Does Alice Eagly really reject feminist ideology to study sex/gender differences?

I criticized Alice Eagly in my book in several paragraphs. Eagly is a professor of psychology who has devoted her career to advancing female careers, but was also a long-time believer of the Blank Slate view or the Standard Social Science Model. She (co-) developed both Social Role Theory and Biosocial Theory. In the latter theory (Wood & Eagly, 2002), she accepted biological sex differences such as the greater upper-body strength, height, and speed found in men, and women’s childbearing and nursing behavior. However, she did not let go of her idea that ‘socially constructed perspectives’ play a large(r) role. Someone drew my attention to an opinion paper she published in 2018 and told me that in it Eagly had admitted that her scientific work was inspired by (feminist) ideology. If true, she would be one of a few famous scientists to have admitted their mistake, and I would owe her my deepest respect. So, I set out to read the paper, but could not find any trace of her admitting a mistake. What is true is that she criticizes ‘feminist psychologists’ who have denied three possible ‘other’ causes of female disadvantage:

·      Self-construals (how people think of themselves, e.g. on average, women tend to think of themselves as more interdependent, whereas men tend towards more independent);

·      Personal goals that guide individual choice (e.g. women place more importance on communal goals);

·      Biological causation of sex differences and female disadvantage.


Although I was surprised when she wrote “I maintain that feminism has narrowed its focus mainly to the E(nvironment)” (2018, p. 878), Eagly commits the same mistakes as before. For example, she refers to the erroneous view that “the great majority of sex differences are small in magnitude” spread by Hyde and others. On April 8, 2019, Marco Del Giudice, David A. Puts, David C. Geary, and David P. Schmitt posted a very interesting article regarding the origins of sex differences on the website Psychology Today (see references below) refuting many of the unfounded criticism of biological differences. They pointed to several flaws in the research papers that state that sex differences are small in magnitude, e.g.:

·      Many studies did not include enough information to calculate sex differences, did not calculate them (even if they had the data), or removed them as “a nuisance;

·      Due to measurement error, the size of sex differences is often… underestimated (!) and “typically increases by 10-20% after simple corrections, and may almost double when using more sophisticated syntheses;

·      The studies include comparisons that are not informed by evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology, two disciplines that can help “researchers know where to look and understand how and such differences fit into the broader patterns found across species

I recommend reading the entire article, as it nicely complements the argumentation in my book. One of their strongest arguments is that many behavioral sex differences found in humans are very similar to those of many animals, yet those animals don’t have “gender socialization regimes like ours” (In 1871 and 1872 Darwin had already pointed out the obvious idea that we descended from a common ancestor and that the anatomy and physiology of humans showed continuity with other mammals).


Eagly seems to be wrestling a lot with the idea that biological influences play a role because, on the other hand, she now does acknowledge two ‘biologically based’ differences that I mentioned in my book (chapter on evolutionary psychology): boys’ greater surgency versus girls’ greater effortful control which are manifested in childhood toy and activity preferences. She points to two ‘biological’ suspects: early androgens in boys and the inherent inequality in sex chromosomes between XX and XY individuals. Eagly now even defends biological scientists who “typically do not assume that behavioral sex differences are in simple fashion biologically ‘hardwired’” (p. 882).


To her credit, she also ‘admits’ that there is obvious progress being made towards gender equality in the United States. She gives several examples and even courageously refers to 2010 (!) research showing that female candidates for research jobs had “a better chance of being interviewed and receiving offers than did male job candidates” and 2015 research that “academic hiring found a strong favoring of women over equally qualified men in STEM” (p. 879).


In 2019, Eagly and her colleagues meta-analyzed the evolution of gender stereotypes. The meta-analysis revealed that 

(a)   women are increasingly (!) described as more communal than men;

(b)  there is no change in perception of female agency;

(c)   belief in female competency has increased over time.


The finding that women are increasingly viewed as more communal is not explained by the more plausible evidence-based explanation I offer in my book: in countries where women have more freedom of choice thanks to increasing income and independence, they choose more communal (people-oriented) jobs. This can be parsimoniously explained to a large extent by the biological innate preferences (people orientation). Instead, Eagly and her colleagues again explain this finding as mainly following “from its being the strongest gender stereotype.” This gender stereotype has “crowded them (i.e. women) mainly into jobs emphasizing social skills and social contribution.” In my opinion, using the wording “crowded them” suggests no free choice at all. Moreover, when considering that women have taken on more agentic roles such as lawyers and managers, Eagly et al. still believe it is “internal segregation” that “puts them into the more communal variants of these roles” (2018, p. 11).


I agree with her that “political ideology can become a stultifying straightjacket in relation to research” (2018), but it seems she is still partly unaware of her own feminist straightjacket. 


PS: in a recent paper, Pasterski et al. (2015) found that ‘mini-puberty’ (from birth to 3 months) produces postnatal androgens, which are significant predictors of increased masculine (e.g. desire to play with cars, trains, or airplanes) and decreased feminine behavior (e.g. playing with dolls).




Eagly, A. H. (2018). The shaping of science by ideology: How feminism inspired, led, and constrained scientific understanding of sex and gender. Journal of Social Issues74(4), 871-888.


Eagly, A. H., Nater, C., Miller, D. I., Kaufmann, M., & Sczesny, S. (2019). Gender stereotypes have changed: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of US public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018. American psychologist. (Online First Publication on July 18, 2019).


Del Giudice, M., Puts, D.A., Geary, D.C., Schmitt, D.P. (2018). Behavior: Eight Counterpoints

Disagreements and agreements on the origins of human sex differences. Psychology Today. .


Pasterski, V., Acerini, C. L., Dunger, D. B., Ong, K. K., Hughes, I. A., Thankamony, A., & Hines, M. (2015). Postnatal penile growth concurrent with mini-puberty predicts later sex-typed play behavior: evidence for neurobehavioral effects of the postnatal androgen surge in typically developing boys. Hormones and Behavior69, 98-105.