Gender Roles

Edited on Oct 29, 2014

On the most primitive level, the motivation of an organism is to be reproductively successful. The sexes are not in competition, but cooperation to create an offspring capable of reproductive success itself. Parenting has increased significance in the human species. Instead of tooth and claw, humans have evolved social behaviour that has helped strategic hunting and foraging efforts and led to not only in-group cooperation but larger, far reaching social networks. The development of language initiated the ability to learn and allowed knowledge to be passed from generation to generation, accelerating the rate of innovation.

The human sexes are not physically equal. Where male ejaculation is not very biologically expensive, a women who has sex may pay the price of nutrients and energy for the time of pregnancy and breast feeding. There is a bit of a number game here too. When men win the genetic game, they win bigger than a women could. In other words, the amount of children a women could raise in her lifetime is less than the number of women a man could impregnate in his lifetime. Where a group of all women and one fertile man could be fairly successful in creating the next generation, a group of all men and one woman could not. The biological costs make women the limiting reproductive resource, along with calorie and nutrient availability, general health and stress-levels.

The evolution of human social behaviour did not come without trade-offs. Relative to other species, human babies need a substantial amount of care and attention. Our intelligence is compensation for tooth, claw and fur, and has given us the power to adapt to a wide variety of environments. However, it is learnt and needs to be passed down through parenting. To be reproductively successful, the sexes need to parent a new human with learnt behaviour adapt to the conditions of their world.

Traditional gender roles make sense in a world of scarcity or in a society that values family. In these roles, men act as the subsidizers for the biologic costs of reproduction, in essence, creating more convenient ways of life. This does along with the classic “protector, provider” narrative.

Birth control could be part of changing these recently traditional[1] roles. What I think is more likely the driver of increasing female favouritism, as seen in modern/institutional feminism, is the exponential growth of technology. As we’ve relied more on oil and gas and the technologies it fuels, we have relied less and less on human-power. Developing societies have flourishing service sectors that rely more on communication than brute strength or physical endurance. This has led to values that tend to be “softer” and less riskier than a past built out of adversity.

As the reproductive subsidizers, men, in general, are accommodating to the other gender. In the historical past, they have been the major if not sole innovators, making working and domestic life easier. Innovation is really a willingness to take risks, which in the past has been preferentially selected in males and deselected in females.

Men that took dangerous hunting trips to bring food back, saved offspring from an attacking animal and took other life-threatening risks were probably more likely to pass on their genes than those men that did not put their women and children first. Even if the male sacrificed himself to this end, his genes would still live on in his children and promote this risk-taking trait.

Females would select for this trait, which would contribute to the sexual dimorphism we see today; greater neoteny in females, and bigger, stronger males [2].

Male roles often involve being active and having more agency: “protector/provider”. While female roles often involve being passive and having less agency. We are no longer in the same environment where these traits were selected. What will our new human environments and cultures select for?

If we want to move towards equality, can we see females as the agents, protectors and providers? Males as passive victims?

Alison Tieman‘s Men’s Rights versus Feminism explained using magnets:


[1] “Recently” traditional because the advent of monogamous relationships was probably not the tradition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (90% of our history as Homo sapiens). More likely, the mode we adopted involved protecting the group and offspring of the group with less emphasis on individual family units.

[2] Sexual dimorphism in humans and neoteny resources:

Karen Straughan‘s youtube video: Neoteny!

The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness: Sexual selection and human morphology


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