Sop – discussion #5 – gender, leadership, difference

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Discussion Question #5: Which most powerfully influences gender differences in behavior– biology or socialization? What are the implications (for individuals, institutions, and society) if biology is the most powerful? What are the implications if socialization is the most powerful?

Read attachment. Initial post should be no longer than 2-3 paragraphs and should show your understanding of the week’s readings and lectures. Follow APA format, citations and references.  

Biology and Behavior

The data on how parents treat boys and girls reviewed in chapter 2 and

on how children learn about sex differences reviewed in chapter 3 raise

the question of whether all the sex differences we see are differences that

adults construct. What about built-in sex differences? In this chapter and

the next I summarize what we know about intrinsic differences between

males and females and consider the implications of those differences.
One of the problems involved in discussions of sex differences is that

many people view biological influences as all-powerful and final. If a sex
difference-such as mathematical ability-can be shown to have a bio-

logical component, it seems immutable and eternal. Our perception of

immutability stems, I think, from an inaccurate understanding of what it

means for a characteristic to have a biological basis. We interpret a bio-

logical sex difference as a difference that is a direct result of having a

certain set of sex chromosomes. Since we cannot change the set we have,

we are stuck with the differences that go along with being XX or XY.

This everyday interpretation of biology, however, is radically uninformed.
Although chromosomal differences may be qualitative, none of the ensu-

ing differences are. Biology leaves us a lot of room to manoeuvre. Biology

is not necessarily destiny.
In a way, it is odd that we should interpret sex differences as immutable,

when we do not accept biology as destiny in other aspects of human exis-

tence. For example, biology sets limits on the human life span, but we
need not and do not for that reason accept a short average life span as

o~r fate. As a society, we put forth great efforts to understand the mecha-
nisms of health and to cure disease and illness. We practice good hygiene,

we 11 westigate the roles of diet and exercise, we sterilize, we vaccinate, we

imx:ulate, we medi1:ate. Although we agree that no one can live forever,

wt· su1:1:essfully invest tremendous resources in trying to live longer. Our

su~·1:ess is evidence of the !ability and complexity of the processes that

underlie life and death and of humans’ ability to intervene in those

I propose that we adopt the same attitude toward biological sex differ-

en1:es. Biologi1:al sex differences arise through the actions of sex hor-

mones operating in our physical and social environments. Like the

pro1:esses relevant to life and death, those relevant to sex differences are

intrirnte and susceptible to change. Biology sets limits, but we need not

for that reason accept the differences we see as immutable. We have good

evidence from cultural, situational, and temporal differences that the dif-

ferences arc not immutable.
In this 1:hapter and chapter 5, I have applied my own interpretation to

the resear1:h findings on physical, behavioral, and cognitive differences,

highlighting some findings the researchers themselves did not and deem-

phasizing others. Many different points of view on these data exist: while

some people deny the existence or importance of a biological influence,

others refer all differences to biology. My own position is that biological

influcn1:es exist and are important, but are only part of the story.

Sex Hormones

When we talk about “biological” sex differences, we are talking about

the influence of the hormones responsible for differentiation of the sexes.

The sex chromosomes themselves (XX for females and XY for males) do

not have an automatic and rigid set of consequences. They do not act like

on-off switches. Nor are they, even, the immediate agents of sex differen-

tiation. They exercise their influence through the differing hormonal de-

velopments they set into motion. Those developments in turn have their
‘ ‘

effects within one or another context and are inherently variable. The

same thing is true of genetic effects in general (see discussion in Neisser

et al. 1996). So, although we cannot change our chromosomes, they are,
in a sense, irrelevant.

Biology and Behavior 69

Mammals with XX chromosomes develop ovaries that secrete one set

of hormones; mammals with XY chromosomes develop testes that secrete

the same set of hormones but in different amounts. The action of those

hormones underlies further physical sex differentiation. The three main

types of sex hormones-androgens, estrogens, and progestins-occur in

both sexes; the sexes differ, sometimes dramatically, in the amount of
each hormone they produce. For example, testosterone levels in college-

age males and females are very different. The male-to-female ratio has

been reported to be as high as ten to one, with no overlap between the
two groups (Udry & Talbert 1988). Average testosterone-concentration

levels in saliva have been reported to be about three times as high in males

as in females, again with no overlap between the two groups (Gouchie &
Kimura 1991 ). Within each sex, however, there is a considerable range of

secretions of each hormone.

Within-Sex Variability
It is in the realm of behavior that the variable effects of sex hormones
within each sex are clearest. The effects vary depending on the social-

psychological context they occur in, for nonhuman animals as well as
humans (Buchanan et al. 1992; Collaer & Hines 1995). Hormonal ef-
fects, in other words, are context-dependent. Even in rats, the effects of

sex hormones differ, depending on the sort of handling the animals re-
ceive, the type and amount of stimulation provided by their environment,

and the kind of maternal care they receive. (See Collaer & Hines 1995,

for a summary of these and other effects of gonadal steroids.)
Although we commonly speak of the environment modifying or moder-

ating or influencing hormonal effects on human behavior, I find that ter-

minology misleading. It suggests a primacy and a univocality for the
action of sex hormones that do not exist. It would be similarly inappro-
priate to label environmental effects on human behavior as primary, and
speak of hormones as modifying or moderating those environmental

effects. Rather, hormonal and environmental effects act together-they
coact-to jointly influence people’s and animals’ traits and behaviors

(Moore 1985). Within the realm of behavior, there is no such thing as a

pure hormonal effect, because there is no such thing as a zero or neutral

70 Chapter 4

environment. Equally, there is no such thing as a pure environmental ef­

fect, because there is no such thing as zero or neutral hormones. To under­

stand any behavior, it is necessary to understand the contribution of both

hormones and the environment.
We can get a small idea of the complexity of the interactions between

sex hormones and the environment in adult humans by looking at how

time of year and level of circulating testosterone affects men’s ability to

rotate objects mentally (Kimura & Hampson 1994). In the fall, North
American males have higher levels of testosterone than they have in the

spring; they also have lower scores on spatial rotation tests than they do in

the spring. As individuals, males who are below the average in circulating

testosterone also score higher on spatial rotation tests than those whose

levels are higher than average. Men’s cycles occur on a daily basis as well.

When testosterone levels are higher, in the morning, men perform more

poorly on tests of spatial rotation. (See Kimura 1996 for a summary of

this and other experiments involving hormonal effects.)

Males’ spatial rotation scores are linked to testosterone level in ways

that our gender schemas would not predict. Gender schemas represent

testosterone as contributing to masculinity and label certain kinds of

skills-like map reading and mental rotation-as masculine. But the data

show that, for mental rotation, having less testosterone is better than hav­
ing more-up to a point.

Being below the median is better than being above it, but for males

being very far below it is worse than being somewhat below. There ap­

pears to be a curvilinear relationship between testosterone level and

scores on mental rotation tests. Aging males, who have very low testoster­

one levels, have lower scores on tests of mental rotation than college-age

males whose scores are below the median (Kimura 1996). Women’s tes­
tosterone levels are very low.

The data on men’s variability show that our notions of people’s abilities

are oversimplified. It is obvious that the component of spatial ability that

is due to knowledge of spatial relations cannot fluctuate over a twenty­

four-hour period. Still, spatial ability undoubtedly involves more than

knowledge. It also requires registering the spatial properties of objects,

storing that information, and then mentally rearranging the objects to see

71 Biology and Behavior

what they would look like from different angles. Those processes appear

vulnerable to changes in testosterone level.2 Researchers do not know
whether male-female differences in spatial abilities are due to underlying

differences in knowledge or to processing differences.
There are at least some spatial tasks where males perform better than

females that seem unrelated to testosterone levels. For example, although
male homosexuals and heterosexuals have comparable testosterone levels,

homosexuals generally perform the task of throwing a ball at a target less

well than heterosexuals do (Hall & Kimura 1995; Kimura 1996).3

Female scores on spatial-orientation tests fluctuate somewhat across

the menstrual cycle and show some individual variability. When estrogen

levels are very high, females score worse on some-but not all-tests of

spatial ability than they do when estrogen levels are moderate or low
(Hampson 1990a, 1990b). For women, there is also some indication of a

curvilinear relation between estrogen and spatial skills, just as there is a

curvilinear relation between men’s testosterone levels and spatial perfor­

mance (Hampson 1990b).
At the same time, female monthly fluctuations are considerably smaller

than male seasonal variations. The hormonal effects in women are rela­
tively small and do not show the other patterns we would expect to see

if estrogen level alone controlled behavior. For example, undergraduate

women who major in science score better on tests of spatial ability than
do women who major in other fields. If estrogen level predicted spatial
ability well, women in science would have estrogen levels different from

other women, but they do not (Hampson 1990b).
Females’ levels of testosterone, however, are related to scores on at least

some tests of spatial ability, even though those levels are much lower than
males’ levels. Females with above-average testosterone levels for females

score as well on spatial tests as males with below-average levels for males
(Gouchie & Kimura 1991). That is so even though the testosterone levels
of these women are only half as high as the male levels. A similarly low
level in males would be associated with poor spatial performance. Per­

haps because of differences in brain structure, a very low testosterone

level in males-a level too low to mediate good spatial performance-is

adequate for females to attain good spatial performance.

72 Ch<1pter 4

The resean:h on hormonal influences on behavior thus contradicts any

notion we might have that sex chromosomes determine our destiny, or

that hormones act independently of the environment in which they are

embedded. Hormones are relevant influences on our traits and behaviors,

but their effects are labile. Evaluation of the effects of hormones on the

specific physical and behavioral traits discussed in the remainder of the

chapter confirms this general conclusion.

Variation in Trait Expression

We can illustrate the relations between biology and trait expression with

an example unrelated to sex differences. Although some hearts are intrin-

sically less efficient pumps than others, diet and exercise can increase their

efficiency, just as a poor diet and lack of exercise can decrease it. The

environment influences how well a heart does its work. For most traits,

biology establishes a continuum of values rather than a specific value. In

the case of hearts, biology establishes the usual range within which they

operate, rather than a specific efficiency value that holds for all hearts.

In the same way, some sex differences change in value from one situa-

tion to another, while others are relatively invariant over an individual’s

adult lifetime. Variability that occurs within an individual is variability

that can be altered.


Most people’s everyday experience is that there are two, clearly different

sexes. Male and female genitalia differ markedly. (Ambiguous genitalia

exist but are rare.) A concomitant functional difference is as marked as

the anatomical difference: females are capable of birth and lactation and
males are not.<

Unlike other sex differences that we pay attention to, anatomical differ-

ences hold to the same degree across all cultures, across all situations, and

across time. Cognitive and behavioral sex differences, on the other hand,

exist along a continuum, with a great deal of overlap between the sexes

and a great deal of variability within each sex. Only in the reproductive

area are the differences qualitative. All other differences between the

73 Biology and Behavior

sexes are quantitative and inherently variable, though the type and size of

the variability differs from trait to trait. In all the physical and behavioral

characteristics we consider here, the variability within each sex is greater

than the (average) difference between the sexes.

