Nature vs Nurture? – Why We Need to Stop Using Evolution as an Explanation for Gender Differences

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.

Shame in the Patriarchy

Shame can arguably be said to be one of the worst emotions out there. Emotions like fear, grief and jealousy are strong contenders, and yet these feelings, strong as they are, don’t quite work in the same way that shame does. Dr Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist, positions shame as unique in that it “lead[s] you to feel as if your whole self is flawed”, eating away at your sense of self-worth until you can no longer bear to face public scrutiny, or indeed, yourself.

Beautiful without makeup

Given the deep-reaching effects of shame, it is not surprising, then, that it makes a remarkably effective tool for maintaining the patriarchal order. Women are shamed for a whole host of reasons— for being fat, being ugly, being hairy, being an airhead, being sexually promiscuous, being sexually conservative—the list goes on. Men are shamed when they behave too much like women—when they show emotional sensitivity, when they dress like women, or enjoy traditionally feminine activities, or when they (horror of horrors) allow themselves to be subservient to a woman. The result is a preservation of the status quo, where men act in dominant, assertive, stoic ways, and women walk the fine line of adhering to decorative ideals, but careful not to take it so far that they are labelled ‘sluts’.

It all seems pretty straightforward when laid out this way, but the waters are muddied by the invisibility of these forces. Indeed, it would make things far less complicated if we could identify a group who had nefariously and deliberately devised these rules for the purposes outlined above. When a man laughs at another for being “pussywhipped”, he (usually) isn’t consciously thinking, “My friend doesn’t have power over his girlfriend. This is a threat to the position of men and women in society! What should I do? I know- I’ll mock him and make him feel humiliated. Everyone must know that this is an unacceptable position for a man to be in!” Likewise, when a woman talks about how fat another woman is, she isn’t trying to make a statement about the female obligation to always maintain our sexual attractiveness. No—they’re doing it because this is what they’ve always known, because they’ve never lived in a society that gave them an alternative lens through which to view men and women. And from a societal point of view, it doesn’t matter that their statement was merely a throwaway remark; the effects are the same as if we’d all pulled together and orchestrated it.

Next time we hear a friend engage in a bout of casual shaming, let’s make sure they have a little think about what they’re really saying. Let’s ask them why they feel that a woman’s worth is bound up with her sexual activity. And why they gave their male friend a high-five for sleeping with loads of women. Let’s ask them why Hillary Clinton’s appearance is relevant to her role in politics. And if they continue to think it appropriate to criticize politicians for completely random and irrelevant traits, ask them why they never thought to judge Obama’s competence based on his pottery skills. Ask why no newspaper has ever run a feature on how ugly David Cameron is. Finally, let’s ask them why they’re telling their sons that ‘being a gi-rl’ is the worst thing he can be. And what message that sends to their daughters.

Then let us reserve shame for activities that actually deserve it. Let violence, rape, and the exploitation of women be shameful. Let the horrors of war and mass murder be a source of shame, not glory. Let the next generation of children grow up knowing that shame will never touch them for abandoning gender roles, and give them a world defined by love and harmony, and not by domination and power.

BIC Pens For Her and Other Unnecessarily Gendered Products

By now, we’ve probably all heard of the BIC Cristal pens “For Her”, as well as some of the wonderful, sarcastic comments on Amazon UK. I thought I’d share two of my favourites:

A treatise on the suitability of the pink pen

Pray, what is a ‘pen’? I do like it so, because it is so pink, but I remain ignorant as to its practical use. Father says not to ask questions because it might give me wrinkles, and to carry on practising my charming giggle so I can one day ensnare a Duke – but I cannot help but be intrigued by the delicate pinkness of this curio. I can only assume that because it is pink, it is intended for a woman’s usage. I am a woman, therefore perhaps I should have this pink so-called pen?

Does one place it delicately in the hair? Could one perhaps keep it in a box and take it out to peer at on occasion, when Father is busy in the library (wherever that is)? Is it an appropriate subject for after-dinner conversation? Might one take it on a lovely picnic in Hyde Park?

Naturally, we women are single-mindedly intrigued and captivated by the appearance and beauty of all things. It is almost as if my very womanhood calls out to objects of this colour and demands to be in possession of anything which combines the fascinating shading of red and white. If the ‘pen’ (an ugly name, I think) were not so pink, I should never have noticed it nor considered its potentialities as a purchase.

However, I am frightened and cautious as well as capricious and flighty, such as only a woman can be. Upon consultation with my conscience, I cannot in all good faith acquire such an item without being fully apprised as to its application. Now that I think upon it, I have heard mutterings about the use of ‘pens’ amongst Father’s business associates whilst pouring the tea for them (though I am sure they cannot have pink ones! An absurd notion!), and this would indicate that they are wholly inappropriate utensils for the fairer sex. I fear I have been enticed into unhealthy enquiry by the dazzling genius of the manufacturer. In colouring this object so, he has perhaps some deviant purpose in mind, correctly assuming that one such as myself may happen upon it and be naturally, helplessly seduced by the hue irresistible.

I shall not be tempted. I shall not enquire nor express any future enquiry as to the purpose of the pink pen. I must not feel it throb in my fingers, if indeed that is where it is intended to be placed. I shall endeavor henceforth to merely collect other pink objects; shells, ribbons and pretty trinkets such as might be suitable for a girl of marriageable age and limited mental capacity.

