Cooperation and conflict: The behavioral ecology of the sexual division of labor


  • Rebecca Bird

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    • Rebecca Bird is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. Since 1993, she has been involved in a long-term, cooperative ethnographic and archaeological research project investigating marine subsistence and its role in social life among the Meriam. Her dissertation work focused on evaluating and testing hypotheses to explain sex differences in marine foraging strategies.


When it comes to subsistence, men and women in almost all societies do it differently. One long-standing explanation for this sexual division of labor is that men and women pair up to provision offspring and specialize in subsistence activities in order to maximize household productivity. This model of cooperative parental provisioning has generally been supported by the proposal that both male and female reproductive success is maximized by provisioning current offspring rather than deserting them in order to seek new mating opportunities. But recent analyses of bird behavior have often failed to support this premise. We now know that among many species conflicting reproductive strategies between males and females often result in less than optimal compromises with regard to mating and parenting. This new focus on the role of sexual selection in creating compromise and conflict between the sexes has the potential to illuminate many puzzling aspects of human partnerships between men and women. To demonstrate its potential, I compare the explanatory power of a cooperative provisioning model of sex difference in human foraging and food sharing with a model incorporating conflicting reproductive goals.