In all cultures, males are on average taller than females-a difference that

has persisted for thousands of years. Nonetheless, even with height, some

types of variability do exist. Within each sex, some people are taller than
others. Some females are taller than others and are also taller than some

males. The difference between the extreme heights within each sex is

larger than the difference in the average height between the sexes.
Height also varies from individual to individual as a function of nutri-

tion-which is environmentally determined-and development. Among

children born in the same place at the same time, those who are well

nourished grow taller than those who are poorly nourished. In old people,

height decreases because of bone loss.
Changes in the social environment, however, do not affect adult height.

People are not, for example, taller at work than they are at home. Even

here, though, perceptions of height can be manipulated: people may wear

shoes that increase their apparent height, or they may, by slouching, re-

duce it. Compared to other characteristics we consider later in the chap-

ter, however, individual height has only limited variability.

Voice Pitch
Other physical sex differences show much more mutability within an indi-

vidual. Consider voice pitch. Like height, it has a underlying biological

basis: on average, males have larger and more muscular larynxes, and

larger and more resonant throats. The result is that, within any culture,

males’ voices tend to be deeper in pitch than females’. Unlike height, how-

ever, an individual’s adult voice pitch is not fixed. We all possess a fairly

~ide range of possible pitches. Pitch is responsive, for example, to emo-

tional stress.
If the expression of a trait can vary within an individual from one mo-

ment to the next, it follows that all other types of variability can also



74 Chapter 4

exist. Again, voice pitch is a good example. The size of the sex difference

varies from culture to culture. In Italy, for instance, the difference is less

than it is in the United States (McConnell-Ginet 1983).

Unlike height, voice pitch could be, on average, almost the same in

males and females, because of the variability within an individual, and

because of the responsiveness of pitch to social and cultural factors. Fe­

males could speak nearer the lower end of their range and males nearer

the upper end. (British Prime Minister Thatcher reportedly profited from

lessons in lowering her voice pitch so that she would appear more author­

itative.) By the same token, the average difference in pitch between the

sexes would be extremely high if females spoke at the upper end of their

range and males spoke at the lower end of theirs. Thus, even for traits

with a clear underlying physiological connection, societies can “choose”

how extreme the behavioral differences will be. Traits whose expression

is inherently variable-like voice pitch-rather than more rigid-like

height-allow for the largest cultural and gender differences.

In essence, what matters in evaluating sex differences is not the existence

of a biological connection but the inherent variability in the expression

of a trait. Height and voice pitch both have a clear biological connection,

but adult height cannot be directly influenced by culture, whereas voice

pitch can. If a trait is inherently variable, like voice pitch, the expression
of it is malleable. The variability makes it correspondingly difficult to as­

sess the influence of biology. For some sex differences, biology limits the
range of a behavior; further, the midpoint of the range for one sex may

be higher or lower than the midpoint for the other sex. The differences in

the midpoints may or may not have practical significance, depending on

how great the range is for each sex. To assess the sources of sex differ­

ences we need to know both whether a given behavior has a direct biologi­
cal connection and, if it does, whether the proper analogy is to height or

to voice pitch. Yet we often do not know. For the traits that could be

relevant to professional achievement, voice pitch seems a better analogy,

because those traits are responsive to cultural, social, and psychological

When I speak of influences, I am not suggesting that the environment

shapes or molds children or adults. Rather, people form nonconscious

75 Biology and Behavior

hypotheses based in part on the data they receive from the environment.
Those hypotheses about sex differences-gender schemas-then guide

people’s behavior. When a trait is malleable, gender schemas can affect

its expression.

Behavioral Traits and Professional Achievement

None of the traits discussed so far have any direct connection to people’s

intellectual or professional abilities. Height and voice pitch have nothing
to do with competence, even though we tend to think of competent
people as tall and having a low voice. Other differences, however, have

more potential significance.

Activity Level
Males are more active than females, a difference that appears to increase
throughout childhood and into early adolescence (Eaton & Enns 1986).


Since few studies have examined activity differences after the age of fif-
teen, we do not know whether the differences persist throughout the life
span or begin to diminish at some point. Higher activity levels could indi-
rectly cause more exploration and, even more indirectly, be related to

achievement. But that is speculation.
The existence of infant sex differences in activity level has not gone

unquestioned. Relatively few studies have looked at infant sex differences;
those that have found no differences in global activity level, although
there is some suggestion that infant boys’ movements are more vigorous
than girls’. One careful study comparing girl and boy babies at two and
a half months and at five months found almost no differences either in
activity level or in vigor of movement ( Cossette, Malcuit, & Pomerleau
1991). The few differences observed were small and could have been due

to chance.
Even fewer studies have looked at prenatal activity levels, but one or

two have found differences. If the existence of in utero sex differences
were confirmed, that would suggest very strongly that activity differences

are indeed hormonally initiated, as male and female fetuses receive no
differential social stimulation (Eaton & Enns 1986). The fact that sex
differences in activity increase as development proceeds is compatible

76 Chapter 4

with two possibilities: (1) that high activity is encouraged in boys and

Jisrnuraged in girls; or (2) that activity levels mature and follow different

paths of biological development in boys and girls.
One indication that differences in activity level are initiated by hor-

monal differences comes from data on children who experienced overly

high levels of androgens in utero. In a relatively rare genetic disorder (oc-

curring approximately once in every ten thousand births), an enzyme de-

ficiency leads to overproduction of androgens by the fetus’s adrenal

glands. The disorder, commonly called congenital adrenal hyperplasia

(CAH), is usually visible in chromosomal females soon after birth, be-

cause the genitals are masculinized. As newborns, the girls typically re-

ceive genital surgery and hormonal treatment to counteract further effects

of the androgens. Both boys and girls with CAH have very high levels of

circulating androgens. Detection at birth is more difficult in boys, and

solid data on the effects on boys are not available.

Most studies have found that girls with CAH have higher activity levels

than normal girls, levels that are similar to those of normal boys (see dis-

cussion in Collaer & Hines 1995). Rough-and-tumble play, which is
much more characteristic of boys than of girls, is also frequent in girls

with CAH. A study comparing three- to eight-year-old girls with and

without CAH found that the girls with CAH spent more time playing

with toys associated with males, such as vehicles and construction

toys, than the others did (Berenbaum & Hines 1992). A study of older
children produced similar results (Berenbaum & Snyder 1995). The girls
with CAH spent the same amount of time with masculine toys as boys

without CAH did. Toys typically associated with boys may lend them-

selves to high-activity play more easily than do toys typically associated
with girls.

To summarize, activity level seems like a good candidate for a hormonally

influenced sex difference. Data both from boys and girls with normal pre-

natal hormonal development and from girls who experience excess an-

drogens in utero suggest hormonal involvement. But interactions with
social-psychological factors cannot be ignored. We know that parents

treat boys and girls differently; parents of girls with CAH may be more


Biology and Behavior 77

tolerant of active play than the parents of girls with no history of atypical

hormonal production (see also chapter 5, n. 8).

There is no evidence that a high activity level or rough-and-tumble play

is either necessary or sufficient for later achievement. If either were im-
portant, changes in the child’s social environment could increase girls’


Another candidate for an intrinsic sex difference in behavior is hostile

physical aggression-defined as touching another person with the inten-

tion of inflicting harm, with or without the desire to obtain some goal.

There is a higher incidence of such hostility in boys, although the sex

differences appear to develop later-around the age of three-than dif-
ferences in activity level (see review in Berk 1994).

Sex differences in aggression increase throughout adolescence, then di-

minish, apparently because society looks less and less favorably upon

physical aggression as children become adults. Overall, studies reliably

show males to be more physically aggressive than females, with little or
no difference from one generation to the next (Eagly & Steffen 1986;
Knight, Fabes, & Higgins 1996). Cultures vary in how often people ex-
press hostile physical aggression, but there is usually a sex difference, with

males being more active and aggressive. Females of one culture may well
be more physically active or aggressive than the males of another culture,

but they are likely to be less physically aggressive than males of their own
culture. Even that difference, however, is not universal, as Mead demon-
strated (1935).

Although males are usually more aggressive than females, the actual
level of individual aggression is inherently highly variable. As with other

characteristics, the range of aggression within each sex is larger than the
average difference between the sexes. Interestingly, boys seem less prone

to aggression if they have had experience looking after younger children
(see Maccoby & Jacklin 1980; Tieger 1980). Hostile behavior can appar-
ently be reduced by practicing nurturant behavior.

Most girls in most cultures either have actual child care experience, or
the surrogate experience of playing with dolls. Unlike boys, girls may thus

hr Jiwrtnl from aggrrssion throughout their childhood. If more boys
\’t”rt’ giwn thr opportunity to take care of young children, reduced ag-

grc~s1on might rrsult.
Again, thrrr is no evidence that a tendency to physical aggression is

cithrr nrcrssary or sufficient for later achievement. I emphasize physical

aggrt·ss1011 hrcause that is where sex differences are most marked. Aggres-

siw thoughts anJ words, on the other hand, are more equally shared be-

twt·rn the sexes.
StuJirs of white college-age males from the North or South of the

UnitrJ States Jemunstrate that a tendency to aggressive solutions is in-

tluenceJ by an individual’s subculture. In a series of experiments, re-

st·archers arranged for the young men to be mildly insulted by a peer

(Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz 1996). After the insult, the students
participated in various tasks designed to measure their aggression. North-

rrners and southerners responded differently in those follow-up tasks. In

one task, the students were asked to complete a story in which a male

studrnt’s girlfriend complained to him that a male acquaintance had tried

to kiss her. Southerners who had been insulted completed the story more

aggressively than northerners who had been insulted, as well as more ag-

gressively than southerners or northerners who had not been insulted.

The researchers concluded that, for southern males, aggression and no-

tions of “honor” are interwoven: southerners may be easier to offend

than northerners and may also respond more aggressively to a perceived

offense (Cohen ct al. 1996). (Naturalistic data also indicate that white

southern males arc more likely to be violent in certain settings than their

northern counterparts (Cohen et al.)) For our purposes, the important

aspect of the experiment is its evidence that aggression is not just culturc-
bound, but subculture-bound.

Aggression also varies from situation to situation (Eagly & Steffen
1986 ). A review of sixty-four experimental studies of aggression demon-

strates that, depending on the type of provocation to aggression, men may

be either more or less aggressive than women (Bettencourt & Miller
1996 ). Men, for example, react more aggressively than women do when

their intelligence is insulted. Women, however, react somewhat more ag-
gressively than men to other types of insults.

79 Biology and Behavior

The wide variability in the expression of aggression in each sex, and

the concomitant variability in the presence and extent of sex differences

in aggression, indicate that cultures and subcultures play a major role in

determining people’s reactions to frustration or provocation. As it does

with voice pitch, the variability suggests that there is great flexibility in the

amount of aggression males and females express. No particular amount is

natural or inevitable for either sex. Males may exhibit very little aggres-

sion or a great deal; females exhibit a similar range of behavior.
Given that inherent variability, I interpret the pervasiveness of a sex

difference across cultures as an indication that the social arrangements of

many cultures have something in common, something that is conducive

to the development of similar gender schemas that set sex differences in

place and maintain them. Such an interpretation does not rule out a con-

tribution from sex hormones but, rather, suggests that the hormonal con-

tribution neither dominates nor effaces the environmental influences.

