Gender Bias Dates Back at Least to the Middle Ages

gender bias
Credit: Monica Duwel/WUSTL

According to new research from Washington University in St. Louis, modern gender norms and biases in Europe have deep historical roots dating back to the Middle Ages and beyond, implying that DNA is not the only thing we inherit from our forefathers.

The findings explain why, despite significant advances made by the international women’s rights movement over the last 100-150 years, gender norms have remained stubbornly persistent in many parts of the world. The evidence suggests that gender attitudes are “transmitted” or handed down from generation to generation.

Researchers discovered that individuals who live in areas where gender relations were more egalitarian centuries ago display more pro-male bias today than those who live in areas where gender relations were more egalitarian centuries ago. They used dental records from over 10,000 people from 139 archaeological sites across Europe.

Value Transmission Disruption

These biases outlasted massive socioeconomic and political changes like industrialization and world wars. Researchers discovered one exception to the rule: in areas where there was an abrupt, large-scale population replacement, such as a pandemic or natural disaster, the transmission of these values was disrupted.

“The median age of the skeletons in this study is about 1,000 years, dating back to the medieval era. It is therefore remarkable that the patterns of gender bias that existed during those times and earlier are still replicated in contemporary attitudes,”

said Margit Tavits, Professor in Arts & Sciences at Wash U.

Given the monumental social, economic, and political changes that occurred in Europe during this time, the findings speak to the importance of the cultural transmission of gender norms.

Gender Beliefs and Cultural Forces

The incredible stability of these norms over hundreds, if not thousands, of years, explains why progress toward gender equality has been difficult in some regions.

“There has been a widespread belief that gender norms are a byproduct of structural and institutional factors like religion and agricultural practices. Our findings draw attention to the fact that gender-equal norms passed down from one generation to the next can persist even if institutions or structures incentivize inequality and vice versa,”

Tavits said.

The research’s message to those working to promote gender equality is that rules and policies alone will not be enough to dismantle deeply ingrained sexist beliefs and sustain equal ones. We also need to address the cultural forces that are channelling these beliefs.

Linear Enamel Hypoplasias

Previous archaeological research has examined prehistoric gender equality using linear enamel hypoplasias, which are permanent lesions on the teeth caused by trauma, malnutrition, or disease. Because the lesions form only in cases of prolonged bodily stress, their presence or absence can reveal a lot about the person’s health and living conditions.

Furthermore, differences between male and female teeth in the same location indicate which sex received preferential treatment at the time in terms of health care and dietary resources.

Tavits believes that studying gender norms in Europe is advantageous due to the region’s relative similarity in various institutional and environmental conditions. This enabled researchers to account for factors such as religion and political institutions that may influence modern gender attitudes.

Historical vs Contemporary Attitudes

Because differences in gender attitudes across the continent are relatively small when compared to the rest of the world, this setting also raised the bar for detecting significant associations between historical and contemporary attitudes.

Nonetheless, researchers discovered evidence of this link time and again. For example, individuals in historically egalitarian areas were 20% more likely to have pro-female attitudes than those in historically pro-male areas.

Further tests revealed that historical gender bias did not predict modern gender attitudes among immigrant populations. Researchers also discovered no evidence of historical gender bias influencing contemporary attitudes in areas hardest hit by the 14th-century bubonic plague.

Finally, they turned their attention to the United States, where the arrival of European settlers in the 16th century resulted in the large-scale displacement of Native Americans. They discovered no correlation between historical and current gender norms.

Ancient Romania

Tavits, Damann, and Siow use two archaeological sites in their paper to show how the contrasting historical treatment of women versus men is reflected in current gender attitudes.

Researchers discovered evidence of a pro-male bias in historical dental records dating back to around 550 A.D. at the first site in Istria, a small urban Greek settlement on the Black Sea in Romania’s modern Dobruja region. Of the 49 skeletons for which sex and dental information could be extracted, 58% of females have signs of malnutrition and trauma in their teeth, whereas only 25% of males do.

According to the authors, based on modern indicators of gender equality, the status of men and women in society today remains relatively unequal in Romania’s southeastern region. For example, only 52.5% of women participate in the labour market compared to 78% of men, and only 18% of modern municipal council representatives are women.

They write that the population’s beliefs about gender norms are similarly unequal. More than half of residents believe that men have a greater right to work than women, and there is a nearly unanimous agreement (89%) that a woman must have children in order to be fulfilled.

Ancient Lithuania

Compare this to Plinkaigalis, a rural community in modern-day western Lithuania populated by Balts.

Unlike Istria, Plinkaigalis was concerned about women’s health. Of the 157 skeletons discovered at this site, which dates back to 550 A.D., 56% of males exhibit dental signs of trauma and malnutrition, while only 46% of females do. Separate studies have found evidence that gender norms in this country are favourable to women.

This location, now known as Kedainiai, is still relatively gender equal in the modern era. Western Lithuanian employment levels do not differ significantly by gender: 76% men vs. 72.7% women. Women are also nearly proportionally represented in local government (48%).

Similarly, less than a quarter of modern-day residents believe men have a greater right to work than women, and 56% believe women need children to be fulfilled.

“In sum, the parallels between historical and modern gender norms at both of these locations are stark and in line with our argument about persistence. The male preference at Istria, dating back at least to the early medieval era, is still reflected in unequal gender relations today. The area around pre-medieval Plinkaigalis, on the other hand, continues to treat men and women with relative equality as (according to skeletal records) it did about 1,500 years ago,”

the authors write.

  1. Damann, Taylor J. et al. Persistence of gender biases in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). 120 (12) e2213266120