In a mixed group, women become quieter, less assertive, and more compliant. This deference is shown only to men and not to other women in the group. A related phenomenon is the sex gap in self-esteem: women tend to feel less self-esteem in all social settings. The gap begins at puberty and is greatest in the 15-18 age range (Hopcroft, 2009).
Do women learn this behavior? Why, then, do they learn it just as easily in Western societies where constraints on female behavior are much weaker and typically stigmatized?
In U.S. society most of the formal institutional constraints on women have been removed, and ideologies of the inferiority of women are publicly frowned on. Sexual jealousy is also publicly disapproved, however much private expectation there may be of the phenomenon. Resources inequalities between men and women have also been reduced, although not eradicated. Certainly, male violence against women is still a reality and may play a role promoting deference behaviors in college-aged women. However, it seems unlikely that fear of physical violence is enough to explain why young women typically defer to men when involved in non-sex typed tasks in experimental settings. (Hopcroft, 2009)
Moreover, why would this behavior be learned mainly between 15 and 18 years of age?
[...] by many measures, girls at this age in the United States are doing objectively better than boys — they get better grades, have fewer behavioral and disciplinary problems, and are more likely to go to college than boys (Fisher 1999: 82). Qualitative studies also show the decline in female confidence and certainty at adolescence (Brown and Gilligan 1992). Brown and Gilligan’s (1992) study was done in an elite private girls’ school among girls who were likely to have every opportunity in life. Why would their self confidence be eroded at puberty? Certainly, there are few differences in resources between teenage boys and girls. Brown and Gilligan (1992) argue that our sexist culture strikes at girls during puberty, stripping girls of their self esteem. It seems odd that our patriarchal culture should wait until that precise moment to ensnare girls. (Hopcroft, 2009)
Female self-esteem seems to be hormonally influenced. It declines at puberty, reaches its lowest levels in late adolescence, gradually increases during adulthood, and peaks after menopause.
[...] evidence from many cultures [shows that] post-menopausal women often enjoy a status equal to that of men: they become in effect “honorary men.” [...] Even in the most gender restrictive societies they are freed from menstrual taboos and purdah, often begin to inherit property and acquire wealth, and in general have increased freedom, status, power and influence in society. A recent experimental study of influence in small groups showed that older women (50 and older) do not defer to older men, and that older men do not display lack of deference to older women. (Hopcroft, 2009)
Female deference varies not only over a woman’s lifetime but also from one woman to the next, i.e., some women are more predisposed than others. This variability may exist for one or more reasons:
- Not enough time has elapsed for selection to remove contrary predispositions (non-deference) from the gene pool.
- The selection pressure is relatively weak: contrary predispositions appear through mutation as fast as they are removed through selection.
- The strength or weakness of selection may vary among human populations. Gene flow may reintroduce contrary predispositions from populations where the selection pressure against them is relatively weak.
- There may be frequency-dependent selection. Non-deferring women may be better liked when less common.
For all these reasons, evolutionary psychologist Rosemary Hopcroft (2009) argues that female deference is an innate predisposition and not a learned behavior. It has become so widespread because deferential women have been better at survival and reproduction via sexual selection. When women compete on the mate market, success goes to the more deferential ones.
One might point out that deferential behavior would be advantageous not only at the time of mating but also later—during pregnancy and infant care. So, strictly speaking, the selection pressure wouldn’t be just sexual selection.
But Hopcroft’s argument is vulnerable to a more serious objection: sexual selection of females is the exception and not the rule in most animal species, especially mammals. The males are the ones that have to compete for mates. This reflects differing contributions to procreation, the female being saddled with the tasks of pregnancy, nursing, and early infant care. Meanwhile, the male is usually free to go back on the mate market, with the result that mateable males outnumber mateable females at any one time.
Hopcroft knows this but argues that the human species is a special case because “human fathers often invest heavily in their children.” But often they don’t. What about societies where men do very little to raise their offspring? This point doesn’t disprove Hopcroft’s argument. In fact, it may provide a way to prove it, i.e., female deference should be stronger where paternal investment is higher.
If we look at hunter-gatherers, paternal investment tends to follow a north-south cline. It’s low in the tropical zone where women gather food year-round and can thus provide for themselves and their children with little male assistance. It’s higher farther away from the equator, where winter limits food gathering and makes women dependent on food that men provide through hunting. Paternal investment is highest in the Arctic: almost all food is provided by men and women specialize in tasks unrelated to food procurement (garment making, shelter building, meat processing).
This north-south cline was maintained and in some cases accentuated when hunting and gathering gave way to farming. In the tropical zone, farming developed out of female food gathering and thus became women’s work, as is still the case in sub-Saharan Africa and Papua New Guinea. This sexual division of labor also explains why tropical farmers preferred to domesticate plants for food production. Only one animal species, the guinea fowl, has been domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa, and it was apparently domesticated by women. All other forms of livestock have come from elsewhere.
How universal is female deference?
