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Are Women as Competitive as Men?

It’s an old cliché that women only compete over men and beauty. But what about in the boardroom?

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” It’s one of Gore Vidal’s oft-quoted caustic aphorisms (yes, there are many) for unabashedly copping to the pernicious thoughts many of us harbor—and attempt to ignore. In a mere sentence, Vidal captures how jealousy and competition can slowly decay us. Nothing is quite as destructive, quite as paralyzing, to a writer (or anyone else for that matter), though knowing many of us corrode ourselves in the same acidity is a mild antidote. In what became one of her more famous Dear Sugar columns in 2011, Cheryl Strayed wrote to an author who echoed Vidal, “We are all savages inside. We all want to be the chosen, the beloved, the esteemed.” That goes for both men and women.

Women make up nearly half the American work force and 40 percent of the country’s primary household breadwinners. It’s safe to say workplace rivalry is as much a female matter as a male one. Yet, when it comes to competition, the focus continues to be on men, even where women are involved. Science says that when ladies compete it’s to land a dude or to look beautiful (to the same ends), rather than to, say, land a bonus or look professional. Call it the Cold War Fought By WomenThe New York Times did.

Last month The Grey Lady pounced on the latest issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, themed around female competition and aggression. Noting that female competition has been traditionally difficult to study “because it tends be more subtle and indirect (and a lot less violent) than the male variety,” the Times concluded that it comes down to how we look and who we like. As proof, a study was referenced in which female students reacted “with hostility” to a provocatively dressed peer. “The results of the experiment jibe with evidence that this ‘mean girl’ form of indirect aggression is used more by adolescents and young women than by older women, who have less incentive to handicap rivals once they marry,” the article read.

I concur that as a woman in her 30s, I have less incentive to act like a “mean girl” than I did as a kid and it is sort of because I'm married. Though that marriage is not to another person, but to writing. While as an adolescent I resented some peers for their clear skin and others for their boyfriends, now I’m often too busy writing hard to care (though I do find myself envying a beautiful sentence here, an attractive clip there). While The Guardian was one of the rare publications to criticize the Times for suggesting that women continue to fight over nothing more than girth and guys, I would go further to say that such superficial rivalries tend to give way to more professional (equally petty?) rivalries as we age. The same way they do with men. Or maybe that’s just me.

Lise Vesterlund, the University of Pittsburgh’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Economics, published a study in 2007 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which revealed that men and women at the same level do not compete at the same rate. Despite performing equally well on a given task, women were 45 percent less likely to compete than men (even if it afforded them a higher payoff). “Pretty much anywhere in the Western world when you run this study you get similar results,” Vesterlund told The Daily Beast. “The most able women don’t enter competitions as much as the most able men.”

I have noticed that my boyfriend enters more competitions than I do, but I always thought that was because I was disorganized. Vesterlund offered two other explanations for this disparity: men appear to enjoy “the thrill of being in competition” more and they also happen to be “substantially more over-confident” than women. “Women seem to be better calibrated than their male counterparts,” she concluded. So every time I compete with a male writer, that is simply an anomaly? Not quite. There is evidence that women become more competitive given the right circumstances.

A 2009 study conducted in the U.K. for Bonn’s Institute for the Study of Labor found that girls from single-sex schools—like me—were more competitive than girls from co-ed institutions. The authors theorized that in mixed schools girls were more likely to be pressured to maintain their prescribed gender roles. A study published by the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2007, which was conducted in South Korea, found similar results.“It’s not that women don’t want to compete, it’s not that they can’t compete, it’s that they don’t want to do it against the men,” explained Vesterlund.

But that theory doesn’t seem to hold up in matrilineal societies. Uri Gneezy is the Epstein/Atkinson Endowed Chair in Behavioral Economics at UC San Diego's Rady School of Management and co-authored The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. In a study published in the journal Econometrica in 2009, he compared the inclinations to compete in a matrilineal society (the Khasi) in India with those in a patriarchal society (the Maasai) in Tanzania. Using a simple ball-throwing experiment, he found that in the patriarchal society, men were much more competitive than women—a result that bolstered findings from the West—but that the opposite was true for matrilineal societies. “I wouldn’t say that there are no born gender differences, but culture is extremely important,” Gneezy told The Daily Beast.

Two months ago Gneezy published a follow-up study in The Review of Economics and Statistics, which revealed how our motivation to compete changes with age. He discovered that while the girls in matrilineal societies became more competitive after puberty, in patriarchal societies it’s the opposite. “You understand the roles of society much more when you’re in your teenage years,” Gneezy explained. “That seems to be driving what we observed.”

But a society doesn’t have to be matrilineal for women to be as competitive as men. In May, Y Jane Zhang, Assistant Professor in Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, released a paper illustrating how communist reforms may have narrowed the competition gender gap in China. She found that the women in the Han Chinese society—a traditionally secluded patrilineal community—who were forced into paid labor during the Communist reforms of the 1950s showed the same inclination towards competition as the women from the matrilineal Mosuo society. Both were significantly more competitive than the women in the patrilineal Yi society, which was not part of the reforms.

I did not grow up in a matrilineal society, but I did grow up in a matrilineal home. My mother was the primary everything, my father was secondary. While I may have been a “mean girl” as a teenager, I inevitably grew up and my ambitions grew with me—what may have once been sexual competition morphed into career competition. And with the end of men just around the corner, that’s a cold war increasingly fought by men and women alike.