When talking about gender issues, the word ‘naturally’ pops up quite a lot.
“Women don’t earn as much as men do because they are naturally less inclined to negotiate for their starting salary.”
“You see images of sexualised women everywhere, but not sexualised men, because men have a naturally stronger sex drive than women.”
“So many men commit acts of violence because men are naturally more aggressive than women.”
“So many women cut their careers short when they have children, because they naturally prefer caring for them instead of working, whereas men naturally prefer work to childcare.”
And once the word ‘naturally’ has reared its head, you can bet that the word ‘evolution’ will quickly follow, with the phrase ‘caveman days’ hot on its heels. Everyone present nods sagely; much beard-stroking ensues.
Sadly, proponents of the evolution-as-explanation-for-gender-differences idea seem to have fallen victim to something very similar to the fundamental attribution error, a term used in social psychology to describe humans’ tendency to attribute a person’s behaviour to their disposition, while completely ignoring any situational factors. Although this term refers specifically to individual personality, the same phenomenon seems to be at work when people choose to ascribe gendered behaviour to dispositional reasons, instead of acknowledging the possibility that there could be sociological factors at work.
Of course, there’s no denying that evolution explains almost everything about our physiology, and a good chunk of human behaviour. It is when evolution and biological determinism are used to explain everything, without reference to any period other than the present Western society and the vaguely-defined ‘caveman days’, that problems arise.
Here’s a small example of what I mean.
In 2007, through asking 208 volunteers to select their colour preferences, neuroscientists Hurlbert and Ling discovered that men had a preference for bluish/greenish colours, while women had a preference for pinkish/reddish colours. While the study did nothing to prove that this preference was biological, Ling made the leap quite easily, going from showing that grown men and women tended to prefer different colours, to stating, “This preference has an evolutionary advantage behind it.” Women, it was suggested, had to gather berries while men hunted, and so needed to spot ripe berries and fruits easily. This story was picked up eagerly by newspapers, with headlines like, “Study: Why Girls Like Pink“, and “Scientists Uncover Truth Behind ‘pink for a girl, blue for a boy“. As far as I can see, the study showed nothing about why girls like pink, but simply that they—well—did.
Yet all one has to do is go back 100 years in time (a mere nothing by evolutionary standards) to see that the pink/blue rule is fairly recent, and that the accepted social norms at the time were just the opposite. And since we’re doing some time-traveling, let’s have a look at life just one or two generations ago, and note the behaviour of women and men then, compared with women and men today. And then let’s take a tour around other countries too, in different continents. Maybe have a look at two people of the same ethnicity, who have been brought up on opposite ends of the globe.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point—that people’s behaviour isn’t immutable. Social norms play a huge part in determining how we act, what we value, how we feel, and even, apparently, what colour we prefer. Why do women today seem more ‘naturally’ inclined towards engaging in politics and sports than they were a hundred years ago? Why did they seem ‘naturally’ more subservient just 50 years ago? Was it evolution? I think not.
Evolution accounting for gender differences in behaviour is a neat theory to get behind; it satisfies our need for explanations, and gives us the reassurance that everything is as it should be. However, it quickly becomes a thinly-veiled excuse for gender inequality. When we hide behind evolution to justify the gender pay gap, the under representation of women in politics, or male violence against women, we are hiding from any responsibility for our part in sustaining this state of affairs, and we are refusing to acknowledge that change is possible.
So if anyone you know is insisting on sticking to evolutionary reasons for gender differences, tell them about the study of Baby X, where participants were shown to describe and behave towards Baby X in markedly different ways, depending on whether they thought Baby X was male or female. Ask them to watch kids’ TV and read their storybooks, and make a note of how many male and female characters there are, and how each gender is represented. Tell them to go into any children’s shop and read the words written on girls’ and boys’ clothes. Get them to ask both women and men around them what ambitions their families encouraged them to have as a child.
In short, tell them to open their eyes to the gendered pressures and influences that surround each of us, which start from the cradle and follow us throughout our lives, and that create the seemingly stark contrast between the average woman and man, before they decide that all gender differences are predetermined, and gender inequality unavoidable.