Female deference should therefore vary within our species. In particular, it should correlate with the degree of paternal investment in offspring and, relatedly, the intensity of female-female competition for mates. This doesn’t mean that women are actually more deferential in societies where men are providers. It simply means that they create an impression of deference, while continuing to do much of the real decision-making.
This issue is sidestepped by Hopcroft, who speaks only of ‘women’ and ‘men’—as if all human groups show the same pattern of female deference. She cites many studies to prove her point, but this literature is overwhelmingly based on Euro-American or European participants. There is one study on African Americans, but it was limited to boys and girls 11 to 14 years old (Weisfeld et al., 1982).
In fact, this presumed universality of female deference was already disproven by a study published two years earlier:
Much feminist literature has described the relative silence of girls in classrooms and a concomitant drop in self-esteem for girls in their early teens (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; American Association of University Women, 1992). But other work has noted that Black girls maintain their self-esteem and their classroom “voice” into adolescence despite the fact that they may feel neglected in education (Orenstein, 1994; Taylor et al., 1995). (Morris, 2007)
Over a period of two years, Morris (2007) studied African American girls in grades 7 and 9 of an American middle school referred to as “Mathews.” The students were 46% African American and the teachers two-thirds African American.
He found that African American girls seemed to feel little inhibition in the presence of boys:
Indeed, at Matthews I often observed girls—particularly Black girls—dominating classroom discussion.
[...] I noticed this active participation of girls to a greater extent in English classrooms, particularly when, as in this example, the subject concerned gender issues or relationships. However, the topic in this example also concerned computers and technology, areas more commonly dominated by boys. Furthermore, girls at Matthews, especially Black girls, spoke out to ask and answer questions in science and math classes as well, although to a lesser extent than in English and history classes. This willingness of African American girls to compete and stand up to others also emerged in their non-academic interactions with boys.
[...] Black girls at Matthews often challenged physical contact initiated by boys by hitting and chasing them back. They did not yield to and accept this behavior from boys, nor did they tend to seek adult authority to protect themselves and punish the boys.
[...] Thus, most African American girls in my observations did not hesitate to speak up in classrooms, and stand up to boys physically. Few Black girls I observed created disruptions in classrooms, but most consistently competed with boys and other girls to gain teachers’ positive attentions.
[..] I observed this outspokenness at Matthews. Black girls there appeared less restrained by the dominant, White middle-class view of femininity as docile and compliant, and less expectant of male protection than White girls in other educational research.
These observations were consistent with those of the teachers, who generally described African American girls as being confrontational, loud, and unladylike:
Teachers, particularly women, often scolded Black girls for supposedly subverting their authority in the classroom.
[...] By far the most common description and criticism of African American girls by all teachers at Matthews was that they were too “loud.”
[...] For many adults at Matthews, the presumed loud and confrontational behavior of African American girls was viewed as a defect that compromised their very femininity. This emerged most clearly in educators castigating Black girls to behave like “ladies.”
Morris attributed this behavioral pattern to America’s history of slavery and race relations. It would be useful to examine comparable data from sub-Saharan Africa. Do African women show less deference to men in mixed-gender settings?
According to a study of Akan society in Ghana, wives traditionally deferred to their husbands, but such deference was less common than in European society because social interactions were less frequent between husband and wife, being limited to certain areas of family life:
Traditional norms stipulated, for example, that the wife should not eat with the husband; that she alone must carry the foodstuffs from the farm; take water for the husband to the bathroom; sweep the compound; do the cooking; clean her husband’s penis after sexual intercourse; and show deference to him in speech and action. (van der Geest, 1976)
Husbands and wives seldom made decisions jointly:
Joint decision-making is believed to be a departure from the past when decisions were made in a much more autocratic way by the husband alone or when spouses decided over their own matters separately (van der Geest, 1976).
A very different picture existed in mixed-gender settings outside family life. In the community, African women of all ages showed little deference to men, the situation being similar to that of older women in European societies.
Despite these outward rules, however, women held considerable power and commanded wide respect. They played a role in traditional politics and religion and were nearly always economically independent of their husbands. Moreover, women enjoyed a high degree of freedom to enter and to terminate marital unions, and in the matrilineal society of the Akan they were the focal points of descent lines. (van der Geest, 1976)
It is unclear to what degree modernization has changed these social dynamics. Van der Geest (1976) found much interest among younger Akan in the European model of family life, i.e., husband and wife eating and socializing together, and making decisions together. His own study, however, failed to find a significant difference between older and younger Akan in this respect. He concluded that the elite were moving toward European models of behavior, but not the majority of the population:
There are indications that—contrary to the situation in elite circles—marriage in lower socioeconomic groups remains an institution of secondary importance. Spouses have relatively low expectations of their marriage partners and of marriage in general. Men are often reluctant or unable to provide sufficient financial support for their families, and not infrequently women bear the burden of parenthood alone. [...] Wives remain more attached to their families of origin than to their partners, and in almost half of all cases husband and wife do not even constitute a residential unit. The relatively low status of marriage in Kwahu is perhaps best reflected in the high incidence of divorce and extramarital sex. (van der Geest, 1976)
This is consistent with findings from other studies. The pair bond is relatively weak in sub-Saharan Africa. Husband and wife tend to feel greater attachment to their respective kin. The husband is more certain that his sister’s offspring are his blood relatives, whereas the wife sees her mother, sisters, and other female relatives as more reliable sources of child care.
