the question of why such differences occur is much debated. Some maintain that self-esteem itself is largely based on culture. This group argues that cultures which emphasize the individual or personal success place more importance on self-esteem than do cultures favoring group conformity, harmonious relationships, communal values, and so on. If so, this view limits the importance of self-esteem to only one type of culture, namely, Western ones.

Another group regards self-esteem as more of a universal phenomenon that most people deal with across cultures, though in different ways. The two-factor approach to self-esteem sees these differences as reflecting a “cultural trade-off” between competence and worthiness (Tafarodi and Swannn, Jr, 1995). In this case, a given a group or culture may emphasize one of the two factors more than the other, which would both allow group differences and be able to account for them.

In other words, people from cultures that emphasize the importance of the individual or who value personal achievements, such as those in the West, emphasize the competence factor more than the worthiness factor for self-esteem. This factor is strong because competence is necessary for success. Those who live in cultures that favor the group or communal values, such as those in the East, emphasize the worthiness component more. This factor is facilitates interpersonal harmony. The idea is that cultures may “trade off,” but not eliminate, one factor for the other.  

The Point

The point is twofold: One is that gender or culture may value one component of self-esteem more than the other enough to create measurable differences. The other is that authentic self-esteem still requires a significant degree of both competence and worthiness, so that one factor is strong enough to balance the other. For when it comes to self-esteem, too much of one good thing is not a good thing at all.

References

Mruk, C. J. (2019). Feeling good by doing good: A guide to authentic well-being. New York: Oxford University Press.  

Mruk, C. J. (2013). Self-esteem and positive psychology: Research, theory, and practice (4e). New York: Springer Publishing Company. 

O'Brien, E. J., Leitzel, J., & Mensky, L. (1996). Gender differences in the self-esteem of adolescents: A meta-analysis. Poster session presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Canada.

Tafarodi, R. W., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (1995). Self-liking and self-competence as dimensions of global self-esteem: Initial validation of a measure. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(2), 322–342.

Twenge, J. M., & Crocker, J. (2002). Race and self-esteem: Meta-analysis comparing Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asian, and American Indians. Psychological Bulletin, 128(3), 371–108.