What drives people to seek high social status?
A common evolutionary theory suggests one reason for men is that they can leverage their social position into producing more children and propagating their genes.
But what about women, who can only have so many children?
New research by anthropologists at the University of California Santa Barbara suggests that a woman’s status does pay off, but in better health outcomes for her children.
“When we think about social status, it’s often linked — for men at least — to more wealth and sexual partners and to higher fertility in places without birth control,” said Sarah Alami, a doctoral student in anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and the paper’s lead author. “But since women can never have as many children as men can, does this mean that status striving is an exclusively male privilege?”
The answer, according to the researchers, is no.
“Women may just have different motivations for seeking status than men,” Alami continued. “This paper proposes that women may be more likely to leverage their status into greater resources in a way that can benefit their existing children.”
The researchers reached this conclusion after surveying people who live in Tsimane, a community in the Amazon in Bolivia. They discovered that children of politically influential mothers are less likely to be sick and more likely to be of healthy weight and height for their age.
To measure status in a community of minimal material wealth, the researchers asked men and women to rank all of the people in their community in terms of who has the greatest political influence, whose voice carries the most weight during community meetings, who is best at leading community projects, and who garners the most respect.
When they compared those rankings against several measures of health for children, they found children of politically influential women fare better than others. These children grow faster and also are less likely to be diagnosed with common illnesses such as respiratory infections, gastrointestinal diseases, and anemia. Respiratory infections are a source of illness and death in the Tsimane population, the researchers explained.
“So much work on status focuses only on men because male status striving, leadership, and power wrangling is so in-your-face,” said Michael Gurven, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, co-director of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, and the paper’s senior author. “We wanted to measure women’s status in a relatively egalitarian society, even where most formal leaders are men, to see how variable it might be, and how it matters in daily life.”
The study goes beyond simple correlations between status and health, according to Gurven.
“Maybe there’s no causal relationship — perhaps healthier people just have healthier children. Such an explanation doesn’t require extra resource access or others’ deference,” he said.
“But if it was just a matter of having good genes, we’d expect similar effects from both mother and father, since each contributes genes. But we don’t see that. Dad’s status has a positive effect on child health, but it’s relatively weak and disappears once we include mom’s in the same statistical model. So that suggests either the mother’s influence has a stronger effect on their children or the father’s influence works through the mother’s.”
So, how does a woman’s political influence lead to better health outcomes for her children?
The researchers first tested whether greater material assets, schooling, wages, and family connections could explain the relationship. They found that while these factors have some effect on child health, “combined they explain relatively little,” according to the study’s findings.
A number of other tests and control variables also did not alter the relationship between women’s status and child health, the researchers noted.
Instead, they propose that a woman’s publicly recognized influence affects her ability to be heard within her household. And having a voice can directly benefit her children.
The researchers collected data on the amount of power husbands think their wives have. This included men’s opinions about the decision-making authority of their wives in different domains, and their attitudes toward women in general, women working, and women being educated.
“We found women’s political influence was correlated with their husbands having more gender-egalitarian views, their husbands thinking, for example, that it’s okay for a woman to have opinions that differ from her husband’s,” Alami said. “And women’s influence was also correlated with their husbands thinking their wives have a say in household decisions, such as where to live, when to travel, and how to spend household money.”
“The fact is that even in a context where women have nine kids and where her efforts aren’t flashy or accorded much cultural value, women can still be well respected and have high status,” she added.
A lot of this work is inspired by evolutionary or “ultimate-level” questions, according to Gurven.
“Of course we don’t crave status because we’re consciously thinking about increasing reproductive success,” he said. “Women are not walking around saying, ‘I’m going to become influential so that I can improve my children’s health and survival.’
“But any discussion here would be lacking without considering the costs and benefits of climbing the status ladder,” he continued. “What’s the point of putting so much time and effort into something elusive like status if there’s not some benefit? We’re saying that pay offs are there for women, too, and that women may have similar status motivations as men. We just find that fitness payoffs for women are not from greater sexual access, but instead improved health and other outcomes for children.”
One of the strengths of this study comes from the researchers’ ability to accurately measure status, which is a challenging thing to do.
“I can measure your height or your weight, and I can ask how much money you make. But status — what others think of you — is not so straightforward to measure,” Gurven explained. “But it is really important in human social lives, affecting so many of our behaviors and motivations.”
“Everyone was rated by a representative group of village residents,” Alami added. “That means all were judged by the same yardstick. And it turned out the average woman did rank lower than most men in terms of social status, but there was substantial overlap between men and women. And in a previous recent study, we showed that the sex difference in political influence disappears once you account for a person’s size, formal education, and number of cooperation partners, suggesting that these factors, rather than gender per se, lead to high status.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.