Are Men Really More Competitive Than Women?

The conventional wisdom holds that men and women have different abilities when it comes to competition (a view that’s certainly being challenged in the current Democratic primary). Labels like “lacking the killer instinct,” “peacemaker,” and “avoiding confrontation” are commonly assigned to women in competitive environments, while the supposed male knack for thriving in competition is cited as a reason for the persistent wage gap between the sexes.

But is an enhanced or decreased competitive drive a result of biology, or simply a culturally instilled trait? University of Chicago professors Uri Gneezy and John List and Columbia professor Kenneth Leonard performed a controlled experiment to test this question, and published their results in the new working paper, “Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence From a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society.”

Their method consisted of studying two distinct social groups: the Maasai in Tanzania, a “textbook example of a patriarchal society” in which women and children are considered “property,” and the Khasi in India, who are matrilineal, meaning female-dominated through inheritance laws, household authority, and social structures — though still distinct from “matriarchal,” since, as the authors point out, “the sociological literature is almost unanimous in the conclusion that truly matriarchal societies no longer exist.”

Gneezy, List, and Leonard tested the competitive drives of 155 subjects, male and female, by gathering groups of men and women from both tribes, offering them money in exchange for participation in an experiment, separating them into individual rooms, and then giving them tasks like tossing a tennis ball into a bucket 10 times. Each subject was told that he or she was competing against an unnamed rival in another room, and was given a choice of payment options: receive either a) “X per successful shot, regardless of the performance of the participant from the other group with whom they were randomly matched;” or b) “3X per successful shot if they outperformed the other participant.” Their results are summarized as follows:

Our experimental results reveal interesting differences in competitiveness: in the patriarchal society women are less competitive than men, a result consistent with student data drawn from Western cultures. Yet, this result reverses in the matrilineal society, where we find that women are more competitive than men. Perhaps surprisingly, Khasi women are even slightly more competitive than Maasai men, but this difference is not statistically significant at conventional levels under any of our formal statistical tests.

While plenty of studies have contrasted the competitive drives of men and women, few, if any, have isolated subjects who’ve spent their lives blissfully free of Western (and Eastern, for that matter) cultural biases about gender. Now if we could only test how the Khasi women fare in corporate law firms


Inasmuch as I've thought of this topic, I've always considered women more driven and competitive than men. Maybe it's because I've grown up in our modern era, with women outperforming men in most subjects at school and with very athletic and dedicated female relatives.

Tim Harford's book touches on this a bit.


This experiment seems to be a bit controlled. The rewards are not really the rewards men seek in being competitive with each other.

Throughout most of history men have had to compete intensely with each other to have access to women. This is especially true in patriarchal societies. Acess to women were the true reward for power, money and influence. This makes sense given that men are the more genetically disposable.

It's not that women are less competitive, but the rewards (genetically and historically) for women entering into men's competitive fields were not as great. Women often competed with each other in terms of beauty (beauty products have been around since the time of cavemen and women) and getting the best mate.

The times have certianly been changing though. The reality is that there is still more rewards (namely women) for being a successful man than a successful woman. Men are still more attracted to beauty than power and it's going to be like that for a long time



One wonders if you (they?) don't have the causation backwards here. If we assume that being the sex that is "in charge" makes you more competitive, then we're still left with the question of why this is one of the few (only?) matrilineal societies. What happened in the past that led them to diverge from nearly all other societies?

However, if we assume the causation runs the other way - that being more competitive causes your sex/group to "dominate" (which certainly seems plausible in and of itself) - then that question is answered. Of course we're still left with the question of why the women in this society are more competitive than the men, but at least we can hope that genetics will explain it (e.g sort of like how baldness is more common in men then women, but women can still be bald, etc.).

Either way, this is an interesting result.


Speaking of competitive, I may be the only person on earth that knows (or has the politically-incorrect courage to answer the following question: "Why don't women rule the world?"

If I understand right, there's more women than men, they are every bit as intelligent, and so forth.

Are men keeping them down? Well, that a bit embarrassing, isn't it? If it is indeed the case, that means that here are these intelligent ladies who can't figure out how to get out of the box that us no-smarter-then-them men have crafted.

No, I'll tell you the reason (and if you'll read the blog associated with the "Celebrity Apprentice" show, it will hint at this also).

It's because women cannot get along with women.

That sounds totally sexist. Yet while there are surely many notable exceptions, that has been my observation from the fifth grade.

Fifth grade? Yes. That's when my teacher said that she would rather teach boys than girls. That made no sense to me, sine I would have figured that a female teacher would have preferred to teach girls. I asked why. The teacher advised that while boys can fight and quickly make-up, if girls have a run-in, they never forgive or forget.

Very simply, if you have a team made up of up-and-coming women...well, I need not tell many of you that that is a recipe for problems. They are every bit as competitive as men in such an environment, I believe. Yet let someone say something hateful or let them butt heads, and there will either be trouble then...or it will come back at some future point, served cold.