Putting together the data on activity-especially rough-and-tumble

play-and on aggression, we can see how they might be related. A high

activity level may be suppressed or encouraged, directed toward objects

or toward people, intended to help others or to hurt them (see discussion

in Parsons 1982). Hostile aggression is not a necessary outcome of high

activity. Girls with CAH are not more aggressive in their behavior than

other girls, even though their activity levels and liking for rough-and-

tumble play are greater. Although girls with CAH do score somewhat

higher on questionnaires asking about aggressive tendencies, they do not

act out those tendencies (see summary in Collaer & Hines 1995).
Nonetheless, high activity level may be a predisposing factor to aggres-

sion. If combined with anger and lack of cultural prohibitions against the
expression of anger, high activity can result in hostile aggression. Anger

may be a natural human emotion but there is no natural way to handle
. ‘
it. As the North-South differences suggest, an individual’s response is af-

fected by beliefs about what is appropriate.
That hormones predispose but do not determine aggression is also ap-

parent from changes that occur during puberty, when boys’ testosterone
t levels increase greatly. Although the hormone increases in all boys, moS



80 Chapter 4

boys in most situations do not become more aggressive (Buchanan et al.

1992). Boys with higher levels of testosterone do seem to display more

physical aggression if they feel threatened or perceive a situation as unfair.

And boys who had behavior problems before puberty may have those

problems exacerbated by an increase in testosterone. Otherwise, however,

most boys do not show more aggression as a consequence of higher levels

of testosterone. To summarize, sex differences in aggression may be

linked to hormonal differences, but even physical aggression is strongly

influenced by social and psychological factors.

The Significance of Sex Differences

Physical and behavioral sex differences exist. Those differences include

reproductive role, height, voice pitch, activity level, and aggression. All

are affected to some degree by sex hormones, but in most cases we know

neither the extent nor exact nature of the influence.

To some degree, however, the presence of a hormonal influence on

behavior is irrelevant. Except for reproduction, sex differences are not

qualitative but average, quantitative differences. The variability in the ex­

pression of a trait both within an individual and across individuals dem­

onstrates the importance of the social environment. The variability tells

us that hormones and the social environment act together to produce be­

havior. We need not change people’s hormones to change their behavior;
changing the social environment has clear effects.

The Origins of Sex Differences in Human Behavior
Evolved Dispositions Versus Social Roles

Alice H. Eagly
Wendy Wood

The origins of sex differences in human behavior can lie
mainly in evolved dispositions that differ by sex or mainly
in the differing placement of women and men in the social
structure. The present article contrasts these 2 origin the-
ories of sex differences and illustrates the explanatory
power of each to account for the overall differences be-
tween the mate selection preferences of men and women.
Although this research area often has been interpreted as
providing evidence for evolved dispositions, a reanalysis of
D. M. Buss’s (1989a) study of sex differences in the at-
tributes valued in potential mates in 37 cultures yielded
cross-cultural variation that supports the social structural
account of sex differences in mate preferences.

s more research psychologists have become will-
ing to acknowledge that some aspects of social
behavior, personality, and abilities differ between

women and men (e.g., Eagly, 1995; Halpern, 1997), their
attention has begun to focus on the causes of these differ-
ences. Debates about causes center, at least in part, on
determining what can be considered the basic or ultimate
causes of sex differences. Theories of sex differences that
address causes at this level are termed in this article origin
theories (Archer, 1996). In such theories, causation flows
from a basic cause to sex-differentiated behavior, and bi-
ological, psychological, and social processes mediate the
relation between the basic cause and behavior. In this
article, we consider two types of origin theories: One of
these implicates evolved psychological dispositions, and
the other implicates social structure. Evolutionary psychol-
ogy, as illustrated in the work of Buss (1995a), Kenrick and
Keefe (1992), and Tooby and Cosmides (1992), thus rep-
resents the first type of origin theory, and social psycho-
logical theories that emphasize social structure represent
the second type of origin theory (e.g., Eagly, 1987; Eagly,
Wood, & Diekman, in press; Lorenzi-Cioldi, 1998; Ridge-
way, 1991; West & Zimmerman, 1987; Wiley, 1995).


In the origin theory proposed by evolutionary psychol-
ogists, the critical causal arrow points from evolutionary
adaptations to psychological sex differences. Because
women and men possess sex-specific evolved mechanisms,
they differ psychologically and tend to occupy different
social roles. In contrast, in the social structural origin
theory, the critical causal arrow points from social structure
to psychological sex differences. Because men and women

Northwestern University
Texas A&M University

tend to occupy different social roles, they become psycho-
logically different in ways that adjust them to these roles.

One important feature is shared by these two origin
theories: Both offer a functional analysis of behavior that
emphasizes adjustment to environmental conditions. How-
ever, the two schools of thought differ radically in their
analysis of the nature and timing of the adjustments that are
most important to sex-differentiated behavior. Evolution-
ary psychologists believe that females and males faced
different pressures in primeval environments and that the
sexes’ differing reproductive status was the key feature of
ancestral life that framed sex-typed adaptive problems. The
resolutions of these problems produced sex-specific
evolved mechanisms that humans carry with them as a
species and that are held to be the root cause of sex-
differentiated behavior. Although evolutionary psycholo-
gists readily acknowledge the abstract principle that envi-
ronmental conditions can influence the development and
expression of evolved dispositions, they have given limited
attention to variation of sex differences in response to
individual, situational, and cultural conditions (e.g., Ar-
cher, 1996; Buss, 1995b; Buss & Kenrick, 1998). For
example, Buss (1998) emphasized “universal or near-uni-

Editor’s note. Cheryl B. Travis served as action editor for this article.

Author’s note. Alice H. Eagly, Department of Psychology, Northwest-
ern University; Wendy Wood, Department of Psychology, Texas A&M

This article was completed while Alice H. Eagly was a Visiting
Scholar at the Murray Research Center of Radcliffe College and was
supported by a Sabbatical Award from the James McKeen Cattell Fund.
The research received support from Grants SBR-9729449 and SBR-
9514537 from the National Science Foundation.

Thanks are extended to David Buss for making available for reanal-
ysis data from his 37 cultures study (Buss, 1989b; Buss et al., 1990) and
to Michael Bailey, April Bleske, Judith S. Bridges, Galen Bodenhausen,
David Buss, Stephen M. Colarelli, Lee Cronk, Amanda Diekman, Steven
W. Gangestad, Patricia Adair Gowaty, Judith Hall, Martie Haselton, Sarah
Hrdy, Douglas T. Kenrick, Mary Kite, Richard Lippa, Dan McAdams,
Anne McGuire, Felicia Pratto, Radmila Prislin, Dean Pruitt, Eshkol
Rafaeli, Neal Roese, Alice Schlegel, and Jeffry Simpson for comments on
a draft of the article. Also, Crystal Toures and Heather Franzese provided
assistance in locating and entering relevant data.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Alice H. Eagly, Department of Psychology, 2029 Sheridan Road,
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, or to Wendy Wood,
Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University, College Station,
TX 77843. Electronic mail may be sent to [email protected] or
[email protected]

June 1999 • American Psychologist
Copyright I 999 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0003-066X/99/$2.00

Vol. 54. No. 6. 408-423


Alice H. Eagly

versal sex differences” (p. 421) in preferences for long-
term mates.

Social structuralists maintain that the situations faced by
women and men are quite variable across societies and his-
torical periods as social organization changes in response to
technological , ecological, and other transformations. From a
social structural perspective, a society’ s division of labor
between the sexes is the engine of sex-differentiated behavior,
because it summarizes the social constraints under which men
and women carry out their lives. Sex differences are viewed as
accommodations to the differing restrictions and opportunities
that a society maintains for its men and women, and sex-
differentiated behavior is held to be contingent on a range of
individual, situational, and cultural conditions (see Deaux &
Lafrance, 1998). Despite this emphasis on the social environ-
ment, social structuralists typically acknowledge the impor-
tance of some genetically mediated sex differences. Physical
differences between the sexes, particularly men’s greater size
and strength and women’s childbearing and lactation, are very
important because they interact with shared cultural beliefs,
social organization, and the demands of the economy to in­
fluence the role assignments that constitute the sexual division
of labor within a society and produce psychological sex dif-
ferences (Eagly, 1987; Wood & Eagly, 1999).

These thumbnail sketches of these two origin theories
should make it clear that this debate about the origins of sex
differences cannot be reduced to a simple nature-versus-
nurture dichotomy. Both evolutionary psychology and so-
cial structural theory are interactionist in the sense that they
take both biological and environmental factors into ac-
count, but they treat these factors quite differently. Evolu-
tionary psychology views sex-specific evolved dispositions
as psychological tendencies that were built in through
genetically mediated adaptation to primeval conditions; the

theory treats contemporary environmental factors as cues
that interact with adaptations to yield sex-typed responses .
Social structural theory views sex-differentiated tendencies
as built in through accommodation to the contemporaneous
sexual division of labor; in this approach, physical differ-
ences between the sexes serve as one influence on role

Another caution is that these theories do not merely
reflect different levels of analysis. In some attempts to
reconcile the two perspectives, writers have proposed that
social structural theories identify proximal, contemporane-
ous causes for the behavior of women and men, whereas
evolutionary analyses invoke more distal causes that arose
early in human history (e.g., Borkenau, 1992; Jackson,
1992; Schaller, 1997). Although the timing of the human
adjustment to environmental conditions that is deemed
critical is indeed different in the two theories, they propose
causes that are similar in their position on the proximal
versus distal continuum of causality. Both theories thus
identify psychological causes (i.e., evolved dispositions,
role expectations) that operate in the present and that exert
their impact through more proximal processes (e.g. , emo-
tions, perceptions). The social structural perspective is thus
in stark contrast to evolutionary psychology models that
attribute sex differences in contemporary society to sex-
typed evolved mechanisms. The causes of sex differences
in evolutionary psychology involve these mechanisms,
which are intended to replace the social psychological
mechanisms featured in theories that give a key role to
social structure.

It also would be inappropriate to conclude that the
social structural approach is incompatible with the general
perspective of evolutionary theorizing. Social structural
analyses suggest an evolved organism, but one in which
evolutionary pressures yielded a variety of dispositions ,
such as the capacity for group living and for culture. These
analyses do not imply that people’s minds are blank slates,
because humans possess facilities, such as for language,
that develop in certain ways, given appropriate environ-
ments. Moreover, our critique of theorizing in evolutionary
psychology is not meant to apply to evolutionary principles
in general. Evolutionary reasoning pertaining to humans is
diverse (Smith, in press) and provides the basis, not only of
evolutionary psychology, but also of models of the relation
between biology and culture (Janicki & Krebs, 1998) and
human behavioral ecology approaches that emphasize be-
havioral variability in response to socioecological condi-
tions (Cronk, 1991). The implications of these other evo-
lutionary theories for psychological processes have yet to
be fully developed and are not discussed in this article.

To illustrate the contrasting approaches of evolution-
ary psychology and social structural theory, we first present
and discuss each theory . Then we examine their predictions
concerning the criteria men and women use in selecting
mates. This domain of behavior has been central to evolu-
tionary theorizing about human sex differences (e.g., Buss
& Schmitt, 1993; Kenrick & Keefe, 1992), and the cross-
cultural findings available in this area provide an opportu-

June 1999 • American Psychologist 409

Wendy Wood

nity to examine empirically some of the predictions of
evolutionary and social structural analyses.

