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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