Gender wars: women just as competitive as men

It is something of a truism to say that men are competitive and women are co-operative in life and work. But a new study from Harvard Business School challenges this received wisdom.

Research examining how men and women respond when competing or co-operating on a given task indicates that male and female performance appears to be strongly linked to the gender of their opponent.

“There is a strongly held assumption that men are competitive and women are not, but our results show otherwise,” says Kathleen McGinn, a Harvard academic who ran the project.

The experiment worked by giving participants pseudonyms, with men being given obviously male names (such as John) and women obviously female (such as Jennifer). The participants were paired in different gender combinations in a number competitive and co-operative scenarios with no one knowing the real identities of their opponent apart from their gender.

Previous studies along these lines have indicated that men perform better in competitive situations, but the new findings showed no difference between the sexes.

The question is, why?

“At this point we have more questions than answers,” says Pinar Fletcher, a HBS doctoral student working on the project.

Tasks were also chosen to reflect those that are historically easier for either gender, such as verbal tests for women and maths for men. Both genders scored slightly higher on these tests, but both scored better when teamed with someone of their own gender, except for men on the verbal test where it had no impact.

Researchers ascribe this to “homophily”, a tendency to feel more comfortable and perform better with your own gender.

The team behind the plans now want to expand their research to better understand how people choose partners for a specific task and the impact it has on team performance. They hope their findings will give organisations greater insight into the part that gender plays in the composition of successful groups and the perception of a task being more “male” or “female”.

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.