Poewe found in her fieldwork that the marriage institution was highly flexible and discouraged strong, intense, or lasting solidarity between husband and wife. The male in these matrilineal societies did not produce for his progeny or for himself, but usually for a matrician with whom he might or might not reside. His role, as husband, was to sexually satisfy and impregnate his wife and to take care of her during her pregnancies, but under no circumstances should a man be the object of “exclusive emotional investment or focus of attention. Instead, women are socialized to invest their emotions and material wealth in their respective matrilineages.”(Saidi, 2010, p. 16).
For this reason, European outsiders see parental neglect of children where Africans see no neglect at all—simply another system of child care. As Africans move to other parts of the world, they tend to recreate the African marriage system in their host countries by using local people and institutions as “surrogate kin.” This is the case in England, where young African couples often place their children in foster homes:
The foster parents interpret the infrequent visiting of their wards’ “real” parents as signs of parental neglect and become strongly attached to the foster children. This sometimes results in legal suits for transfer of custody to the foster parents (Ellis 1977). Meanwhile, the African parents make no comparable assumption that the delegation of care means they have surrendered formal rights in children. They consider that by having made safe and reliable arrangements for the care of children and by regular payment of fees, they are dispatching their immediate responsibility. (Draper, 1989, p.164)
In recent years, there has been much talk of an “adoption crisis” in Africa, where millions of children are not being raised by both parents and thus purportedly need to be placed in Western homes. Yet this situation is far from new. In fact, it’s unavoidable in a culture where women cannot count on male assistance and have to make other arrangements:
In most African communities, the concept of “adoption” does not exist in the western sense. Children are fostered, a prevalent, culturally sanctioned procedure whereby natal parents allow their children to be reared by adults other than the biological parent. Child fostering is a reciprocal arrangement and contributes to mutually recognised benefits for both natal and fostering families. In Tanzania, less than one quarter of children being fostered by relatives other than their biological parent were orphans. (Foster and Williamson, 2000).
Evolutionary psychologists believe that all human populations share the same genetic influences on behavior. They defend this belief by pointing to the complexity of behavior and the presumably long time it would take for corresponding genetic influences to evolve coherently from scratch. But why do they have to evolve from scratch? Evolution usually proceeds through minor modifications to what already exists. This is no less true for genetic determinants of behavior. For instance, an innate mental algorithm may be partially or completely deactivated. Or its range of targets may be broadened. Or it may deactivate more slowly with increasing age.
To the extent that human groups differ genetically in mental makeup, the differences are not due to some groups having completely new mental algorithms. Instead, the differences are due to the same algorithms being modified in various ways, often subtly so. For example, learning is primarily an infant behavior that becomes more difficult with increasing age. People may differ in learning capacity not because their learning algorithms differ but because these algorithms remain fully active for a longer time in some people than in others.
Another example may be female deference. In early modern humans, women tended to feel deferential in the presence of men, but this tendency was weak because a woman’s interactions with her husband were infrequent and less important for her survival and the survival of her children. This is still the case in human groups that never left the tropical zone.
As humans spread beyond the tropics, this behavioral tendency became more easily triggered, particularly during the ages of 15 to 18 when young women entered the mate market. This evolutionary change came about because women in non-tropical environments were more dependent on men for food, particularly in winter. Women were, so to speak, in a weaker bargaining position than men, first of all on the mate market and later during pregnancy and infant care.
Brown, L.M., and C. Gilligan. (1992). Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, Harvard University Press.
Draper, P. (1989). African marriage systems: Perspectives from evolutionary ecology, Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 145-169.
Fisher, H. (1999). The First Sex, Random House.
Foster, G., and J. Williamson. (2000). A review of current literature of the impact of HIV/AIDS on children in sub-Saharan Africa,AIDS 2000, 14: S275-S284.
Hopcroft, R.L. (2009). Gender inequality in interaction – An evolutionary account, Social Forces, 87, 1-28.
Morris, E.W. (2007). “Ladies” or “Loudies”? Perceptions and experiences of black girls in classrooms, Youth & Society, 20, 1-26.
Saidi, C. (2010). Women’s Authority and Society in Early East-Central Africa, University of Rochester Press.
van der Geest, S. (1976). Role relationships between husband and wife in rural Ghana, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 38, 572-578.
Weisfeld, C.C., G.E. Weisfeld, and J.W. Callaghan. (1982). Female inhibition in mixed-sex competition among young adolescents,Ethology and Sociobiology, 3, 29-42.