Anything You Can Do: Women Can Be Just As Competitive As MenS

New studies by economists show that across cultures, men aren't necessarily more competitive than women. Maybe it's time to lay this particular gender stereotype to rest.

Ray Fisman of Slate writes, "it's a classic stereotype, and not just on Wall Street: Men aggressively compete; women collaborate and nurture." And indeed, this gender-essentialist explanation gets trotted out to explain everything from the wage gap to the problems of women's professional sports. But according to economists, competitiveness may be (surprise, surprise) culture-dependent. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh gave male and female students an adding task, and told them they could win a monetary reward for each correct solution, or for beating other players in the tournament. Men were twice as likely to choose the tournament, despite the fact that they were no better at adding than women. But when economists Uri Gneezy, Ken Leonard, and John List (the last is referenced in Superfreakonomics) performed a similar experiment, using a ball-tossing game instead of adding, the results were more complicated.

Gneezy, Leonard, and List tested their game on members of the Maasai and Khasi ethnic groups. The Maasai, of Tanzania, are a patriarchal society, and as with the Pitt students, men showed greater competitiveness. But the Khasi of northern India are more matriarchal, with property passed down through the mother's line. Among them, women were in fact more competitive. Fisman writes,

If competitive instincts aren't hardwired into the male mind, there may be hope for us to find a balance between the Khasi and Maasai ways of socializing the next generation (though social norms are very slow to change). At a minimum, we can work harder to equip young women with the knowledge and skills to compete in what remains a man's world.

I'm not sure why it has to remain a "man's world," but it is interesting to note that competitiveness may be more a feature of social power than of gender. What this shows — beyond the fact that women aren't naturally shrinking violet — is that human behaviors are malleable. I participated in a lot of psych studies in college, and one of them leapt to mind when I read about the competition research. The study started out with a word search, in which I had to find a bunch of words like "adversary," "enemy," and "battle." Then I and a male student participated in a mock labor negotiation — I was management. I'm pretty pro-labor-union in general, and I also like to think of myself as fair and generous — right after the negotiation, I assumed we'd arrived at a just compromise. Then the researchers showed us what percentage of each of our goals had been met, and it turned out I'd wiped the floor with the guy. Much of this could have been coincidence, but I also realized later that the word search was a "priming task," and that I'd probably been primed to be a hard-nosed negotiator.

As Fisman notes, the financial crisis has called into question "whether all-out competition is the best way of managing our economy." And competitiveness may not be the best way to approach interpersonal relationships either. But one thing is clear: it can be learned. If we need to, we can teach girls be just as competitive as boys, but — again, as Fisman says — it might be a better idea to teach everyone to be a little more cooperative.

Are Men More Competitive Than Women? [Slate]