Girl dominates in karate fight

Girls on top

The role of gender in society

Most human societies are patriarchal – they are dominated by men. However, in some parts of the world it’s the women who call the shots. And in the animal world, males or females can be dominant.

Is it part of the ‘natural order’ for society to favour men? Although most human societies are patriarchal, there are some cultures in which women hold power.

The Nairs are a large, powerful warrior caste in Kerala, India, who traditionally had a female-dominated (matriarchal) society and lived in households headed by women. A man belonged to his mother’s family. Property passed from mothers to daughters, with women allowed to have multiple sexual partners.

In Malaysia the women of Negeri Sembilan benefitted from a ‘matrilineal’ culture, which gave them exclusive inheritance rights to ancestral rice fields. Women’s influence was as great as men’s.

The Minangkabau of Indonesia still have a matrilineal culture. Women inherit property, and both sexes have an equal share of power.

In the animal world both male-dominated and female-dominated societies are common. In some species, such as gorillas, males have harems of females under their control; in others, including some species of shore birds, females keep harems of males. Spotted hyena society is vicious, but the animals live in large groups headed by a dominant female.

Bonobos are, with chimpanzees, our closest relatives, but they have a female-oriented society. Males stay with their mothers their whole lives, and the status of a male in a group depends on the status of his mother.

All this suggests it is not inevitable that society is run by and for the benefit of men. The fact that many human societies are male-dominated may reflect the advantage that physical strength and aggression provided in the past.

In modern societies, however, qualities traditionally associated with women offer many advantages. Cooperation, teamwork, caring and empathy can all contribute to the smooth running of a peaceful society.

Lead image:

Kuba Bozanowski/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in January 2006 and reviewed and updated in October 2014.

Ecology and environment
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development