Animals offer insight to gender equality

Gender inequality is very real in 2018.

Australian parliament is a toxic place for women. Women in the media and science are targeted and harassed because of their gender. Male domination of women occurs at an interpersonal level, and in our everyday interactions.

But how we behave with each other isn’t just about individual personalities and the current social and political climate. We as Homo sapiens come with a long evolutionary history – and understanding the animal roots of our behaviour can help us create positive change to achieve gender equality.

How we behave as men and women

Research in psychology demonstrates gender differences on a broad range of personality traits, suggesting that women are less dominating than men.

On average, women score higher than men on the personality trait agreeableness, and lower on measures of social dominance orientation and self-esteem. Men are also higher on the “dark traits” of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

Research that directly observes behaviour also shows clear gender differences in the expression of dominance. Women tend to interrupt less, smile more, and spend less time making eye contact when speaking and more time while listening compared to men.

Much of this behaviour occurs automatically and instinctively, without us even being aware of it. We might catch ourselves lowering our eyes when someone stares at us, dropping our shoulders and contracting our bodies to make ourselves smaller, or stepping out of someone else’s way as they approach.

These submissive behaviours are also observed among one of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees.

And anyone with a pet dog would already be well familiar with dominance and submission behaviour in that species.

The pecking order

Dominance hierarchies are found throughout the animal world, in humans and chimpanzees, and even in cockroaches.

With exception to the recent fame of the lobster as the poster child of social climbers, the most commonly known example of dominance hierarchies is probably the pecking order of domestic hens. In these social groups, the birds will peck at each other until one runs away, which thereafter assumes a subordinate position to the hen that stands its ground.

Typically, aggressive encounters among animals are ritualised: a sufficient display of strength is often enough to cause a competitor to yield. This submissive response means that the aggression de-escalates before causing serious injury or death to either party. A dominance hierarchy is established when an animal repeatedly receives a yielding response from another in competitive encounters.

The ultimate driver of this competitive behaviour is greater access to food, space, allies, and mates that comes with being at the top of the hierarchy. These benefits mean that it is adaptive to get to the top. So evolution has selected for psychological and behavioural mechanisms that drive animals to ascend the hierarchy.

But some animals are unlikely to ever win in aggressive encounters – due to a lack of size, strength, or skill. For them, it is more adaptive to yield submissively to their opponent rather than to risk injury or death.

In evolutionary terms, it’s better to be at the bottom of the hierarchy than to be dead. Evolution has therefore also selected for submissive behaviours that are elicited when animals are faced with a more formidable opponent.

The origins of patriarchy

In humans and many other mammals, there is a particularly strong evolutionary incentive for males to acquire high status, since this can greatly increase their reproductive output.

High-ranking males can fend off other males from accessing females, and they also tend to be more attractive to females due to their high status. Therefore, these males can potentially produce vast numbers offspring, as some notable tyrants like Genghis Khan have done. Many of us may even have such a male as an ancestor.

While females also benefit from high status, the payoff and the capacity for competing fiercely and recklessly for it is not as great as it is for males due to the demands of pregnancy and lactation.

These contrasting selection effects mean that males end up larger, stronger, and more aggressive than females in many species of mammal. This sex difference ultimately means that males are often able to physically and sexually dominate the females.

Therefore, females might often find themselves instinctively compelled to respond submissively to men as a strategy to protect themselves from aggression. This hierarchy is rooted in our evolutionary past, and deeply ingrained in our psychology.

The fight against patriarchy is a battle against our own minds.


Our evolved instincts might be one of the reasons why women feel so much internal resistance to challenging men, as well as why this is met with such backlash. The feminist movement itself collides with this “natural order” because it is a collective uprising against this male domination.

Feminists violate expectations when they refuse to be unthreatening, unchallenging, uncritical, polite, pleasant and apologetic. The unpalatability of insubordinate women might also explain the popularity of brands of feminism that refrain from making any criticism of mens’ behaviour.

A minimal amount of critical thinking might compel many of us to want to resist the pressure and the compulsion to submit to male domination. The way out of this trap begins with becoming aware of our involuntary submission.

A greater awareness of these unconscious processes is likely to reveal a more immediate source of our submissive responses: the natural, instinctive, and adaptive fear that arises in the heat of the moment when faced with a very real and unpredictable threat of aggression.

Unfortunately, this fear can sometimes drive us to stay silent at times when the risks to our personal safety and economic security are low.

So what could we cultivate to help us overcome the fear that compels us to back down and stay silent when we should be speaking up?


Originally published on The Conversation.