Sunday, December 07, 2008

More about gender differences and competition

One of the truisms of the neo-paleo-conventional wisdom on gender is that women are less competitive than men. They choose non-competitive activities when given a choice, and don't enjoy competition the way men do when they have to compete. They particularly don't like to compete against men.

So, is it true?

A couple of interesting studies casting doubt on this proposition:

Gender differences in preferences for competition may have a large cultural component. Among the Khasi, a matrileneal and quasi-matriarchal culture in India, women are more likely than men to select competitive tasks and environments.

Women's competition aversion may also be peculiar to activities in which men are commonly perceived to excel more than women. In other words, it may be related to "stereotype threat."

Is this the final word? Does this prove that there are no inherent differences between men and women in level of (and enjoyment of) competitiveness? No, of course not. It's just an interesting challenge to conventional wisdom.


SToby said...

You make it sound so logical that there are more individual differences than gender differences. However, while both individual and gender differences certainly exist, I have evidence the gender differences are not small. Like all humans, I've never been of the other gender, so saying anything about gender differences from experience is not possible.

However, once I had children of the other gender I had the opportunity to observe their behavior closely (and to monitor my own reactions). At a soccer game, I discovered just how big gender differences are. My 5-year-old female twins took the field on a coed team (management having discovered that at this age there is no difference in athletic performance). However, the twins, normally very energetic and at least one of them athletic, soon became uninterested in playing, just standing there watching as the ball went by, and moving away when the much more aggressive boys plunged into the melee around the ball. I discovered, even though I am no sports fan in general, that I was soon yelling and jumping up and down...demanding that they kick the %#$% ball and not stand there like idiots! One of the other fathers even said his little girl might as well take off her team shirt if she was going to hang back like that. It's also significant that these girls are prepubescent, and therefore we cannot attribute their behavior to hormones; it is an inherent feature of how their brains are wired.

Now I realize this evidence is not statistically significant in a sociological sense, it is anecdotal, but 2 out of 2 (100%) of my daughters did not take an active role in soccer -- in fact none of the little girls did even though they outnumbered boys on the team. It's also significant that their father found their performance frustrating (that's 100% of the men in the family) while their mother thought it was great they were getting fresh air and exercise.

In fairness, I should say I agree that there are certainly women who are non-nurturing and competitive, but those characteristics usually appear in different guises depending on gender (for women, less likely to erupt in physical violence). The "exception that proves the rule" is Danica Patrick, in IndyCar racing. She seems to fly into fits of rage when another driver balks her on the track -- to the point where security men have regularly had to hold her back from punching out one of her competitors when they pull into the pits. This is all the more ludicrous because she is reportedly rather a small woman and would certainly come off much the worse in actual fisticuffs.

Cathy Young said...

Hi, Steve! :) Good to hear from you.

Don't have the time for a long answer right now, but here's an interesting study that deals specifically with soccer players:

Do boys and girls view competition in different ways?

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