Yours &tc.”

-By “You Don’t Need My Real Name”


The pen for women that lets them KNOW they are women!

Thank you so much Bic!

These are more than just pens. They are little pink saviours. Every girl and woman should own one.

All my life I have written predominantly with black, blue, clear plastic, or, occasionally, metallic coloured pens. It never felt right. My sense of womanhood was deeply impacted by the lack of gender defined stationary. I remember once, writing in a public library, a child asked the time, and referred to me as `mister’. Mortified, I reflected upon why I had been so cruelly misgendered. I mean, I’m no Marilyn Monroe but I like to make an effort! Then it came to me: I was writing with an ORDINARY pen. Nothing in this writing implement made it obvious that I was a WOMAN. The next thing you know, this child might have asked me to fix something! Or assumed I understood the ins and outs of science!

Until I found your `for her’ range of pens, I was in genderless limbo. No, make that hell. Horrified at the thought of a repeat incident, I wrote only in private. No amount of make up, pink dresses, heels, and jewellery could fill the aching sense of androgyny that now consumed me. Concerned at my obvious deep misery, and apparent pen phobia, my friends and family began asking questions. How could I tell them? How would you?

Then – I saw them. First it was the pastel colours. Good, yes, but not clearly enough defined. A closer look and my heart skipped a beat. Could it be true? Pens `for her’? I don’t want to go into detail, but I will tell you that I emitted sounds of euphoria I never thought humanly possible. Many tears were wept. Tears stained pink with feminine joy.

As you can imagine, I counted the minutes until this precious package arrived. I took the day off work, bought myself a new pink writing pad, and practically sprinted to the nearest busy café. Settled with a skinny mochachino, I pulled out my new `for her’ pen (pink of course!). The result was astounding. As I began to write, flowers, heart shapes and ponies appeared on the page. I had unleashed and connected with my inner femininity! There was no stopping me now. You won’t believe what happened next. A man, looking uncannily like Burt Reynolds (in his heyday no less!), approached me and said: `Hey babe [Babe!]. That’s a pretty pen for a pretty lady’.

Needless to say we are now engaged and living in blissful heteronormativity. Stan has even asked me to make a special request to you, Bic – `for him’ pens! He says they could be in the shape of beer bottles or golf clubs. And why stop there? (said Stan). A ruler that looks like a brick would make any man feel more of a man. He is so clever. He says you must make sure to send him royalties! How we laugh about that, every morning. (But seriously, do credit him if you take the ideas on board.)

Anyway, I am sure there are still many more stationary items to be gendered feminine, and too little time! Thank you for giving me back my sense of womanhood, and please – never underestimate your role in promoting the gendering of girls and women.

-By “Happyshopper”


I’m delighted that so many have seen it for the bullshit that it is, and that it has gained so much publicity. But it did make me think of other products that are unnecessarily gendered, but which often pass unquestioned. Particularly products made for children.

Head on over to the children’s section of any store, and you’ll immediately notice it divided: stuff ‘for boys’ and stuff ‘for girls’. You can probably guess what kind of products are considered boys’ toys or girls’ toys, but if you really need convincing, I’ve created a little sample here. These photos were taken from the Early Learning Centre, not because I’ve got anything against them in particular, but because their site was the first one I came across and I thought it was a good microcosm of the toy world.

Boys’ stuff:

Girls’ stuff:

The overwhelming message is a shockingly archaic one. Boys are active! They can be firemen, policemen, superheroes, race car drivers. They can do science and technology, and build robots for the future. Girls, on the other hand, are decorative. Their mission in life is to look beautiful and put in effort to do so. Once they have achieved this, their next task is to strike a pose, inviting admiration of their physical perfection. Their place in life is in the home – feeding babies, pushing prams, baking, and cleaning up the house. (Seriously, how is a dustpan and brush a toy?! ) If they do decide to go to work, they could enter the medical profession… but only as a nurse, not a doctor.

Children learn quickly, and adapt to the society in which they find themselves. And one of the most pervasive ideas we teach them is conforming to gender roles.

This is the definition of the word ‘role’ in the Oxford Dictionary.

•    an actor’s part in a play, film
•    the function assumed or part played by a person or thing in a particular situation

This is the crucial aspect of gender roles. They aren’t a reflection of how men and women really are, they are “part[s] [that we] play”, identities that we “assume…in a particular situation,”  in this case, a patriarchal society. They are a performance that we learn to perfect from a very young age, and its roots have sunk deep into us, so much so that any deviation now feels unnatural.

Worse, children aren’t just taught about the gender divide and which side they fall on, they are also taught which gender is superior. Boys, especially, are policed strictly, and any hints of ‘feminine’ behaviour from them (including but not limited to: playing with ‘girly toys’, dancing, crying, liking pink, dressing up) are met with horror and chastisement from their parents. They learn from very early on that being called a girl is the worst thing that someone could say to them, a fate to be avoided at all costs. Is it any wonder, then, that women and girls are disrespected, that their views are seen as inherently of less value than a man’s?

Children aren’t born knowing what is expected of their gender. Boys aren’t born believing that it’s shameful to be a girl. Through the toys that we make for them and the messages that we send them, they are taught about their roles and status every day. And when they grow up, they will pass it on to their children in their turn, unless we make an effort to end this cycle and make gender roles a thing of the past.