Sexism may be a natural state, but that doesn’t make it a morally defensible one. Conflict is rife in the animal world between predators and prey, between males competing over access to female, females competing over access to males and between members of a breeding pair who are raising joint young. Sexual conflict exists in all sexually reproducing species, be they animal or plant. When two individuals aims are not perfectly aligned, as happens for example when a male and female bird decide to breed together, then there will be conflict – over how much each invests in their offspring and even if they decide to stick around to help raise them. Conflict of this kind is theorized to be the reason behind sexual differentiation: the production of one large gamete with lots of resources or lots of smaller ones with fewer resources. This initial difference sets up conflicting interests between the large gamete producers, females, and the small gamete producers, males. Females typically invest heavily in offspring and so want to choose the best sexual partner, whilst males do best by spreading their inexpensive (although there is a cost to sperm production) seed.
But what has this got to do with feminism and misogyny? In modern human societies men are in a position of power. They are paid better, more likely to be employed etc. For society to be equal we are asking for a subset of a species to voluntarily give up a position of strength, but what benefit do they get from doing this? One argument would be that having more women higher up in companies will be good for business, we’ll be promoting purely on merit and so only the best will get to the top. This is likely to be true. But I’m an evolutionary biologist and this way of thinking seems very close to group selection – which we know is not how evolution works. Animals, plants and even people will behaviour in a way that is optimum for them, if this optimum happens to coincide with the optimum for the group then that’s great and then we get cooperation. But the interests of the group or species do not always coincide with the individual. So, individual members of the board of executives are unlikely to voluntarily give up their position to a woman just because the company will do better. Similarly, a male boss is likely to employ a man in his mid-twenties over a woman of similar age because he is less likely to take leave because of a baby, making the life of the boss easier. In behavioural economics experiments people will actually pay so that others will incur a cost (this is called spite). What I am trying to say is that the reason why sexism still exists in modern western society may be because we haven’t come at it from the correct angle, we’ve simply relied upon people behaving in a way that is moral and ethical, which can only get us so far – we’ve not thought about it in an evolutionary way.
Males don’t always have to win - sexual conflicts are not always static. Some species, like elephant seals, have extreme sexual dimorphism (driven by competition between males) and this makes females very week in the interactions of this species (I’ve not studied seals and so his might be a crap example). However, in species like the dunnock, the balance of power between males and females is in constant flux. Sometimes the males win, getting to mate with two females and have twice the number of offspring, and sometimes the females win, getting to mate with two males and have them both help rear her young. I went to a conference where they found that dunnocks in New Zealand actually behaved differently to those in the UK and the outcomes again were in flux. What this shows is that through changing costs and benefits, even the habitat, we can influence sexual conflict and potentially sexism.
It’s very difficult to change the way people behave, but if we can influence the environment in which businesses work and that men and women interact. The He For She campaign is a great idea to changing male behaviour early, but if the benefits of sexism remain in later life it may have limited effect. Another way to change things is to avoid any possibility of sexism. For example, it used to be thought that women couldn’t play the tuba but then orchestras started to have blind auditions and all traces that the player might be a women were cover up. The result was a massive increase in the number of women playing the instrument in orchestras. In the leave due to a baby example I used above, making it possible for men to take as much paternity leave as women can take maternity leave could eliminate the difference in cost to employer – rendering choosing a man the same as choosing a woman. By reposing the question and asking why sexism exists, we can seek to find evolutionary answers that may allow us to put an end to it.
You may think this is overly simplistic, that we're rational creatures and so above any such 'manipulation' but how much washing up we do is effected by our environment!