Evolutionary Psychology as an Origin
Theory of Sex Differences
From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, human
sex differences reflect adaptations to the pressures of the
differing physical and social environments that impinged
on females and males during primeval times (Buss, 1995a;
Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Evolutionary psychologists
thus label the environment that produced a species’ evolved
tendencies as its environment of evolutionary adaptedness
(EEA; Cosmides, Tooby, & Barkow, 1992; Symons, 1979,
1992; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990b). They loosely identify
the Pleistocene era as the human EEA and generally as-
sume that it was populated by hunter-gatherer groups. To
the extent that males and females faced different adaptive
problems as they evolved, the two sexes developed differ-
ent str~tegies to ensure their survival and to maximize their
reproductive success. The resolutions to these problems
produced evolved psychological mechanisms that are spe-
cific to each problem domain and that differ between
women and men.

Although humans’ evolved mechanisms developed in
response to the types of problems consistently encountered
by their ancestors and thus are presumed to be universal
attributes of humans, environmental input affects how
these mechanisms develop in individuals and how they are
expressed in behavior (e.g., Buss & Kenrick, 1998). Be-
cause culture influences developmental experiences and
patterns current situational input, culture is in principle
important to the expression of adaptive mechanisms
(Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). However, evolutionary psy-
chologists have devoted relatively little attention to the

interaction between such broader attributes of the social
and cultural environment and the evolved mechanisms that
may underlie sex differences. The contextual factors that
have interested them generally relate directly to these hy-
pothesized mechanisms. For example, Buss and Schmitt
(1993) maintained that the characteristics that people seek
in mates depend, not only on their sex, but also on whether
they are engaging in short-term or long-term mating. Be-
cause of a relative neglect of broader social context, evo-
lutionary psychologists have generated little understanding
of how variation in sex-differentiated behavior arises from
developmental factors and features of social structure and
culture (for an exception, see Draper & Harpending, 1982).

The aspect of evolutionary theory that has been ap-
plied most extensively to sex differences is the theory of
sexual selection initially proposed by Darwin (1871) and
further developed by Trivers (1972). In the evolutionary
psychologists’ rendition of these views, sex-typed features
of human behavior evolved through male competition and
female choice of mates. Because women constituted the
sex that devoted greater effort to parental investment, they
were a limited reproductive resource for men, who were the
less investing sex. Women were restricted in the number of
children they could propagate during their life span because
of their investment through gestating, bearing, and nursing
their children; men did not have these restrictions. Men
therefore competed for access to women, and women chose
their mates from among the available men. As the more
investing sex, women were selected for their wisdom in
choosing mates who could provide resources to support
their parenting efforts. Women’s preferences for such men,
in turn, produced sexual selection pressures on men to
satisfy these criteria.

Proponents of sexual selection theory argue that sex
differences in parental investment favored different strate-
gies for reproductive success for men and women and
consequently established different adaptive mechanisms
governing mating behavior (Buss, 1996; Kenrick, Trost, &
Sheets, 1996). It was to men’s advantage in terms of fitness
outcomes to “devote a larger proportion of their total mat-
ing effort to short-term mating than do women” (Buss &
Schmitt, 1993, p. 205)-that is, to be relatively promiscu-
ous. Women, in contrast, benefited from devoting a smaller
proportion of their effort to short-term mating and a larger
proportion to long-term mating. Also, because of women’s
concealed fertilization, men were unable to determine eas-
ily which children could proffer the fitness gains that fol-
low from genetic relatedness. Men ostensibly adapted to
this problem of paternity uncertainty by exerting sexual
control over women and developing sexual jealousy and a
motive to control women’s sexuality (Daly & Wilson,

According to evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Buss,
1995b; Buss & Kenrick, 1998), sex differences in numer-
ous psychological dispositions arose from differing fitness-
related goals of women and men that followed from their
contrasting sexual strategies. Because men competed with
other men for sexual access to women, men’s evolved
dispositions favor violence, competition, and risk taking.

June 1999 • American Psychologist 410

Women in tum developed a proclivity to nurture and a
preference for long-term mates who could support a family.
As a result, men strived to acquire more resources than
other men in order to attract women, and women developed
preferences for successful, ambitious men who could pro-
vide resources.

Critical to some of evolutionary psychologists’
claims about sex differences is the assumption that an-
cestral humans living in the EEA had a hunter-gatherer
socioeconomic system (e.g., Buss, 1995b; Cosmides et
al., 1992; DeKay & Buss, 1992). The idea of a division
of labor in which men hunted while women gathered
suggests sex-differentiated pressures linked to survival
and reproduction. Such an ancestral division of labor
might have favored men who were psychologically spe-
cialized for hunting and women who were specialized
for gathering. For example, cognitive abilities could
have been affected, with men acquiring the superior
spatial skills that followed from ancestral hunting, and
women acquiring the superior spatial location memory
that followed from ancestral gathering (e.g., Geary,
1995; Silverman & Phillips, 1998).

Various mediating processes are implied in evolution-
ary psychology models of behavioral sex differences. The
first and most important involves some means of retaining
effective adaptations in human design and perpetuating
them over time. Thus, sex-differentiated psychological
mechanisms and developmental programs, like other adap-
tations, are “genetic, hereditary, or inherited in the sense
that … their structured design has its characteristic form
because of the information in our DNA” (Tooby & Cos-
mides, 1990a, p. 37; see also Buss, Haselton, Shackelford,
Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998; Crawford, 1998). Some evo-
lutionary accounts also emphasize that genetic factors trig-
ger biochemical processes that mediate psychological sex
differences, especially by means of sex differences in hor-
mone production (e.g., Daly & Wilson, 1983; Geary, 1995,
1996). In addition, sex-typed evolved mechanisms are
translated into behavioral sex differences by various cog-
nitive and affective processes. Establishing these links re-
quires theoretical understanding and empirical documenta-
tion of the range of processes by which the genetic factors
implicated in innate dispositions might affect human be-
havior (e.g., Collear & Hines, 1995).

Buss and Kenrick (1998) described evolutionary psy-
chology’s approach to understanding sex differences as a
“metatheory” and summarized it as follows: “Men and
women differ in domains where they faced different adap-
tive problems over human evolutionary history” (p. 994).
These theorists thus derive sex differences from heritable
adaptations built into the human species. Because these
differences are assumed to follow from evolutionary adap-
tations, they are predicted to occur as central tendencies of
male versus female behavior. Human behavior would thus
be characterized by a deep structure of sex-differentiated
dispositions, producing similar, albeit not identical, behav-
ioral sex differences in all human societies.

Critique of the Evolutionary Origin Theory

A number of questions can be raised about evolutionary
psychology’s account of the origins of sex differences. One
consideration is that evolutionary analyses have generally
identified adaptations by relying on “informal arguments as
to whether a presumed function is served with sufficient
precision, economy, efficiency, etc. to rule out pure chance
as an adequate explanation” (Williams, 1966, p. 10). Ex-
planations that reflect this approach consist of an analysis
of the functional relations served by a particular psycho-
logical mechanism, along with the construction of a con-
vincing story about how the adaptation might have made an
efficient contribution to genetic survival or to some other
goal contributing to reproduction in the EEA. These expla-
nations serve as hypotheses that require additional valida-
tion and thus can be useful for initiating scientific research.

In developing these analyses of the possible functions
of behaviors, evolutionary scientists face special challenges
in distinguishing adaptations from other possible products
of evolution-for example, features that were random or
that had utility for one function but were subsequently
coopted to fulfill a new function (see Buss et al., 1998;
Gould, 1991; Williams, 1966). Moreover, the products of
evolution must be distinguished from the products of cul-
tural change. Behaviors that provide effective solutions to
problems of reproduction and survival can arise from in-
ventive trial-and-error among individuals who are geneti-
cally indistinguishable from other members of their living
groups; such beneficial behaviors are then imitated and
transmitted culturally.

An understanding of humans’ primeval environment
might help validate evolutionary hypotheses because adap-
tations evolved as solutions to past environmental chal-
lenges. Various bodies of science have some relevance,
including observational studies of other primates, the fossil
record, and ethnographic studies. However, models of hu-
man nature constructed from the behavior of nonhuman
primates do not yield a uniform picture that reflects key
features of sex differences in modem human societies (see
Fedigan, 1986; Strier, 1994; Travis & Yeager, 1991). Sim-
ilarly ambiguous concerning sex differences are the models
of early human social conditions that paleontologists and
paleoanthropologists have developed from fossil evidence.
Anthropologists continue to debate fundamental points-
for example, whether hunting of dangerous prey might
have emerged during the period that is usually identified as
the human EEA (e.g., Potts, 1984; Rose & Marshall, 1996).
As a consequence, assumptions that certain traits were
adaptive and consequently are under genetic control cannot
be firmly supported from analyzing attributes of the EEA.
Moreover, early human societies likely took a wide variety
of forms during the period when the species was evolving
toward its modem anatomical form (Foley, 1996). Vari-
ability in social organization is consistent with observations
of more contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, which
show great diversity in their social organization (Kelly,
1995). For example, studies of power relations between the
sexes across diverse cultures show variability in the extent

June 1999 • American Psychologist 411

to which men control women’s sexuality (Whyte, 1978),
although evolutionary psychologists have assumed that this
control is a defining feature of male-female relations.
Therefore, because the EEA likely encompassed a variety
of conditions, tracing humans’ evolution requires under-
standing of the timing, social organization, and ecological
circumstances of multiple periods of adaptation (Foley,
1996). The ambiguity and complexity of the relevant sci-
entific findings leave room for evolutionary psychologists
to inadvertently transport relatively modem social condi-
tions to humans’ remote past by inappropriately assuming
that the distinctive characteristics of contemporary rela-
tions between the sexes were also typical of the EEA.

Given the difficulty of knowing the functions of be-
haviors and the attributes of the EEA, other types of sci-
entific evidence become especially important to validating
the claims of evolutionary psychologists. The most con-
vincing evidence that a behavioral pattern reflects an ad-
aptation would be that individuals who possessed the ad-
aptation enjoyed a higher rate of survival and reproduction
than individuals who did not possess it. However, such
evidence is difficult, if not impossible, to produce. Because
humans’ evolved mechanisms emerged in relation to past
selection pressures, present reproductive advantage does
not necessarily reflect past advantage, and evolutionary
psychologists have warned against relying on measures of
current reproductive success to validate hypothesized ad-
aptations (Buss, 1995a; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). In the
absence of evidence pertaining to reproductive success,
scientists might document the genetic inheritance of pos-
tulated mechanisms and the processes by which genetic
factors result in sex differences in behavior. However, for
the psychological dispositions considered in this article,
such evidence has not been produced. Instead, the scientific
case for these sex-differentiated evolved dispositions rests
on tests of evolutionary psychologists’ predictions concern-
ing the behavior of men and women in contemporary
societies (e.g., Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Kenrick & Keefe,
1992). We evaluate some of these predictions in this article.

Social Structural Theory as an Origin
Theory of Sex Differences
A respected tradition in the social sciences locates the
origins of sex differences, not in evolved psychological
dispositions that are built into the human psyche, but in the
contrasting social positions of women and men. In contem-
porary American society, as in many world societies,
women have less power and status than men and control
fewer resources. This feature of social structure is often
labeled gender hierarchy, or in feminist writing it may be
called patriarchy. In addition, as the division of labor is
realized in the United States and many other nations,
women perform more domestic work than men and spend
fewer hours in paid employment (Shelton, 1992). Although
most women in the United States are employed in the paid
workforce, they have lower wages than men, are concen-
trated in different occupations, and are thinly represented at
the highest levels of organizational hierarchies (Jacobs,
1989; Reskin & Padavic, 1994; Tomaskovic-Devey, 1995).

