Are Men Really More Competitive Than Women?

February 14, 2014

According to Caroline Spelman, ten times as many men as women apply to be a Conservative MP. Women comedians say they dislike the competitive one-upmanship of panel games and that that is one reason they’re so unrepresented on British TV that Controller Danny Cohen has had to lay down the law forbidding all male shows. Meanwhile, in the business world, women are still woefully unrepresented at the top level and on boards and even the Davies Commission – which included many women – went no further than to urge a goal of 30 percent representation.

So how come women don’t want to compete? That was one of the first questions I asked myself when I started out on my book surveying how competition really works.

It would be easy to conclude that it’s because women just aren’t as competitive as men. But it would also be wrong.

The first culprit usually cited is testosterone. But men and women both have basal levels of testosterone so the comparison isn’t clear cut. What we do know is that men’s testosterone rises on a challenge and again on winning, perhaps producing an affirming feedback loop. The same is not true for women. But since basal levels of testosterone vary significantly, it’s not at all clear that this would produce the overall effect of, say, the Tory front bench or a City board meeting, at which women are so strikingly absent.

Maybe competitiveness isn’t a physical feature but a social construct. That’s what thebehavioural economist Uri Gneezy asked himself – and he designed a cunning way to test it. If men were competitive in male-dominated societies, might not women be equally competitive in female-dominated societies? It isn’t hard to find patriarchies to thest the theory; Gneezy chose the Masai of Tanzania. It was harder to locate a matriarchy but Gneezy found one, the Khasi, in northern India. So he designed a simple game to be played by women in matriarchies and men in patriarchies — and guess what he found?

In Tanzania, more Masai men than women chose to compete, while in India more Khasi women than men chose to compete. Moreover, somewhat to Gneezy’s surprise, the Indian women turned out to be more avid for competition than the African men. In other words, coming from a culture in which they were accustomed to power and success, women were more than willing to enter the fray.

The problem isn’t, therefore, that women aren’t competitive. The problem is that, in our society, they’re smart and able enough to see that they’re unlikely to win. And who in their right mind would enter a contest in the belief that they’ll lose?

“It is evident,” Gneezy mused, “that while many well-performing female hurt themselves financially by shying away from competition, poorly performing males also hurt themselves by embracing it.”

The challenge for all the political parties, for television executives and executive recruiters everywhere, is to persuade women that they really do stand a chance of having their talents recognized. Anyone up for the challenge?

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