Evolutionary Biology

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 461–470 | Cite as

The “Sex Role” Concept: An Overview and Evaluation

  • Malin Ah-KingEmail author
  • Ingrid Ahnesjö
Synthesis Paper


“Sex roles” are intuitively associated to stereotypic female and male sexual strategies and in biology, the term “sex role” often relates to mating competition, mate choice or parental care. “Sex role reversals” imply that the usual typological pattern for a population or species is deviates from a norm, and the meaning of “sex role reversal” thus varies depending upon whatever is the usual pattern of sex-typical behavior in a given taxon. We identify several problems with the current use of the “sex role” concept. (1) It is typological and reflects stereotypic expectations of the sexes. (2) The term “sex role” parses continuous variation into only two categories, often obscuring overlap, between the sexes in behavior and morphology, and variability in relation to ecological circumstances. (3) Common generalizations such as “sex role as seen in nature” mask variation upon which selection may act. (4) The general meaning of “sex roles” in society (i.e. “socially and culturally defined prescriptions and beliefs about the behavior and emotions of men and women”) is contrary to biological “sex role” concepts, so that confusing the two obscure science communication in society. We end by questioning the validity of the “sex role” concept in evolutionary biology and recommend replacing the term “sex role” with operational descriptions.


Mate choice Mating competition Sex roles Sexual selection Sex role reversal 



We are most grateful for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript from Patricia A. Gowaty and anonymous reviewers, discussions with Lotta Kvarnemo, Patricia A. Gowaty, Marlene Zuk, and participants in the OIKOS 2006 workshop, the 2008 Gender perspectives on sexual selection workshop in Uppsala, and the symposium on the Ecology of sex roles in Perth 2011. MA and IA were supported by the GenNa-program, funded by the Swedish Research Council, at the Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University. I.A. was also supported by a Grant from the Inez Johansson foundation, and M.A. by a Grant from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Gender ResearchUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Genetics/Animal EcologyUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden

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