From a social structural perspective, the underlying cause
of sex-differentiated behavior is this concentration of men
and women in differing roles.

The determinants of the distribution of men and
women into social roles are many and include the biolog-
ical endowment of women and men. The sex-differentiated
physical attributes that influence role occupancy include
men’s greater size and strength, which gives them priority
in jobs demanding certain types of strenuous activity, es-
pecially activities involving upper body strength. These
physical attributes of men are less important in societies in
which few occupational roles require these attributes, such
as postindustrial societies. Also important in relation to role
distributions are women’s childbearing and in many soci-
eties their activity of suckling infants for long periods of
time; these obligations give them priority in roles involving
the care of very young children and cause conflict with
roles requiring extended absence from home and uninter-
rupted activity. These reproductive activities of women are
less important in societies with low birthrates, less reliance
on lactation for feeding infants, and greater reliance on
nonmatemal care of young children.

In general, physical sex differences, in interaction
with social and ecological conditions, influence the roles
held by men and women because certain activities are more
efficiently accomplished by one sex. The benefits of this
greater efficiency can be realized when women and men are
allied in cooperative relationships and establish a division
of labor. The particular character of the activities that each
sex performs then determines its placement in the social
structure (see Wood & Eagly, 1999). As historians and
anthropologists have argued (e.g., Ehrenberg, 1989; Harris,
1993; Lerner, 1986; Sanday, 1981), men typically special-
ized in activities ( e.g., warfare, herding) that yielded
greater status, wealth, and power, especially as societies
became more complex. Thus, when sex differences in
status emerged, they tended to favor men.

The differing distributions of men and women into
social roles form the basis for a social structural metatheory
of sex differences, just as evolutionary theory provides a
metatheory. The major portion of this social structural
theory follows from the typical features of the roles of men
and women. Thus, the first metatheoretical principle de-
rives from the greater power and status that tends to be
associated with male-dominated roles and can be succinctly
stated as follows: Men’s accommodation to roles with
greater power and status produces more dominant behav-
ior, and women’s accommodation to roles with lesser
power and status produces more subordinate behavior
(Ridgeway & Diekema, 1992). Dominant behavior is con-
trolling, assertive, relatively directive and autocratic, and
may involve sexual control. Subordinate behavior is more
compliant to social influence, less overtly aggressive, more
cooperative and conciliatory, and may involve a lack of
sexual autonomy.

The second metatheoretical principle follows from the
differing balance of activities associated with the typical
roles of each sex. Women and men seek to accommodate
sex-typical roles by acquiring the specific skills and re-

June 1999 • American Psychologist 412

sources linked to successful role performance and by adapt­
ing their social behavior to role requirements. A variety of
sex-specific skills and beliefs arise from the typical family
and economic roles of men and women, which in many
societies can be described as resource provider and home­
maker. Women and men seek to accommodate to these
roles by acquiring role-related skills, for example, women
learning domestic skills such as cooking and men learning
skills that are marketable in the paid economy. The psy­
chological attributes and social behaviors associated with
these roles have been characterized in terms of the distinc­
tion between communal and agentic characteristics (Bakan,
1966; Eagly, 1987). Thus, women’s accommodation to the
domestic role and to female-dominated occupations favors
a pattern of interpersonally facilitative and friendly behav­
iors that can be termed communal. In particular, the as­
signment of the majority of child rearing to women encour­
ages nurturant behaviors that facilitate care for children and
other individuals. The importance of close relationships to
women’s nurturing role favors the acquisition of superior
interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate nonver­
bally. In contrast, men’s accommodation to the employ­
ment role, especially to male-dominated occupations, fa­
vors a pattern of assertive and independent behaviors that
can be termed agentic (Eagly & Steffen, 1984). This argu­
ment is not to deny that paid occupations show wide
variation in the extent to which they favor more masculine
or feminine qualities. In support of the idea that sex­
differentiated behaviors are shaped by paid occupations are
demonstrations that to the extent that occupations are male
dominated, they are thought to require agentic personal
qualities. In contrast, to the extent that occupations are
female dominated, they are thought to require communal
personal qualities (Cejka & Eagly, 1999; Glick, 1991).

In social structural theories, differential role occu­
pancy affects behavior through a variety of mediating pro­
cesses. In social role theory (Eagly, 1987; Eagly et al., in
press), an important mediating process is the formation of
gender roles by which people of each sex are expected to
have characteristics that equip them for the tasks that they
typically carry out. These expectations encompass the pre­
ferred or desirable attributes of men and women as well as
their typical attributes. Gender roles are emergents from the
productive work of the sexes; the characteristics that are
required to perform sex-typical tasks become stereotypic of
women or men. To the extent that women more than men
occupy roles that demand communal behaviors, domestic
behaviors, or subordinate behaviors for successful role
performance, such tendencies become stereotypic of
women and are incorporated into a female gender role. To
the extent that men more than women occupy roles that
demand agentic behaviors, resource acquisition behaviors,
or dominant behaviors for successful role performance,
such tendencies become stereotypic of men and are incor­
porated into a male gender role. Gender roles facilitate the
activities typically carried out by people of each sex. For
example, the expectation that women be other-oriented and
compassionate facilitates their nurturing activities within

the family as well as their work in many female-dominated
occupations (e.g., teacher, nurse, social worker).

People communicate gender-stereotypic expectations
in social interaction and can directly induce the targets of
these expectations to engage in behavior that confirms them
(e.g., Skrypnek & Snyder, 1982; Wood & Karten, 1986).
Such effects of gender roles are congruent with theory and
research on the behavioral confirmation of stereotypes and
other expectancies (see Olson, Roese, & Zanna, 1996).
Gender-stereotypic expectations can also affect behavior
by becoming internalized as part of individuals’ self-con­
cepts and personalities (Feingold, 1994). Under such cir­
cumstances, gender roles affect behavior through self-reg­
ulatory processes (Wood, Christensen, Hebl, & Rothgerber,
1997). The individual psychology that underlies these pro­
cesses is assumed to be the maximization of utilities. Peo­
ple perceive these utilities from the rewards and costs that
emerge in social interaction, which takes place within the
constraints of organizational and societal arrangements.

Gender roles coexist with specific roles based on
factors such as family relationships and occupation. These
specific social roles contribute directly to sex-differentiated
behavior when women and men are differently distributed
into them-for example, women into the homemaker role
and men into the provider role. In contrast, when men and
women occupy the same specific social role, sex differ­
ences would tend to erode because specific roles are con­
straining (e.g., Eagly & Johnson, 1990). However, gender
roles ordinarily continue to have some impact on beha­
vior, even in the presence of specific roles (see Gutek &
Morasch, 1983; Moscowitz, Suh, & Desaulniers, 1994;
Ridgeway, 1997). Moreover, experimental evidence (e.g.,
Hembroff, 1982) suggests that people combine or average
the expectations associated with specific roles and more
diffuse roles such as gender roles in a manner that weights
each set of expectations according to its relevance to the
task at hand.

The social structural perspective provides a broad
theoretical outline within which many social scientific the­
ories of sex-differentiated behavior can be placed. These
theories focus on different aspects of the processes by
which societies produce sex-differentiated behavior, and
many theories have spawned detailed predictions and a
substantial body of empirical research (see Beall & Stern­
berg, 1993; Canary & Dindia, 1998; England & Browne,
1992). For example, developmental psychologists have
studied socialization in the family, school, and peer group.
Social psychologists have examined the impact of gendered
self-schemas, men’s greater status, sex-differentiated ex­
pectations about behavior, and gendered patterns of social
interaction. Sociologists have implicated organizational
factors such as discriminatory employment practices, soci­
etal factors such as men’s greater ownership of capital, and
cultural factors such as the ideologies that legitimize gen­
der inequality. Social scientists have thus provided an array
of interrelated theories, each of which illuminates certain
aspects of the processes by which sex-differentiated behav­
ior is produced.

June 1999 • American Psychologist 413

In summary, in social structural accounts, women and
men are differently distributed into social roles, and these
differing role assignments can be broadly described in
terms of a sexual division of labor and a gender hierarchy.
This division of labor and the patriarchal hierarchy that
sometimes accompanies it provide the engine of sex-
differentiated behavior because they trigger social and psy-
chological processes by which men and women seek some-
what different experiences to maximize their outcomes
within the constraints that societies establish for people of
their sex. Sex differences in behavior thus reflect contem-
poraneous social conditions.

Response to Critiques of the Social Structural
Origin Theory
A number of criticisms have been leveled against the social
structural theory of sex differences and more specifically
against social role theory (see Archer, 1996; Buss, 1996).
At least some evolutionary psychologists have expressed
skepticism that culture and social structure could have any
independent causal role in relation to behavior. Instead,
culture and social structure are seen as reflecting the un-
derlying logic of evolved dispositions, and consequently
they do not constitute the causal force underlying behav-
ioral sex differences (Buss, 1995a; Tooby & Cosmides,
1992). However, from our perspective, culture and social
structure can influence behavior. Culture consists of knowl-
edge, beliefs, and evaluations shared among members of a
society and reflects, not only the biological endowment of
humans, but also the constraints of their social and physical
environments. Social structure reflects culture and consists
of “persisting and bounded patterns of behavior and inter-
action among people or positions” (House, 1995, p. 390).
Gender roles and other social roles are simultaneously
aspects of culture, because they represent shared knowl-
edge, and of social structure, because they represent
bounded patterns of interaction.

Another criticism is that in social structural theories,
individuals are treated as mere passive receptacles of the
roles they are assigned (Buss, 1996). Although social sci-
entists often do refer to role assignment, this term does not
imply that people are typically assigned to roles arbitrarily,
as if they were passive actors in the social system. On the
contrary, social and organizational psychologists have
demonstrated that the assumption of roles is a complex and
dynamic process (e.g., Kerckhoff, 1995; Pfeffer, 1998). In
deciding whether to attempt to assume particular roles at
all, individuals take their own attributes, skills, and per-
sonal preferences into account, although in some cultural
contexts some roles are imposed on people regardless of
their own preferences (e.g., the practice of early betrothal
of girls). In general, social systems are arranged to shape
people’s self-concepts, skills, beliefs, and values so that the
majority of people actively seek out experiences that help
them to become appropriate occupants of existing social
roles by meeting the expectations of these roles.

Evolutionary psychologists also claim that socio-
cultural theorists view gender roles as “essentially arbi-
trary” (Buss, 1996, p. 19) or as arising by “historical

accident” (Archer, 1996, p. 915). On the contrary, as we
have explained, the content of gender roles is not arbitrary
but is embedded in social structure and culture. Roles must
thus facilitate the endeavors of a society, if its members are
to prosper and survive. Therefore, different types of role
systems become effective under differing circumstances.
For example, in industrial economies, many roles are or-
ganized by a market pricing system that takes into account
factors such as ownership of property and contribution to
production (see Fiske, 1992). The analytical frameworks
for understanding how systems of social roles change over
time have been developed by scholars in other disciplines
(e.g., Diamond, 1997; Toynbee, 1934-1961). Yet, under-
standing the principles by which women and men distribute
themselves into a society’s roles is part of the agenda of
social psychologists as well as other social scientists.

