seX & whY Episode 24, Part 2: Sex and Gender Differences in Conflict

Jeannette WolfePodcast Episodes

Show Notes for Episode Twenty-Four of seX & whY: Sex and Gender Differences in Conflict, Part 2

Host: Jeannette Wolfe
Guest: Joyce Benenson, lecturer of evolutionary biology at Harvard and author of the book Warriors and Worriers

In this podcast we continue our discussion about women interacting with each other at the workplace and how women often manage hierarchy differently than men. We got into a spirited discussion about a question posted on a female physician’s list serve querying whether women physicians want to be addressed as  “Doctor” by other staff members. (My own preference was “yes” in front of patients, and “no” once we were outside of exam rooms.) Benenson believes that when women are interacting with women who are not family, they tend to act incredibly egalitarian. This can be challenging for women in hierarchical positions and lead to a downplay of their power. This intentional buffering may not only use up a lot of cognitive energy, but it can also be a potential disadvantage in professional situations that require a clear chain of command to optimize team performance. This can put women on a professional tightrope that can be hard to balance. Ways to address this include acknowledging that this challenge is real, committing to direct communication and focusing on shared outcome goals of the entire team. Personally, I have also found it extremely helpful to humanize the other person and remind myself that most people don’t go to work with malicious intent to try and screw up another person’s day.

Next, we talked about likeability, and Benenson shared a fascinating economics paper called: I (Don’t) Like You! But Who Cares? Gender Differences in Same Sex and Mixed Sex Teams. This paper included a series of studies in which pairs participated in games that involved economic transactions and “likeability”. In pairs where men worked with other men, “liking” their partner was not intricately related to maximizing their profits. This was not the case in teams that involved at least one woman. In these pairs, likeability increased the chance of profits and dis-likability decreased overall profits. This suggests that when interreacting with each other, men may have a greater ability to compartmentalize their professional interactions from their personal opinions.

Next, we talked about the “tend and befriend” theory developed by Dr Shelly Taylor. This theory suggests that when stressed, that females may benefit less from a fight or flight response and more from coming together to pool resources and share childcare. Benenson’s impression is that there is little scientific evidence that this theory holds true.  She believes, contrary to the popular stereotype, that males are actually far more likely to be the communal sex and are much more likely to form intense group bonds.

At the end, I briefly reviewed some of the findings of a recent paper Dr Benenson published called: Self Protection as an Adaptive Female Strategy which supports the “Staying Alive Theory”. From an evolutionary perspective, behaviors that are more likely to be found in groups of males than females, such as direct competition, physical aggression, resource accumulation and risk taking, have evolved because they provide a benefit to males in optimizing their mating opportunities and reproductive fitness. The question becomes, is there a parallel evolutionary driver for females. The Staying Alive Theory is one proposal. This theory originally developed by Campbell in 1999, suggests that compared to males, females are more likely to be innately wired to avoid conflict and be more physiologically responsive to threats that can jeopardize their health. By doing so, this helps females optimize their chance of their own fitness and the survival of their own offspring.  In their paper, Benenson and her group surveyed several different areas of science to look for support of the Staying Alive Theory and here are some of their findings.

  • In humans and other mammals, females seem to consistently outlive males, this is particularly true in species in which grandmothers are more heavily involved in caring for infants.
  • There is a health-survival paradox, however, in that although females may have greater longevity, they are also more likely to report the presence of daily symptoms and chronic illness and have higher prescription drug use. In the world of sex and gender-based medicine this phenomenon is nicely summed up with the phrase men die, women suffer.
  • There are sex differences in most types of cancers, in fact, except for thyroid and breast cancers, males have higher incidences of most other cancers and usually have a worse prognosis after diagnosis.
  • Compared to female, males are also more susceptible to most infectious diseases. An as an aside, when we talk about Covid, it is estimated that globally for every 10 females who have died from it, 13-15 males have.
  • During times of global threats, females are also more likely to follow through with public health messaging such as mask wearing and hand washing
  • Females, compared to males, have a heightened sense of pain, which may enhance self-protective behavior to avoid situations in which injury may occur such as physical arguments
  • In general, females are more likely to have more frequent night-time awakenings, suggesting they may be more vigilant to potential night threats than male counterparts. This tendency to break up their sleep however may be compensated by higher quality length and depth of different parts of the sleep cycle.
  • As a group, women appear to be more concerned about environmental issues and according to a recent study involving more than 32 nations and 45,000 participants, women felt a greater urgency to protect the environment and were more likely to support policies that financially invested in it.
  • When looking at how people communicate, females were more likely to use techniques associated with politeness including smiling and tentative language that included buffering and apologizing.
  • Although the area of nonverbal recognition shows some mixed results, overall, it appears that females are better at identifying nonverbal expressions especially those related to fear, sadness and anger.

This is a great paper and worth a full read if you are interested in this material.

Thanks for listening to Sex and Why!