I have some thoughts on the topic of male and female dominance brought up by Blue_Expo.
In fact, it was the topic of a paper for my Evolution of Human Aggression class…
Females are under some different sexual selection pressures than males stemming from the fact that they are the limited sex. They can only produce a finite number of offspring and are heavily invested in their progeny. Perhaps this is the basis for the female dominance social hierarchies observed in bonobos (Parish et al., 1994) and hyenas (Jenks, 1995). In both these systems, offspring inherit their mother’s rank and a mother is willing to engage in physical combat or establish social coalitions designed to elevate their offspring in rank. Because rank determined ability to procure resources, survive and reproduce, and females had high parental investment, there was sufficient evolutionary pressure for females to evolve the capacity to establish dominance even over males on their offsprings’ behalf.
Human females develope social dominance hierarchies as well. Like primates and hyenas, females are the limited sex, but we don’t see widespread examples of females establishing their dominance physically especially over males. It is important to observe that human females establish their dominance and social rankings in other ways than men (although not exclusively). Females might employ gossip or forge social ties to engineer the dynamics of a social situation. Evolutionary Psychologist D. Buss uses an example of female executives or women in positions of business power. He observes that they tend to assert dominance by delegating tasks and facilitating group productivity even if it puts them in a position to perform a more “menial” task or if it allows another group member to perform a more dominant function. Buss also discusses the importance of self-esteem as an individual’s internal barometer in gauging social status, and he emphasizes the importance of belonging to a community in human evolution. In the past, ostracized individuals stood little chance of survival; acceptance in a community was vital. If females are able to manipulate social status by discourse, forming allegiances, speaking ill of others or praising others, and one’s social status affects resource allocation, then this non-physical method of establishing social hierarchy may very well be a form of social dominance and one that may be employed better by human females than human males. Certainly there are examples in the primate world. Female bonobos establish close friendships and relationships among themselves. These allegiances prove vital in times of change when individuals seek to establish rank (de Wall, 1997). Female humans may use similar means to a similar end–by making friendships and alliances with words or favors, they can determine who is dominant in a community.
In short: human males and females can express dominance differently so it’s not always clear cut to say one gender is dominant over the other (it would depend on the mechanism by which you define dominance).
Further more, there is an important cultural aspect to the expression of dominace and gender roles. We can identify a biological tendancy but can’t predict how or the degree to which it’s manifested in a group.
Buss, D. 2008. Prestige, and Social Dominance, In: Evolutionary Psychology, New York: Pearson. Pp. 355-382.
Jenks, S.M., Weldele, M.L., Frank, LG., Glickman, S.E. 1995. Acquisition of matrilineal rank in captive spotted hyaenas: emergence of a natural social system in peer-related animals and their offspring. Animal Behaviour, 50: 893-904.
Parish, A. 1994. Sex and food control in the ‘uncommon chimpanzee’: how Bonobo females overcome a phylogentic legacy of male dominance. Ethology and Sociolobiology, 15: 157-179.
de Waal, F. 1997. Who’s the boss? In: Bonobo, the Forgotten Ape. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 72 – 85.