A related criticism is that from a social structural
perspective, “differences between cultures are random with
respect to evolutionary hypotheses and therefore that, for
example, sex differences should occur as frequently in one
direction as the other” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1989, p. 37).
However, our theoretical perspective is not consistent with
random variation in sex differences across societies. In-
stead, societal variation in the roles of men and women
depends on multiple factors, including men’s greater size
and physical strength, women’s reproductive activities, and
the activities required by a society’s economy and social
organization, which in tum reflect technological develop-
ments and the current ecology. Because these factors are
not randomly distributed, certain types of social arrange-
ments are more common than others, and sex differences
appropriate to the common arrangements should be more
frequent than reversals of these differences.

The social structural approach has also been criticized
for treating the minds of women and men as identical
except by virtue of the constraints that follow from exter-
nally assigned roles (Buss, 1996 ). We acknowledge that the
social structural perspective does imply that differences in
the minds of women and men arise primarily from experi-
ence and socialization, which reflect the physical attributes
of women and men and the characteristics of the social and
physical environment. This assumption that humans’ psy-
chological attributes are minimally constrained by geneti-
cally encoded sex differences is consistent with the diver-
sity of behaviors and skills exhibited by men and women
across societies and within societies. Yet, our perspective is
fully compatible with the idea that people possess evolved
facilities, such as for language, that develop in predictable
ways in appropriate environments.

Sex Differences in Mate
Selection Criteria Predicted
From Evolutionary Psychology
and Social Structural Theory
One reasonable area for comparing the predictive power of
the evolutionary and the social structural origin theories of
sex differences is human mating behavior, especially the
criteria that people use for selecting mates. Evolutionary

June 1999 • American Psychologist 414

predictions have been articulated especially clearly for
mating activities, and these behaviors can also be used to
test a social structural perspective. Furthermore, empirical
findings concerning mate selection preferences have been
well-established for many years in the literature on the
sociology of the family (e.g., Coombs & Kenkel, 1966).
Powers’s (1971) summary of 30 years of research con-
cluded that at least in the United States, women generally
prefer mates with good earning potential, whereas men
prefer mates who are physically attractive and possess good
domestic skills. Furthermore, women typically prefer a
mate who is older than them, whereas men prefer a mate
who is younger. Feingold’s (1990, 1991, 1992a) meta-
analyses of studies drawn from various research paradigms
established that the sex differences in valuing potential
mates’ earning potential and physical attractiveness are
robust, despite sex similarity on most criteria for selecting
mates. Subsequent research based on a national probability
sample of single adults provided further confirmation of the
sex differences in age preferences as well as in valuing
earning potential and physical attractiveness (Sprecher,
Sullivan, & Hatfield, 1994).

Evolutionary psychologists have adopted mate prefer-
ences as signature findings of their analysis. Women’s
valuing of mates’ resources and men’s valuing of mates’
youth and physical attractiveness are thought to arise from
the different parental investment of the sexes that was
outlined in Trivers’s (1972) sexual selection theory. It is
commonly argued that women, as the more investing sex,
seek mates with attributes that can support their parenting
efforts. However, human mate selection does not follow a
strict version of Trivers’ s males-compete-and-females-
choose model, because among humans, selection is a prod-
uct of the behavior of both sexes, a process Darwin ( 1871)
called “dual selection.” In Buss’s (1989a) account, male
choice derives from women’s time-limited reproductive
capacity and the tendency for men to seek mates with
attributes that suggest such capacity. In Kenrick and
Keefe’s (1992) account, men and women are both selective
about potential mates and both invest heavily in offspring
but with different kinds of resources. In particular, “males
invest relatively more indirect resources (food, money,
protection, and security), and females invest relatively
more direct physiological resources ( contributing their own
bodily nutrients to the fetus and nursing child)” (Kenrick &
Keefe, 1992, p. 78). As a result, women prefer mates who
can provide indirect resources, and men prefer healthy
mates with reproductive potential. 1

In contrast, from a social structural perspective, the
psychology of mate selection reflects people’s effort to
maximize their utilities with respect to mating choices in an
environment in which these utilities are constrained by
societal gender roles as well by as the more specific ex-
pectations associated with marital roles. Consistent with
these ideas, Becker’s (1976) economic analysis of mating
decisions characterized marriage as occurring between
utility-maximizing men and women who can reach an
equilibrium with a variety of types of exchanges, including,
for example, an exchange between men’s wages and worn-

en’s household production and other attributes such as
education and beauty. This cost-benefit analysis of mating
appears even on occasion in the writings of evolutionary
scientists. For example, Tattersall (1998) maintained that
behavioral regularities, such as sex differences in mate
selection criteria, are as likely to be due to rational eco-
nomic decisions as to inherited predispositions, and Hrdy
( 1997) wrote that “a woman’s preference for a wealthy man
can be explained by the simple reality that … males mo-
nopolize ownership of productive resources” (p. 29).

The outcomes that are perceived to follow from mat-
ing decisions depend on marital and family arrangements.
To the extent that women and men occupy marital and
family roles that entail different responsibilities and obli-
gations, they should select mates according to criteria that
reflect these divergent responsibilities and obligations.
Consider, for example, the family system based on a male
provider and a female domestic worker. This system be-
came especially pronounced in industrial economies and is
still prevalent in many world societies. To the extent that
societies have this division of labor, women maximize their
outcomes by seeking a mate who is likely to be successful
in the economic, wage-earning role. In tum, men maximize
their outcomes by seeking a mate who is likely to be
successful in the domestic role.

The sex differences in the preferred age of mates also
can be understood as part of the general tendency of men
and women to seek partners likely to provide a good fit to
their society’s sexual division of labor and marital roles.
Specifically, the marital system based on a male breadwin-
ner and a female homemaker favors the age gap in mar-
riage. Marriageable women who are younger than their
potential mates tend to have lesser wages, social status, and
education and knowledge than women who are the same
age as potential mates. With the combination of a younger,
less experienced woman and an older, more experienced
man, it would be easier to establish the power differential
favoring men that is normative for marital roles defined by
a male breadwinner and a female domestic worker (Lips,
1991; Steil, 1997). Moreover, compared with somewhat
older women, young women lack independent resources
and therefore are more likely to perceive that their utilities
are maximized in the domestic worker role. In complemen-
tary fashion, older men are more likely to have acquired the
economic resources that make them good candidates for the
provider role. The older man and younger woman thus fit
more easily than same-age partners into the culturally ex-
pected pattern of breadwinner and homemaker.

1 Darwin (1871) expressed skepticism about the applicability of the
processes of sexual selection to modern human societies. He argued that
sexual selection was more powerful among early humans, who were
guided by instinctive passions, than among contemporary members of
society, who show greater foresight and reason in mating behavior. In fact,
Darwin maintained that “civilized men are largely attracted by the mental
charms of women, by their wealth, and especially by their social position”
(Darwin, 1871, p. 178).

June 1999 • American Psychologist 415

Cross-Cultural Evidence for Sex Differences in
Mate Preferences

Evolutionary psychologists’ predictions that women select
for resources and older age and men for attractiveness and
younger age have been examined cross-culturally. Buss’s
(1989a; Buss et al., 1990) impressive study in 37 cultures
of the characteristics that people desire in mates suggested
that consistent with evolutionary psychology, these sex
differences in mate preferences emerged cross-culturally.
Similarly, Kenrick and Keefe (1992) examined the pre-
ferred ages of mates in five countries and across various
time periods in the 20th century and concluded that all
provided evidence of sex differences in these preferences.
Specifically, for dating and marriage, women preferred
older men and men preferred younger women, although
men’s preferences were moderated by their age, with teen-
age boys preferring girls of similar age.2

On the basis of these investigations, evolutionary ac-
counts have emphasized the cross-cultural commonality in
women’s preference for resources and older age and men’s
preference for attractiveness and younger age. According
to Buss (1989a) and Tooby and Cosmides (1989), unifor-
mity across diverse cultures and social circumstances sug-
gests powerful sex-differentiated evolved mechanisms that
reflect an innate, universal human nature. Kenrick and
Keefe (1992) also argued that “invariance across cultures is
evidence that supports a species-specific, rather than a
culture-specific, explanation” (p. 76).

Despite evidence for cross-cultural commonality in
sex differences in mate selection criteria, these investiga-
tions also yielded evidence for cultural variation. For ex-
ample, Kenrick and Keefe (1992) found that the preference
for younger wives was evident among Philippine men of all
ages, but only among older men (i.e., age 30 or over) in the
United States. However, the simple existence of uniformity
or variability does not provide a definitive test of either the
evolutionary or the social structural origin theory. Al-
though evolutionary psychologists emphasize uniformity
and social structural theorists emphasize variability, both
perspectives have some power to explain both of these
cross-cultural patterns. To account for uniformity, social
structuralists can point to similarities in the sexual division
of labor in the studied societies and can argue that these
similarities produce these relatively invariant sex differ-
ences. As Buss (1989a) noted, his 37 cultures, which were
drawn from 33 nations, were biased toward urbanized
cash-economy cultures, with 54% from Europe and North
America. Furthermore, respondents selected from each so-
ciety tended to be young, comparatively well-educated, and
of relatively high socioeconomic status. To the extent that
these societies similarly defined the roles of women and
men and that the respondents were similarly placed in these
societies’ social structures, commonality in the sex differ-
ences that follow from social structure should characterize
these societies.

To account for cross-cultural variability, both evolu-
tionary and social structural origin theories recognize that
developmental processes and social factors that are unique

to each society direct behavior in ways that can yield
variability in sex differences across cultures. Beyond this
insight that some evidence of cross-cultural variability
would not surprise theorists in either camp, the particular
pattern of cross-cultural variation provides an informative
test of the mechanisms underlying sex differences. Specif-
ically, the social structural argument that a society’s sexual
division of labor and associated gender hierarchy are re-
sponsible for sex differences in social behavior yields pre-
dictions concerning cross-cultural variability in mate

In the nations included in Buss et al.’ s (1990) cross-
cultural sample, whose economies ranged from agrarian to
postindustrial, some cultures were still strongly marked by
this division of labor between the provider and domestic
worker, whereas other cultures had departed from it. In
advanced economies like the United States, women have
entered the paid labor force and spend a smaller proportion
of their time in domestic labor (Haas, 1995; Shelton, 1992).
Although the tendency for men to increase their hours of
domestic work is much more modest, the lives of men and
women become more similar with greater gender equality.
Therefore, people of both sexes should lessen their empha-
sis on choosing mates whose value is defined by their fit to
the division between domestic work and wage labor. Even
in postindustrial economies such as the United States,
however, the sex-typed division of labor remains in mod-
ified form, with men devoting longer hours than women to
wage labor and women devoting longer hours to domestic
work (e.g., Ferree, 1991; Presser, 1994; Shelton, 1992).
Therefore, the social structural prediction is that the sex
differences in mate selection criteria that follow from the
male-female division of labor should be substantially
weakened in societies characterized by greater gender
equality, albeit they should still be present to the extent that
complete equality has not been achieved.3

Reanalysis of Buss et al.’s (1990)
37 Cultures Data

To evaluate whether the division of labor within a society
could explain the mate preferences of men and women, we
reanalyzed Buss et al.’s (1990) 37 cultures data. Our efforts
focused on men’s tendencies to select wives for domestic
skill and younger age and women’s tendencies to select
husbands for earning capacity and older age. To test the
hypothesis that a higher level of gender equality lessens
these sex differences, we represented societies’ gender
equality in terms of archival data available from the United
Nations (United Nations Development Programme, 1995).

