The New York Times: Women Do Like to Compete — Against Themselves

By Gray Matter

About 10 years ago, when we were both Ph.D. students at Harvard, we were invited to participate in an unofficial and largely secret wrestling tournament organized by a fellow student. The idea was to showcase a handful of competitive wrestling matches between graduate students in different departments to an invitation-only audience. Space and gym mats were rented, a referee and a master of ceremonies were appointed, and monetary bets were placed on individual matches. Each wrestler had his or her own costume, entrance song and fan base. Alcohol flowed freely among the spectators.

Neither of us remembers why we agreed to participate — we had never wrestled anyone before — but somehow we ended up there that night, and because of our similar height and weight we were paired to fight each other. One of us wore a sparkly gold leotard, and the other made her entrance to the “Rocky” theme song.

We were only acquaintances back then, and would have never guessed that all these years later, we would be professors collaborating on research about competitiveness in women. A recent study of ours, which will be published in May in the Papers and Proceedings issue of the American Economic Review, found that there are certain situations in which women can be just as competitive as men. This finding, we hope, will help alter some longstanding assumptions about women in the workplace.

For all the remarkable progress that has been made in increasing gender equality, women still earn significantly less money than men and remain markedly underrepresented in high-status, powerful positions. One of the reasons offered by economists and psychologists for why these disparities still exist is a gender difference in the willingness to compete.

Years of research suggest that men are more competitive than women. Imagine there is a task you must complete — a series of math problems, for instance — and you have to choose to be paid for your performance in one of two ways. One option is to be compensated for each individual math problem you solve (say, $1 per problem). The other option is that you enter a tournament in which you compete against another person; only the person who solves the most problems receives payment for the number of problems solved — but it’s double payment ($2 per problem). Even when men and women perform similarly on the task, studies show, women are less likely to choose to enter the tournament.

This sort of finding has been replicated in children and in people across a diverse range of societies. One of us works with one of the last remaining populations of hunter-gatherers on the planet — the Hadza people of Tanzania — and even in their society, which departs greatly from ours in many ways, men tend to be more competitive than women. These results suggest that this sex difference may be a universal feature of our psychology and was, perhaps, even present in our early human ancestors.

Our research is concerned with understanding why women shy away from competition, as this may lead to potential solutions for increasing gender equality in the workplace. In our recent study, for which we recruited about 1,200 men and women and which was conducted with a graduate student, Elif Demiral of George Mason University, we wanted to see if women were just as competitive as men when choosing to compete against their own past performance. This is akin to shaving time off your last five-mile run or beating your last score in a video game.

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