Natural or socialised?

Are our preferences gender specific or imposed by societal roles?

December 14, 2021 12:38 pm | Updated 12:38 pm IST

gender equality concept, sexuality concept with male and female icon, women's rights

gender equality concept, sexuality concept with male and female icon, women's rights

Why do men and women have different preferences in life? Certain professions such as the military which involves serious combat, for instance, are dominated by men while other professions such as nursing which involves nurturing people are dominated by women.

Social scientists have tried to answer this question in two main ways. On the one hand, evolutionary psychologists have argued that the preferences of men and women are determined by evolutionary forces that have shaped human behaviour over millions of years. Certain traits that helped men and women to survive natural selection and sexual selection were passed on through procreation to the next generations while other traits were weeded out. Social role theorists, on the other hand, have argued that gender roles are constructed to a large extent by society itself. A society that conditions boys and girls to behave in a certain way will produce men and women who perform certain traditional roles, they say.

In “The Gender Gap in Preferences: Evidence from 45,397 Facebook Interests,” a team of four researchers from Spain and the US try to find out the truth behind these theories that try to explain the different preferences of men and women. They do so by analysing the interests shown by men and women in over 45,000 different topics on the popular social media site Facebook. The researchers posit that if the evolutionary psychologists are right, then in societies where both genders are granted equal rights, gender preferences should reflect the natural, innate differences between men and women. So if men and women innately possess vastly different outlooks towards combat roles, for instance, this should be reflected in the number of men and women who choose to enter such roles. On the other hand, if what the social role theorists hypothesise is true, then the existing gap between the preferences of men and women should begin to narrow down as the social constructs that get men and women stuck in certain traditional roles begin to break down.

To test things out, the researchers make a distinction between two kinds of preferences. They classify certain preferences as innate to the two genders and other preferences as those that are not innate to any specific gender. If a certain interest was preferred mainly by men or women in at least 90% of all countries, it was classified as gender-specific. The researchers cite interests such as “motorcycles” and “Lionel Messi” as universally more common among men while other interests such as “cosmetics” and “motherhood” are cited as universally more common among women. If, however, the popularity of a certain interest between the genders showed more variation across different countries, it was classified as non-gender-related.

The researchers made two important findings through their study. Firstly, when it comes to gender-related interests, the differences between men and women were larger in countries that were more gender-equal. This could be because men and women were able to freely express their personal preferences in more gender-equal countries. Secondly, when it comes to non-gender-related interests, the differences between men and women were actually smaller in countries that were more gender-equal.

So, the researchers arrived at the conclusion that whether gender equality will lead to a narrowing or widening of the gap between the preferences of men and women will depend on the nature of the preferences. Certain preferences that are largely innate to men and women tend to be exaggerated in societies that are gender equal. On the other hand, preferences that are not innate but rather enforced through various social norms tend to narrow down when societies begin to grant equal rights to men and women.

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