In the Face of Female Oppression, Take Refuge in the Spotted Hyena

People continue to say women can’t be leaders because it’s not biologically natural. They’re forgetting animals like the spotted hyena.

by Shayla Love
Dec 16 2019, 2:00pm

Illustration by Hunter French 

In August 2017, former Google software engineer James Damore wrote a ten-page manifesto claiming that the disparity between men and women working as software engineers could be explained by biology. The now-infamous document (Damore's Twitter bio reads: "Author of the pro-diversity #GoogleMemo") said that “men and women biologically differ in many ways” and that this is what led to their representation, or lack thereof, in tech fields.

The idea that men and women’s differences are derived from biology has haunted the past couple of decades, in fact. You may recall, for instance, that in 2005, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, similarly announced that there weren't very many women scientists at elite universities due to "issues of intrinsic aptitude."

In May of 2013, when a Pew study found that mothers were the sole or primary source of income in four of ten American households with children, Fox Business held an all-male panel to respond. Fox News contributor Erick Erickson said that women being breadwinners went against the rules of nature.

“I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science,” Erickson said. “But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role.”

People still believe that men are somehow biologically programmed to be in charge. As Angela Saini wrote in her 2017 book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story: "Summers may have dared to say it, but how many people haven't thought the same? That there might be an innate essential difference between the sexes that sets us apart?"

The unspoken assertion is that women don't biologically belong in leading and demanding fields, and that they are supposed to be in more domestic and servitudinal roles. As we enter the 2020s, it’s clear that refuting this idea is still necessary, even though understanding sex differences this way gets the scientific evidence so wrong.

Men and women do think there are variations in how they express themselves, their physical abilities, how they parent, and their hobbies and interests, according to a 2017 Pew survey. But when it comes to the reason for those differences, men and women point to a different cause. Most men think—like Damore—that biology explains it, while more women attribute it to societal expectations. To explain differences between men and women in “the things they’re good at in the workplace,” 61 percent of men said it’s because of biology, compared to 35 percent of women who thought so.

Erickson doubled down on his position from the Fox panel in a follow-up blog post. “Pro-science liberals seem to think basic nature and biology do not apply to Homo sapiens. Men can behave like women, women can behave like men, they can raise their kids, if they have them, in any way they see fit, and everything will turn out fine in the liberal fantasy world. Except in the real world it does not work out that way.”

For a deep dive into the science of gender differences, Saini's book is excellent. For a narrower counterpoint to the notion of a biologically-mandated male-dominated society, here is a “pro-science” example for female-dominance: the spotted hyena. It is one of several species of animals where the females run the show, and while comparing human societies to animals is problematic (more on that later), reflecting on totally matriarchal hyenas can at least remind us that it's not a steadfast rule that males have to be #1.

Native to several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, female spotted hyenas are the typical rulers of their societies, which is rare among mammals. They are about 10 percent larger than males, much more aggressive, and socially dominant to adult males that live alongside them; their clans can comprise up to 90 hyenas all together.

“It’s pretty strikingly obvious when you watch these animals interact” that the females are in charge, said Eli Strauss, a behavioral ecologist who works in the lab of Kay Holekamp, a zoologist at Michigan State University who has been observing hyena behavior for nearly 30 years. “You can see that males are displaced from kills, prevented from feeding, and the females will come in and take the food that the males may have killed themselves.”

After reaching adulthood, males will leave their biological families to become the lowest-ranking members of a new hyena clan. The females remain, and inherit the ranks of their mothers. If you’re the female daughter of the highest-ranking hyena in the clan, you’ll get the most to eat, be the most aggressive, and produce the most successful offspring. “In these and many other respects, spotted hyenas appear to violate many of the accepted ‘rules’ of mammalian biology,” Holekamp wrote in 2011, in a travel diary of her research for the New York Times.

Besides increased aggression, female spotted hyenas have another fascinating feature: masculinized genitalia. Their genitals are so similar to male genitalia at first glance that people believed hyenas to be hermaphrodites for centuries.

The spotted hyena doesn't have a conventional vaginal opening. Instead, her clitoris elongates out of her body, creating a pseudo-penis (also called a pseudo-phallus) that can become fully erect and is the same length as the male’s penis. The females urinate, get pregnant, and give birth through their pseudo-penis. Their labia “are folded over and filled with fat and connective tissue to form a structure that looks remarkably like the male’s scrotal sac,” Holekamp wrote. Even when she was examining a hyena close up, she added: “I thought I was palpating real testes.”

For decades, researchers have tried to explain the female spotted hyenas’ masculinized traits. When searching for a hormonal explanation, scientists found that spotted hyenas did have higher concentrations of androgens, or male sex hormones, compared to other female mammals. Hyena cubs that were born to mothers with higher androgens, along with their masculinized genitalia, had higher rates of aggression.

But in experiments at the University of California Berkeley, researchers found that giving pregnant spotted hyenas anti-androgens did not prevent their offspring from having masculinized genitals. “They found that the ones that received the treatment, their offspring ended up still having masculinized genitalia, although it was less extreme,” Strauss said. “So, the androgens weren’t the whole story.”

Holekamp’s lab thinks that the masculinized genitals are partially explained by evolutionary adaptation, independent of hormonal differences. When hyenas greet each other, they do so by sniffing each other’s erect penises (pseudo or not), so the pseudo-phallus could have evolved to serve a social role.

