July 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

1950s housewife

Could a 1950s attitude to gender roles be stunting animal behaviour research?

A recent study published online by the journal Animal Behaviour has found extensive stereotyping of sex roles throughout the research literature of sexual conflict: portraying males as active and females as reactive.

Sexual conflict refers to adaptations produced by one sex that are detrimental to the opposite sex, for example male bean weevils (Callosobruchus maculatus) have spiny genitalia thought to allow longer copulation. The spines, rather unsurprisingly, damage the female reproductive tract and so females have evolved strategies to reduce this. The use of language such as ‘coy’ to describe female behaviour, and controversial words such as ‘rape’ have been identified and condemned in the past, but this is the first study into how sexual conflict theory has been influenced by wider ideas regarding gender roles. This was achieved in two parts; first by analysing the language used in the literature and secondly by looking into the parameters used in theoretical models of sexual conflict.

The study found stark differences used in the terminology applied to males and females. Words applied to males include ‘intimidation’, ‘enforcement’ and ‘coercion,’ whereas those applied to females include ‘resistance’, ‘avoidance’ and ‘reluctance.’ Terminology such as this was found to reflect a general assumption that males are active, that is they produce an adaptation that is detrimental to the female and the female responds. The authors, Green and Madjidian’s, concern lies not with the different words used for the two sexes, as it is generally accepted that such terms are unavoidable and indeed useful for communicating theory.

But rather that the problem lies in the fact that these connotations are constant across the literature. They claim that this bias is reflected in the theoretical models of sexual conflict, with a tendency to focus on costs to females and ignore any costs to males. Another common assumption is that higher mating rates are detrimental to females; despite evidence suggesting this is not always the case.

The authors do accept that the bias found could be due to reasons other than preconceived ideas about sex roles. For example, as a relatively new field, it could be that sexual conflict theory has merely concentrated on phenomena that are most obvious in nature. Even still, the fact that a bias does exist, calls for questions to be asked as to why it exists and whether it is justified. Evidence now suggests that the sex roles that exist in the natural world are less distinct than had been previously assumed and failing to recognise this could limit future research.

What this study highlights is an attempt to draw attention to the issue of objectivity in scientific research. Although concentrating on the field of sexual conflict this paper suggests that many scientists could benefit from taking a step back and looking critically at the potential biases affecting their research.