Men? Hey, we can fuss and feud like anyone else, but there is apparently some hard-wiring in us that helps us to move on without the desire to sabotage everything accomplished.

If we believe that Shakespeare had keen insight into humanity, then one need only read of Lady Macbeth or Henry VI's queen (Margaret) or Gloucesters wife (Eleanor) to see how competitive woman are...and how they have some difficulty tolerating another woman being ahead of them.

Now, this is certainly not a scientific theory...and yet, over and over, I see it hold up.

But if women ever get past this, enabling them to create effective networks of women (who in turn hire and promote other women), then we will see a true competition between the sexes. And I'm afraid the Amazon's will win!


Punditus Maximus

I'm actually pretty surprised by that. Neat.


I don't agree with the manner in which this study was conducted. The potential payoff for competing against the unknown opponent is much greater than the potential payoff of not competing.

It could just be that the dominant sex in either society felt obligated to pursue the greater expected payoff. The other group could have been more risk averse due to their position as the subordinate sex.

Wouldn't payoffs of X and 2X give us a better idea of competition between the sexes?

Mike B.

Like just about every study of "environment versus nature", I imagine that the authors of this work ignore this possibility: if the Maasai and Khasi consist of a fairly homogenous gene pool and have been patriarchal or matriarchal for a long enough period, perhaps genetic proclivities towards competitiveness have been artificially depressed (or heightened, as the case may be).

Was this possibility addressed? While the mating advantages for "competitive" women amongst the Khasi appear to be common-sensical, just how pernicious are the disadvantages suffered by "competitive" women among the Maasai?


My ex and I were hyper-competitive... I think I can fairly say that both of us are better off for it, and probably better off without each other. However, when she called and told be she was engaged, I was pissed. Not because I wanted her back... because that means she won the 'convinced some poor soul to marry me' competition. Its okay though, I'm confident I'll win 'driving a Porsche' and 'least dollars spent on therapy for my kids.'


See also Niederle and Vesterlund's paper, "Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?"

From the abstract: "Although there are no gender differences in performance under either compensation, there is a substantial gender difference when participants subsequently choose the scheme they want to apply to their next performance. Twice as many men as women choose the tournament over the piece rate. This gender gap in tournament entry is not explained by performance either before or after the entry decision."


Makes intuitive sense: If I'm offered a chance to play a game that I know is fundamentally biased against me, I will either opt out entirely, or, if that's not an option, do only the minimum required. If, however, I'm invited into a game that is biased in my favor, I'll kick a** and take names. My effort will be invested where it can reap the highest return.

Seems easily extensible beyond the context of gender.


Women compete for men too, you know. And all this 'througout human history' is ignoring what this paper was focusing on: that in different human cultures things are really different. There is no "througout human history" because some of my ancestors would have come from really different cultures, some of which were violent, some of them were peacefull, some were egalitarian, others were ranked. There are other ways to organize society other than how we do it, thats why you can't disprove this study by "visiting a pre-school".

Sou Mineiro

"Peacemakers - women":

Indira Ghandi - short dictatorship,
Maggie Thatcher - Malvina's war
Golda Meir - Yom Kippur war (or another one)

I'll hope that the above women are exceptions and that this list does not become longer ...


this post completely misses the point- it's all about ring finger/index finger ratio (duh)


Ask a room full of mommies the work vs. stay-at-home question. You will see "competitive."


Quite an intriguing insight, although I do wonder how representative this risk experiment is of risk in a business environment.


So what else is new? I teach in a small university that went from single sex (female) to coed quite a number of years ago. Competitive women have always given the institution a very female dominated culture.


Apparently those asking the question haven't been attending any preschooler playgroups lately.


Susmita Barua

From a woman's perspective, this is intriguing yet noy unexpected. In a patriarchal society women are turned off by the very word competition, since it puts them at psychological war or separation from the other individual. women by nature are holistic, caring and inclusive.

In a matrilineal culture, competition is just personal excellence, you are competing with yourself, wanting to do your best, without focusing on what other person is doing. I find this research interesting...


Although I have not read the entire study, it looks to me like they were testing something completely different than "competitiveness" in this study. As hinted at by Darshanand, they are testing either the potential to take risk or gamble, possibly due to the provider-type role. Mind you, that's interesting in and of itself. But to test competitiveness, I think a face to face competition with NO PAYOFF will tell a better result. I.e., the victor wins so-called "bragging rights" and the smugness of superiority, not 3X some value.

I find myself to be extremely competitive (moreso than i would like) when playing games or sports, but I am not a gambler and thus, in this scenario, I would take the easy money. Especially without having any idea who you are competing against. Is it a 90-yo senile person or basketball pro or Joe/Jane Shmoe?


Thanks for posting this paper. This is really great stuff, and I rarely think that about boring economics. If this is economics where do I sign up?