Buss et al. (1990) derived the data on criteria for

2 Although Kenrick and Keefe (1992) showed that teenage boys
prefer girls of similar age, this tendency is most likely a product of the
lower age limits that exist for culturally and maturationally appropriate
marital partners (Broude, I 992).

3 Prior efforts to test social structural hypotheses within Buss et al.’ s
(1990) 37 cultures data produced mixed or nonsignificant findings (Buss,
1989a; Glenn, 1989).

June 1999 • American Psychologist 416

selecting mates from questionnaire measures of preferences
for a wide range of characteristics that might be desired in
a mate: (a) One instrument obtained rankings of a set of 13
characteristics according to “their desirability in someone
you might marry” (p. 11); (b) the other instrument obtained
ratings on a 4-point scale of each of 18 characteristics on
“how important or desirable it would be in choosing a
mate” (p. 11). Buss et al. represented each culture by the
male and female respondents’ mean ranking of each of the
13 mate selection criteria and by their mean rating of each
of the 18 criteria. A separate question inquired about pref­
erences for a spouse’s age. The data that we reanalyzed
consisted of mean preferences for each culture.

Our reanalysis confirmed Buss et al.’ s ( 1990) con­
clusion that women placed more value than men on a
mate’s wage-earning ability. Furthermore, consistent
with the greater domestic responsibility of women than
men in most cultures, men valued good cook and house-
keeper more than women did, a sex difference that has
received little attention from evolutionary psychologists.
When the sex differences in the mean preference ratings
were averaged across the cultures, this difference was of
comparable magnitude to those obtained on the at­
tributes most strongly emphasized by evolutionary psy­
chologists. Specifically, in both the rating and ranking
data, the criteria of good earning capacity, good house-
keeper and cook, and physically attractive produced the
largest sex differences. The appropriateness of focusing
on the criteria pertaining to earning ability and domestic
skill within Buss et al.’ s data was also supported by the
good agreement across the ranking and rating data sets
for sex differences in the valuation of the qualities of
financial prospect, r(33) = .76, p < .001, and domestic
skill, r(33) = .68, p < .001, whereas the agreement in
the valuation of physical attractiveness was poorer, r(33)
= .34, p < .05. In addition, as Buss et al. reported, the
sex difference in the preferred age of mates was fully
intact in the 37 cultures data. 4

Additional evidence for the social structural predic­
tions emerged when we evaluated the pattern of sex dif­
ferences in preferences across societies. Consistent with the
division of labor principle, a substantial relation emerged
between the sex difference in valuing a spouse’s domestic
skills and the sex difference in valuing a spouse’s capacity
to provide a good income. Specifically, on the basis of the
ranking measure, the sex differences in the good earning
capacity criterion and the good housekeeper criterion were
correlated across the cultures, r(33) = .67, p < .001. On
the basis of the rating measure, the sex differences in the
financial prospect criterion and the housekeeper-cook cri­
terion were also correlated, r(35) = .38, p < .05. These
positive correlations indicate that to the extent that women
more than men reported seeking a mate who is a good
breadwinner, men more than women reported seeking a
mate who is a good homemaker. In addition, the sex
difference in the preferred age of one’s spouse bore a
positive relation to the sex difference in preference for a
good earner, r(3 3) = .34, p < .05 for the ranking data, and
r(35) = .32, p < .06 for the rating data. Similarly, the sex

difference in preferred age bore a positive relation to the
sex difference in preference for a good housekeeper and
cook, r(33) = .58,p < .001 for the ranking data, and r(35)
= .60, p < .001 for the rating data. These relationships
show that to the extent that the sex difference in the
preferred age of spouses was large, women more than men
preferred mates who were good providers and men more
than women preferred mates who were good domestic
workers. The division of labor provides the logic of all of
these relationships: Women who serve in the domestic role
are the complement of men who serve as breadwinners, and
the combination of older husbands and younger wives
facilitates this form of marriage.

Analysis of gender equality. To test our hy­
pothesis that sex differences in mate preferences erode to
the extent that women and men are similarly placed in the
social structure, we sought cross-national indicators of gen­
der equality. Among the many such indicators compiled by
United Nations researchers, the most direct indicator of
gender equality is the aggregate Gender Empowerment
Measure, which represents the extent to which women
participate equally with men in economic, political, and
decision-making roles (United Nations Development Pro­
gramme, 1995). This index increases as (a) women’s per­
centage share of administrative and managerial jobs and
professional and technical jobs increases, (b) women’s
percentage share of parliamentary seats rises, and (c) wom­
en’s proportional share of earned income approaches parity
with men’s.

The Gender-Related Development Index is another
useful indicator of societal-level gender equality provided
by United Nations researchers. It increases with a society’s
basic capabilities to provide health (i.e., greater life expect­
ancy), educational attainment and literacy, and wealth, but
imposes a penalty for gender inequality in these capabilities
(United Nations Development Programme, 1995). Whereas
this measure reflects equality in basic access to health care,
education and knowledge, and income, the Gender Em­
powerment Measure is a purer indicator of equal partici­
pation in economic and political life.

In the set of 37 cultures, the Gender Empowerment
Measure and the Gender-Related Development Index were
correlated, r(33) = .74, p < .OOI, and both of these
indexes were moderately correlated with general indexes of
human development and economic development. One lim­
itation of the indexes of gender equality is that they are
based on data from the early 1990s. Because Buss et al.’ s
(1990) data were collected in the mid-1980s, these indexes
are from a slightly later time period, but the relative posi-

4 We did not also focus on the criterion of ambition and industri-
ousness because it produced a substantially smaller sex difference in the
37 cultures data than the criteria of good earning capacity, good house-
keeper and cook, and physically attractive. From the social structural
perspective, industriousness is important for performance of domestic
work as well as wage labor, and therefore both men and women should
seek this quality in mates under the traditional division of labor between
homemakers and providers.

June 1999 • American Psychologist 417

Table 1
Correlations of Mean Rankings and Ratings of Mate Selection Criteria With United Nations Indexes of Gender
Equality for Buss et al.’ s ( 1990) 3 7 Cultures Sample

Ranked criteria Roted criteria

Gender Gender-Related Gender Gender-Related
Empowerment Development Empowerment Development

Measure Index Measure Index
Mote selection criterion and rater (n = 33) (n = 34) (n = 35) (n = 36)

Good earning capacity (financial prospect)
Sex difference -.43* __ 33t -_29t -.23
Women -.29 -.18 -.49** -.42**
Men .24 .27 -.40* -.36*

Good housekeeper (and cook)
Sex difference -.62*** -.54** -.61*** -.54**
Women .04 -.01 .11 -.07
Men -.46** -.42* -.60*** -.61***

Physically attractive (good looks)
Sex difference .13 -.12 .20 .18



__ 33t


Note. The criteria were described slightly differently in the ranking and the roting tasks: The ranking term is given first, with the roting term following in parentheses.
Higher values on the gender equality indexes indicate greater equality. For the preferences of women or men, higher values of the mean rankings and ratings of mote
selection criteria indicate greater desirability in a mate; therefore, a positive correlation indicates on increase in the desirability of a criterion as gender equality
increased, and a negative correlation indicates o decrease. Sex differences in these preferences were calculated as female minus male means for good earning
capacity and male minus female means for good housekeeper and physically attractive. A positive correlation thus indicates an increase in the sex difference as
gender equality increased, and a negative correlation indicates o decrease in the sex difference.
t p < .10. * p < .05. •• p < .01. *** p < .001.

tions of the cultures should remain approximately the

To examine the relation between societal gender
equality and mate preferences, we calculated the correla­
tions of these indexes with the sex differences in valuing a
mate as a breadwinner and as a domestic worker-the two
criteria most relevant to the traditional division of labor.
These correlations for the ranking and the rating data,
which appear in Table 1, are generally supportive of the
social structural predictions. As the Gender Empowerment
Measure increased in value, the tendency decreased for
women to place greater emphasis than men on a potential
spouse’s earning capacity, although the correlation with the
rated criterion was relatively weak. Also, as the Gender
Empowerment Measure increased, the tendency decreased
for men to place greater emphasis than women on a poten­
tial spouse’s domestic skills. As expected in terms of the
Gender-Related Development Index’s less direct represen­
tation of the similarity of the roles of women and men, its
correlations with these sex differences were somewhat

The preference data for each sex reported in Table
I provide insight into these sex-difference findings. For
good housekeeper and cook, the correlations for both the
rating data and the ranking data indicated that as gender
equality increased, men decreased their interest in
choosing mates for their skill as domestic workers, and
women showed no change in this preference. In contrast,


for good earning capacity, as gender equality increased,
women decreased their emphasis on mates’ earning po­
tential in the rating data (although nonsignificantly in the
ranking data). However, men’s preferences for good
earning capacity are more difficult to interpret because
their relations to gender equality were inconsistent
across the ranking and rating measures. Inconsistencies
between the two measures may reflect that rankings are
judgments of the relative importance of the criteria in
relation to the others in the list, whereas ratings are
judgments of the absolute importance of the different

As shown in Table 2, examination of preferences for
a spouse’s age showed that as gender equality increased,
women expressed less preference for older men, men ex­
pressed less preference for younger women, and conse­
quently the sex difference in the preferred age of mates
became smaller. These relations suggest that sex differ-

5 Another compromise consisted of representing differing sub­
samples from the same broader culture (e.g., mainland United States and
Hawaiian United States) with the same values of the United Nations
indexes. For the Gender Empowerment Measure and the Gender-Related
Development Index, data for all represented nations were published in
1995, with the exception of data for two nations published in 1996 and one
in 1997 (United Nations Development Programme, 1995, 1996, 1997).
For two cultures, ranking data for mate selection preferences were not

June 1999 • American Psychologist

Table 2
Correlations of Mean Preferred Age Difference
Between Self and Spouse With United Nations
Indexes of Gender Equality for Buss et al.’ s { 1990)
37 Cultures Sample

Gender Empowerment Gender-Related
Measure Development Index

Rater (n = 35) (n = 36)

Sex difference -.73*** -.70***
Women -.64*** -.57***
Men .70*** .70***

Note. Higher values on the gender equality indexes indicate greater equality.
Positive ages indicate preference for an older spouse, and negative ages
indicate preference for o younger spouse. Therefore, for the preferences of
women, a negative correlation indicates a decrease in the tendency to prefer an
older spouse as gender equality increased, whereas for the preferences of men,
a positive correlation indicates a decrease in the tendency to prefer a younger
spouse. Because the sex difference in preferred age was calculated as female
minus male mean preferred spouse age in relation to self, a negative correlation
indicates a decrease in the sex difference in preferred age as gender equality
*** p < .001.

ences in age preferences reflect a sex-differentiated division
of labor. 6

Interpretation of the magnitudes of the correlations
reported in Tables 1 and 2 should take several consider-
ations into account. One feature limiting the strength of
these relationships is the assessment of the mate selection
preferences with one-item questionnaire measures. Also,
the indexes of gender equality imperfectly represented the
critical conceptual variable, the extremity of the division of
labor between male providers and female homemakers. In
addition, the sampling of respondents was not uniformly
implemented across the 37 cultures, nor would these sam-
ples have corresponded to those that contributed to the
indexes of gender equality. Finally, there may be a time lag
between the social and economic changes reflected in these
indexes and shifts in the individual preferences that con-
stitute the 37 cultures data. For these several reasons, it is
plausible to conclude that the correlations we report under-
estimate the true magnitude of the predicted relationships.

