Are men more competitive than women by nature, or nurture?

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It’s no secret that the gender wage gap persists and is often underreported. In fact, new studies show women earn less than men, even in the fields where they outnumber men. Factors that contribute to the wage gap have long been in debate, including the suggestion that it is nature that makes men more competitive than women, which helps men earn better pay raises and more promotions.

But others suggest that it is nurture or culture that makes men more competitive than women. That’s what Alison Booth and Patrick Nolen, two economics researchers at the British University of Essex and Australian National University, set out to test in their experiment published in the February issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Booth and Nolen gathered students just under the age of 15 from single-six and co-ed public schools. They grouped the students together in a variety of arrangements and then gave them a series of maze-like puzzles to complete, occasionally introducing a monetary incentive. They wanted to see whether the gender ratio of the group, or the school the students attended, affected performance.

The results: Boys were more likely to be competitive than the girls,

but girls from single-sex schools behaved more competitively than girls who attended co-ed schools. Being in an all-girls group for a mere 20 minutes upped the chances that the girls would behave more competitively. This strongly suggests that environment, not nature, makes men more competitive than women.

Nature vs. culture

So what’s going on here? The researchers say other studies have shown women shy away from competition, citing one study that found women were twice as likely as men to choose a non-competitive situation when given the option. But is nature or culture to blame?

Booth and Nolen say both are at play: natural characteristics – like physical strength – might help make men more competitive than women, but the environment you’re raised in can “reduce or exacerbate gender disparities.” Psychologists have shown performance can be affected by cultural stereotypes and how a task is framed.

The researchers say girls who attended single-sex schools behaved more like boys, likely because “there is greater pressure for girls to maintain their gender identity in schools where boys are present than for boys when girls are present.”

Could a woman be more competitive than a man?

Girls who attend all-girl schools tend to be more competitive women / Photo: Shutterstock

But don’t up and move your daughter to a single-sex school to give her a competitive edge just yet.

Researchers caution that there are other advantages to co-ed education that outweigh the benefits of single-sex education, such as socialization and preparing boys and girls for mixed-gender colleges and workplaces. It’s just important to note that where your child goes to school and the classroom setting she’s placed in can affect how she behaves.

Need for a better balance

So should you be worried about a quiet daughter who shies away from competition?

Absolutely not, says Susan Cain, who published a book in January called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” In it – and her popular subsequent TED Talk, which has been viewed more than 2 million times – she explains how extroverts, who crave stimulation and are often more competitive, don’t always make the best leaders, though schools and workplaces are set up to favor them. Likewise, the factors that make men more competitive than women might not prepare them for the rigors of leadership.

One-third to one-half of the population is made up of introverts, who prefer quieter, more low-key environments, Cain says. Her research shows that introverts – among whom she counts Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak and Gandhi – though routinely passed over for leadership, are more careful and often more likely to encourage creativity, letting employees run with ideas.

“Culturally, we need a better balance, more of a yin and yang between these types,” Cain said in her TED Talk. “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

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