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


"Blissfully free of Western (and Eastern, for that matter) cultural biases about gender."

Blissfully?! I am sure the Khasis have room for one more. Why not get up and move to the Khasi paradise?


Seconding comment number 10. The two peoples might not be genetically similar to every other group of people in the world. Assertive women may have started the society and their assertive female heirs may have been genetically selected along the way for success.

Joe D

If I understand correctly, matrilineal (inheritance *through*, but not necessarily *by*, the female) societies arise because there's never any doubt who the mother of a child is (a man's heir is his "sister's son").

Patrilineal inheritance will only arise when the society can have significant confidence who the father of any given child is.

Daniel Reeves

"Competitiveness" is certainly not the only factor. For example, men make up 92 percent of job-related deaths despite being only 54 percent of the work force. Physically demanding jobs are much pricier than standing behind a cash register.

It's interesting, too. When a man and a woman are comparable because neither have kids, neither have been married, both have had the same education, etc, the women tend to make more money. The social differences contribute greatly-- women are more likely to work part-time or not at all to manage a household (with kids), or they may not go to college expecting the man of the house to bring home the bacon. My question: how would this simply fact factor in while considering competitiveness?

I think it may be because men and women who are on an equal playing field are likely to be about as competitive already (or even more, which I'll get to), however there are discrepancies-- for whatever reasons-- in the amount of people who meet those credentials. For example, more women graduate from college, yet more women obviously take care of children than men (so they're probably only going to work part-time despite the college degree). The type of attitude that keeps a woman from conforming to these trends may play a prominent role in comparing "comparable" men and women. So the differences are definitely important even when you try narrowing everything down for a fairer comparison.

Just some food for thought.


Mike B.

HTB (#25), I have "assumed" nothing. I asked whether this possibility was even considered or broached. I would imagine it was not, because the possibility of cultures or societies nurturing or surpressing genetic dispositions has been a largely ignored topic of study.


Can we take this one step further: competitive nature as a social construct?



Gender-neutral task could be 'music'. I guess the Khasi girls are not doing that bad in that area. Check out Youtube's



I have to question how this measures competition. In reading about this throwing contest, I would assume it measures confidence in your throwing ability vs average persons throwing ability rather than competitiveness. I am rather competative against an opponent in tasks where I believe myself to be average or better than average, and not so competative on things I know I am worse than average.


Mike B. (#10): You've assumed without evidence that competitiveness is a single sex-linked trait. A genetically cooperative woman, crossed with a genetically aggressive man, does not necessarily produce a cooperative daughter and an aggressive son.

In fact, since we're talking about the interaction of multiple autosomal genes, it would be much more likely to produce two middle-of-the-road kids.


Not having read each and every comment, it occurs to me that the experiment is flawed. I suspect girls/women have less experience tossing a ball than their masculine counterpart. Try the same experiment with a "female" such as needlework and the results are likely to be reversed. Find a gender-neutral task and we may have something to discuss.


Many men and some feminists want to believe women are "better" more "caring" etc. : it, in fact, allows men to be transgressors if they feel like and maintain the laws that keep women's potential transgression in control

This is (in part) why this strain of feminism is powerful. Because it does suit men to believe women are "purer" than they are.

This is also why the masculinist movement will always be very tiny : men do not want to perceive themselves as victimized by women (who are supposed to be more caring, more holistic, more etc).


Neither gender is put at a disadvantage in multiple choice testing since all know the penalty imposed by guessing the wrong answer. Test takers who score the highest would appear to be better at calculating the risk / reward when guessing the answers and by evaluating the level of certainty they have in regard to the correct answer. It would not be wise to guess on a multiple choice question with four possible answers if the test taker has no idea of which answer may be correct as her/his odds are only 25% of selecting the proper answer. On the other hand if the test taker can eliminate two answers as incorrect and feels one of the remaining two choices is more likely to be correct, then guessing should be prudent as his/her odds would then be over 50% of being right.


Competition it's a funny concept, people are even competing within this debate inside the comments.
Finding people with the competitive spirit is a bit more challenging then just handing out money saying here let perform tests on you for this. It's eliciting a response for peoples greedy nature if anything.

I'd rather take the time find an equal grounds for competitive natured men and women, then find out in all honesty if this theory holds any water. In any case I do find the fact they made these groups act in a room without spectators, without an audience present how do you really expect to get accurate results?
If anything in the next Olympic Games research men and women's competitive drive there.

Every nation has someone one striving for the gold metal. People who dedicate the entire lives for the moment to out shine the other or just don't even consider the fact and still triumph. I think your method of obtaining accurate knowledge to back up your claim seems shoddy at best.