Repression of women by men has been a feature of history and fact of today. By repression, one means restricted or unfair access to social, physical, political or financial assets. This spills over into personal repression — the assumption by males that they are superior in every way to females. Why has this come about? That’s the first question. The second: What can, or should, be done about it? These are not original questions, but they are getting some new answers.

We have to recognize that gender inequality is lessening, in some parts of the world at least. There are now female presidents of international institutions, chairman of major enterprises, prime ministers or high ranking leaders; events that would never have happened 100 years ago. So why has this come about? If we can understand this process, we maybe have a way of hastening or improving it, for even in the most social-advanced countries, gender inequality persists to some degree. 

Looking at the natural world can help us; it may show us something about our biological and social heritage. It all starts with testosterone[1]. A male fetus is exposed to testosterone very early in pregnancy and this has profound and lasting consequences. He is born not only with testes that will, at puberty, secrete more testosterone, but his tissues, including his brain, are sensitized to its action. It makes him competitive, aggressive if need be and willing to take physical and social risks to achieve his ends, all because these are essential qualities for finding a mate and successful reproduction. It also arms him: The males of some species grow horns, or claws, or teeth that act as highly effective weapons. His muscles also respond to testosterone, and enlarge. These are the qualities that enable him to compete in the struggle against other males for mates, and the assets — food, territory, defense — that are essential for getting and keeping them. They also, in a world where muscular strength and the willingness to use it is highly important, to dominate females, who are not so strong, less willing to fight (unless they are defending their young) or compete physically for food or shelter. Furthermore, because males have greater ability to hunt, or plow, or make implements, it is they who have control of assets. This is the primal world, and it lasted for eons. In some places, it still does.

But the human brain is an exceptional structure. It endows both genders not only with the ability to imagine, invent, and so progress technically, but also with ethical and moral sensibilities. Unlike any other species, we can recognize a social structure for what it is. Unlike any other species, we can alter that structure. So it is that, unlike other species, our social structures and behaviors have changed during our history: fifteenth-century society was very different from today. And today's’ societies are varied hugely in different parts of the world. This behavioral variety is what distinguishes us from other species (though, of course, they can adapt to changing circumstances). Fifteenth-century chimpanzees behaved in much the same way as they do today.

The unique quality of human behavior is enabled by the huge human cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that gives it its wrinkled shape; wrinkled because folding it up is the only way to fit this brain into a reasonably sized skull. It’s noticeably larger than even a chimpanzee's. But below it lies a more ancient part, not so very different from other primates. It is here that testosterone, and other hormones, have their action: We carry from our ancestry brain mechanisms that haven’t changed so much. What has changed is the way these actions are controlled by the cortex. We invent laws, customs, traditions, all concerned with regulating the actions of the testosterone-sensitive parts of the brain. We are not unique in this: all other species also control mating and aggression etc. What distinguishes us are the variety, complexity, and flexibility of our laws and customs. Those of you who like Freudian approaches may relate this to his ‘id’ and ‘superego.’ And so to gender inequality. Most seventeenth-century people (men and women) would have accepted this as normal, part of nature, though an English poet (Ann Finch) wrote a poem lamenting it in 1661[2], so recognition of gender inequality is not just a modern happening.

It is the cerebral cortex that gave rise to an increasing sense of outrage that led to the feminist movement, one of the most significant of the last century. The recognition that gender inequality was unacceptable, and the political and social means for doing something about it, all came from the unique abilities of the human cerebral cortex. But this was not the only factor. Technology played its part. During the world wars, when young men were at a premium for military service, the social objection to women doing manual and factory labor disappeared, for good. This was social evolution. But technology also evolved, giving women machines to enable them to make or do things that otherwise would have been difficult. Driving buses is a good example: 50 years ago, women drivers were exceptional. It was not thought a fit occupation for females. But the invention of power steering (old buses are very heavy to drive), together with altered social attitudes, means that buses are now regularly driven by women.

There are those that claim all gender differences in behavior are socially constructed. If you give little girls trucks to play with, and boys dolls, then the traditional distinctions between the sexes will disappear, they say. The objective of this approach is commendable: It is one way of reducing or eliminating the reasons behind gender inequality. But the logic is poor, and the scientific evidence is against them. A great mass of biological information shows that there are true, but overlapping gender differences in some behaviors: For example, women are better at language, men at navigation. Women have greater empathy, men take greater physical risks. We cannot dismiss the power of testosterone (which is not the only factor underlying sex differences), or the results of having either an XY or XX set of chromosomes. One does not need to abolish or diminish gender differences in order to improve gender inequality, but simply to recognize that such differences are not a reason for inequality, any more than skin with greater amounts of melanin, a sensible adaptation to a hot climate, is a rational basis for discrimination. Men may be born equal, but they are not born the same. One may be good at music, another at sport, a third at technology. We cherish this variety in our society: Why can we not value gender differences in the same way — a celebration of individuality, but not a reason for inequality?


[1] Joe Herbert.  Testosterone; the molecule behind power, sex and the will to win.  Oxford University Press. 2017

[2] How are we fallen! Fallen by mistaken rules,

And Education’s more than Nature’s fools;

Debarred from all improvements of the mind,

And to be dull, expected and designed;

And if someone would soar above the rest,

With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,

So strong the opposing faction still appears,

The hopes to thrive can ne’er outweigh the fears.

Lady Winchelsea (Anne Finch) c 1661.

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