There's a study by Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling in the latest issue of Current Biology (volume 17, No. 16, p. R623) that purports to show that women prefer the colour pink compared to men. The authors explained this as a result of hunter/gatherer era distribution of labour. Women did the gathering and thus needed to pick out red berries from a green background, while the men were out killing stuff. This was picked up widely in the media (for example, there's a Times article here). As you might imagine, it has also caused some controversy, with the Grauniad's Zoe Williams imploring us to 'Stop this idiocy now!'. Nonetheless, I don't get the impression that anyone has actually read the paper. There certainly appears to be no considered evaluation of the research methods employed in the study in Williams's diatribe. So, using my academic ninja skills, I looked up the paper and read it. I recommend this approach to any science journalists.
The research methodology of the paper seems to be sound. Essentially, the authors of the study got a group of men and a group of women, a total of 208 people. The subjects "used a mouse cursor to select, as rapidly as possible, their preferred color from each of a series of pairs of small colored rectangles presented sequentially in the center of an otherwise neutral CRT display." The results were quite striking, with women clearly having a preference for pink hues with respect to men. Interestingly, the differences for a Han Chinese sub-group were much less pronounced. Anyway, so far so good. Conclusion: Women like pink hues more than men do.
So why do women prefer pink? The authors write 'We speculate [my emphasis] that this sex difference arose from sex specific functional specializations in the evolutionary division of labour'. They go on to propose that the difference might relate to women gathering red berries, or the need for women to notice subtle changes in skin colour in 'their roles as care-givers and empathizers'. As evidence for this speculation, the authors employ something called the Bem Sex Role Inventory, showing that masculinity and femininity correlate with colour preference. What on Earth is the Bem Sex Role Inventory? It turns out that this works by asking the subject how they rate themselves against a list of 60 adjectives. 20 of the adjectives are 'desirable for men' (e.g. assertive, independent, analytical), 20 are 'desirable for women' (e.g. loyal, warm, shy) and 20 are 'gender neutral' (e.g. happy, tactful, jealous). People are asked to rate themselves for each adjective on a 7-point scale. Clearly, as scientific methodology this leaves a lot to be desired, and it seems to me that this is just testing cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity. I'm not convinced that it backs the authors speculation that innate biological factors account for sex differences in colour preference. In fact, the authors are quite careful about this, and state that 'while these differences may be innate, they may also be modulated by cultural context or individual experience. In China, red is the color of ‘good luck’, and our Chinese subpopulation gives stronger weighting for reddish colors than the British'. This doesn't seem to be reflected in any of the media stories about the research, which is what happens when you get reporting by press release. Anyway, in my opinion, the research can't distinguish between innate and cultural explanations of the observations, and the stronger preference for red hues among the Chinese subjects certainly seems to suggest that cultural factors are important.
So, what have we learned? Well, we've learned that women prefer pink hues in comparison to men. But I don't think we've learned why. So, when Williams says 'Humanity has nothing to gain from research into whether females prefer the colour pink', is she right? I don't think so. We've learned something, and for that reason alone I think the research is valuable. And if we can say something definite about the reasons for the differences found in the paper, we can say something about our society and why it works in the way it does.