Preference for physical attractiveness. As
also shown in Table 1, correlations between the sex differ-
ence in valuing potential mates’ physical attractiveness and
the United Nations indexes of gender equality were low
and nonsignificant. These findings are not surprising, be-
cause this mate selection criterion does not mirror the
division between wage labor and domestic labor in the
manner that earning potential, domestic skill, and age do.
Nevertheless, under some circumstances, physical attrac-
tiveness may be part of what people exchange for partners’
earning capacity and other attributes.

Assuming that attractiveness is sometimes exchanged
for other gains, the social structural perspective offers
possibilities for understanding its value. Research on the
physical attractiveness stereotype has shown that attractive-

ness in both sexes conveys several kinds of meaning-
especially social competence, including social skills, socia-
bility, and popularity (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, &
Longo, 1991; Feingold, 1992b). Therefore, men’s greater
valuing of attractiveness might follow from the greater
importance of this competence in women’s family and
occupational roles, including women’s paid occupations in
postindustrial societies (Cejka & Eagly, 1999; Lippa,
1998), and the consequent inclusion of this competence in
the female gender role. If women’s roles demand greater
interpersonal competence in societies with greater and
lesser gender equality, the tendency for men to place
greater value on mates’ attractiveness would not covary
with indexes that assess equality.

Another possibility is that the value of attractiveness
stems from its perceived association with the ability to
provide sexual pleasure. This idea receives support from
research showing that attractiveness conveys information
about sexual warmth (Feingold, 1992b). If so, men might
seek sexiness in a mate in all societies, in addition to
attributes such as domestic skill, whose importance varies
with the society’s level of gender equality. Given that the
female gender role often includes sexual restraint and lack
of sexual autonomy, women may place less emphasis on
sexiness in mates than men do.

It is less certain that physical attractiveness conveys
information about women’s fertility, as should be the case
if men’s preference for attractiveness in mates developed
because attractiveness was a cue to fertility (Buss, 1989a;
Jones, I 995; Singh, 1993). It seems reasonable that per-
ceptions of attractiveness and potential fertility would co-
vary even in contemporary data, but these relations have
proven to be inconsistent (e.g., Cunningham, 1986; Tassi-
nary & Hansen, 1998). Moreover, Singh’s (1993) research
on judgments of female figures that varied in weight and
waist-to-hip ratio suggested three somewhat independent
groupings of attributes: health, attractiveness, and sexiness;
capacity and desire for children; and youth.

Although little is known about the relation between
women’s attractiveness and their actual fecundity, Kalick,
Zebrowitz, Langlois, and Johnson (1998) found that facial
attractiveness in early adulthood was unrelated to number
of children produced or to health across the life span.
Although the few participants in their sample who did not
marry were less attractive than those who did marry, once
the nonmarried were excluded, physical attractiveness was
unrelated to the number of children produced by male or
female participants. Kali ck et al. ( 1998) concluded that
“any relation between attractiveness and fecundity was due
to mate-selection chances rather than biological fertility”

6 The United Nations indexes of economic development and fertility
showed relationships to mate preferences that were similar to those
displayed in Tables I and 2. The magnitude of these relationships was in
general nonsignificantly smaller than those involving the Gender Empow-
erment Measure. These relationships were expected, given that this mea-
sure increased with economic development (real gross domestic product
per capita), r(33) = .71, p < .001, and decreased with fertility, r(33) =
-.61, p < .001.

June 1999 • American Psychologist 419

(p. 10). Of course, as we noted in our critique of evolu-
tionary psychology in this article, proponents of the theory
do not predict that hypothesized evolved dispositions, such
as men’s preference for physically attractive partners,
would necessarily be related to current reproductive suc-
cess. Evolutionary psychologists argue instead that actual
fertility in modem societies may bear little relation to the
factors indicative of reproductive success in the EEA.

In summary, several aspects of the findings from Buss
et al.’ s ( 1990) 37 cultures study are compatible with the
social structural origin theory of sex differences. The idea
that the extremity of the division between male providers
and female homemakers is a major determinant of the
criteria that people seek in mates fits with the observed
covariation between men placing more emphasis than
women on younger age and domestic skill and women
placing more emphasis than men on older age and earning
potential. The lessening of these sex differences with in-
creasing gender equality, as represented by the United
Nations indexes, is consistent with our claim that these sex
differences are by-products of a social and family structure
in which the man acts as a provider and the woman acts as
a homemaker. More ambiguous are the sex differences in
valuing mates’ physical attractiveness. Without evidence
that men’s greater valuing of attractiveness follows from
one or more specific mechanisms, the simple absence of a
relation between gender equality and sex differences in
valuing attractiveness in our reanalysis does not advance
the claims of evolutionary psychology or the social struc-
tural theory. Convincing evidence for either interpretation
has yet to be generated. However, with respect to the other
sex differences emphasized by evolutionary psychologists,
their cross-cultural patterning suggests that they arise from
a particular economic and social system.


Within-Society Effects of Social Position
evidence that presumably counters the social structural

interpretation of sex differences in mate selection criteria,
evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Buss & Schmitt, 1993)
have sometimes cited studies that examined the relation
within a given culture between individuals’ mate prefer-
ences and their economic resources (e.g., Buss, 1989b;
Kenrick & Keefe, 1992; Townsend, 1989). In one of the
most extensive of these studies, Wiederman and Allgeier
( 1992) assessed mate preferences and anticipated income
of undergraduate students from a midwestem university
and of a convenience sample of Ohio residents. Mate
preference ratings from both samples yielded the typical
sex differences in ratings of good looks and good financial
prospect. The central finding was that women’s anticipated
income and their valuing of mates as a good financial
prospect were positively related in the college sample,
r(635) = .17, p < .001, and unrelated in the community
sample, r( 165) = .04, ns. That women who expected to
earn higher incomes still valued financial resources in their
mates was taken as evidence in favor of the evolutionary
theory of mate preferences.

On the basis of such data, any conclusions about the
validity of the evolutionary or the social structural origin

theory are unwarranted because such studies confound
women’s income with their socioeconomic status. Women
who themselves have higher incomes would tend to come
from higher socioeconomic groups and would anticipate
selecting mates from their own stratum of society. In the
United States, both sexes’ homogamous mating on the
basis of education, occupation, and economic resources is
a well-established phenomenon (e.g., Kalmijn, 1991, 1994;
Mare, 1991). Therefore, women’s socioeconomic status
typically should be positively related to expectations con-
cerning mates’ financial prospects.

An additional consideration is that, because societal
gender roles coexist with specific roles, achieving a high-
paying job does not completely neutralize the impact of
broader gender role expectations. Therefore, consistent
with these broader norms, even women with higher-than-
average income commonly regard themselves as secondary
wage earners in their marriages (Ferree, 1991) and often
prefer to leave the labor force entirely or to become em-
ployed part-time while raising a family (Herzog, Bachman,
& Johnston, 1983; Tittle, 1981). Despite earning a substan-
tial income, most women likely anticipate being fully or
partially dependent on their husband’s income during a
portion of their life span. Consequently, within-society
analyses of mate preferences that seek to draw conclusions
about the effects of women’s own economic resources must
control for the influences of expectations based on social
class and education as well as actual and anticipated marital

Considered at the level of a general metatheory of sex
differences, social structural theories provide alternative
explanations of the great majority of the general predictions
about sex-differentiated social behavior that have been
featured in evolutionary psychology. Because the central
tendencies of sex differences (see Eagly, 1995; Halpern,
1997; Hyde, 1996) are readily encompassed by both of
these perspectives, neither the evolutionary metatheory nor
the social structural metatheory is convincingly substanti-
ated by a mere noting of the differences established in the
research literature. It is far too easy to make up sensible
stories about how these differences might be products of
sex-differentiated evolved tendencies or the differing
placement of women and men in the social structure. This
overlap in general main-effect predictions calls for more
refined testing of the two theoretical perspectives, and each
perspective is associated with numerous more detailed pre-
dictions and empirical tests.

Certainly there are many possibilities for distinguish-
ing between the two approaches with appropriate research
designs (see Jackson, 1992). Evolutionary psychologists
have been especially resourceful in obtaining cross-cultural
data intended to support their claims of invariance across
cultures in sex-differentiated behavior. To be maximally
informative about social structural factors, cross-cultural
research should be systematically designed to represent
cultures with differing forms of social organization and
levels of gender equality. In addition; a variety of other

June 1999 • American Psychologist 420

research methods, including experiments and field studies,
can yield tests of predictions that emerge from evolutionary
and social structural perspectives.

Although this article contrasts social structural expla-
nations of sex differences with those based on evolutionary
psychology, social structural analyses may be generally
compatible with some evolutionary perspectives, as we
noted in the introductory section of this article. Our argu-
ment that sex differences in behavior emerge primarily
from physical sex differences in conjunction with influ-
ences of the economy, social structure, ecology, and cul-
tural beliefs is potentially reconcilable with theories of
coevolution by genetic and cultural processes (Janicki &
Krebs, 1998). Our position is also sympathetic to the in-
terest that some evolutionary biologists and behavioral
ecologists have shown in the maintenance of behavioral
patterns from generation to generation through nongenetic,
cultural processes (e.g., Sork, 1997). However, despite our
acknowledgement of the importance of some evolved ge-
netic influences on the behavior of women and men, an
implicit assumption of our approach is that social change
emerges, not from individuals’ tendencies to maximize
their inclusive fitness, but instead from their efforts to
maximize their personal benefits and minimize their per-
sonal costs in their social and ecological settings.

One test of the evolutionary psychology and social
structural origin theories of sex differences lies in the
future-that is, in the emerging postindustrial societies in
which the division between men’s wage labor and women’s
domestic labor is breaking down. Notable is the increase in
women’s paid employment, education, and access to many
formerly male-dominated occupations. Accompanying
these changes is a marked attitudinal shift toward greater
endorsement of equal opportunity for women in the work-
place and role-sharing in the home (e.g., Simon & Landis,
1989; Spence & Hahn, 1997; Twenge, 1997). Nonetheless,
occupational sex segregation is still prevalent with women
concentrated in occupations that are thought to require
feminine qualities and with men in occupations thought to
require masculine qualities (Cejka & Eagly, 1999; Glick,
1991). Given that occupational distributions currently take
this form and that the homemaker-provider division of
labor remains weakly in place, social structuralists would
not predict that sex differences in behavior should have
already disappeared. Instead, to the extent that the tradi-
tional sexual division between wage labor and domestic
labor disappears and women and men become similarly
distributed into paid occupations, men and women should
converge in their psychological attributes.


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