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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