It also gives female hyenas control over reproduction because mating is so logistically difficult. As such, they determine which male hyena's sperm fertilizes their eggs. While observing two spotted hyenas mating in 2011, Holekamp saw a female named Baez stand still in front of a male, named Oakland, with her hindquarters toward him and her head lowering to the ground, a signal that she wouldn’t bite him. Oakland attempted to mount a few times, but would “veer off at the last second as if he was simply overcome by nervousness,” Holekamp wrote. Finally, he managed to put his penis into Baez’s pseudo-penis, which points forward and downward, so the male must “hop around behind the female while he squats behind her, thrusting blindly upward and backward.”

“Oakland eventually achieved [penetration] while Baez remained motionless, then he lowered his chin to her shoulders, and even groomed her back with his tongue,” Holekamp noted.

The social dominance of the females, combined with their genital structure, means that sexual coercion is impossible. "If the female is not keen to mate with a particular male, then he’s just plain out of luck,” Holekamp wrote in her travel diary.

Researchers at Holekamp’s lab think there could be an adaptive influence for female hyenas' aggression too: Spotted hyenas have a powerful skull and jaw—their teeth can crush bones up to 3 inches in diameter—but they don't achieve that level of strength until sexual maturity. The competition for food among hyenas is high, so Strauss said that females had to compensate with aggression, to protect and feed their offspring for longer periods of time.

Strauss said there is recent evidence that the way hyenas form and use social alliances help maintain female dominance too. Hyenas will team up together to bully a third hyena, and prefer to buddy up with their close relatives. "New work has shown that females with many social allies can overtake other females with fewer social allies and ascend to higher positions in the social hierarchy," he said. Since the males leave their families to go to new groups, they don't have as much of this support—reinforcing the female-led clan.

Spotted hyenas aren’t alone as a mammalian species that break the so-called “normal” male-dominated society. They are joined, albeit with less extreme examples, by lemurs, bonobos, red colobus monkeys, and elephants. While it's a fact that most mammalian societies are male-dominant, the point is that nature doesn’t have to follow that rule, as evidenced by the wide spectrum of behaviors that exist.

“In a lot of societies, it’s not clear cut that it’s either female- or male-dominant,” Strauss said. “There can be females that are dominant to certain males, or more of a mixed hierarchy, where certain males and females both outrank each other depending on the individual.”

Strauss said that in some primate societies, they’re finding that even when males are more aggressive, it doesn’t automatically make them dominant. The females can be the glue that holds society together, supporting males in competition, and determining which males are the leaders. “The female [primates] are playing a much more important role than people initially thought,” he said.

Ultimately, though, applying animal behavior to humans directly is what got us into this whole mess in the first place.

Sari van Anders, a neuroscientist and professor of Psychology & Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, studies how social behaviors are related to gender, and how intimacy or sexual behavior affect hormones in humans, in a field called social endocrinology. She said in humans, everything is much more complicated because we have to take culture and social constructs into account. With those caveats, she can still find it helpful to be aware of sexual diversity in nature.

“[It] helps us understand that, in animals themselves, there’s no one way that their reproductive capabilities, interests, or physiologies look,” van Anders said. “Arguments that rely on what’s 'natural' can be very problematic. That’s not to say that I think that we should make decisions about humans based on what is or isn’t in other species—but it is important because people do make those arguments.”

To consider men and women’s role in human society, we need a more nuanced approach. Alice Eagly is a social scientist at Northwestern University who’s been conducting psychological research about sex and gender for almost 50 years. She explains gendered behavior differences in humans using a biosocial model that takes both biology and environmental determinants into account, not just one or the other.

Her theory says that every society has a division of labor between men and women and much of our psychology follows from that, meaning that the jobs and roles men and women hold lead to how they behave and think of themselves. As to how people get into their job or role, biology can be relevant. For example, for thousands of years women were more burdened by reproduction—there was little access to safe birth control, and they shouldered most of the childcare. That limited the types of work they could do.

But those divisions can change, and it reflects in our societies. There were once sex differences in average mathematical ability that favored men, and those have gone away. Women are gaining leadership roles, even if slowly. There are still some differences in the types of careers women seek out, and the fields they're interested in, but that might be because “caregivers promote sex-typical activities and interests in children” and “very young children form gender stereotypes as they observe women and men enacting their society’s division of labor,” Eagly wrote in an essay about the Google memo for The Conversation. “They automatically learn about gender from what they see adults doing in the home and at work.”

Though it would be nice to claim pure biology or social construction to explain our gender roles as humans, we will never be able to. “Many pundits make the mistake of assuming that scientific evidence favoring sociocultural causes for the dearth of women in tech invalidates biological causes, or vice versa,” Eagly wrote. “These assumptions are far too simplistic because most complex human behaviors reflect some mix of nature and nurture.”

For better or worse, we are not hyenas. As women, we don’t unilaterally control intercourse, nor do we have totally dominant behavior over the men in our society. But what we do have is the capacity to change at paces faster than evolutionary ones, and use our large cerebral cortexes and culture to restructure the division of labor, and, along with it, stereotypes, expectations, and behavior.

Even if it were true that nature had strict gender and sex roles—and hyenas prove that it isn’t—that’s not the whole story for humans, as evidenced by the fact that gender roles have shown so much change, even in the last 50 years.

“People will often invoke what’s 'natural' to make arguments about what is natural for humans,” van Anders said. “One of the important things about sexual diversity is it helps us see that there’s no one right or natural way for mammals or any species to be when it comes to reproduction, sex, or sexuality.”

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.

james damore
google memo
female dominance
spotted hyenas