Where Women Are More Competitive Than Men

A field experiment in a matriarchal society proves that the drive to compete is not just biologically determined

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A Khasi woman sells fruits and vegetables on the Guwahati-Shillong highway in Meghalaya, India on September 28, 2013.

The sign on the road leading to the city of Shilong in the Khasi hills of northeast India had a puzzling message: “Equitable distribution of self-acquired property rights.” We asked Minott, our driver who had met us at the Guwahati airport, what it meant. A short, skinny, grinning 28-year-old, he spoke seven dialects and reasonably good English. “I do not work in the rice fields, like most men of my tribe,” he told us proudly. “I work as a translator. And a driver. And I operate a gas station in my sister’s house. And I trade goods at the market. You see! I work very hard!”

We nodded in agreement. He certainly seemed like a natural-born entrepreneur. In the U.S., Minott would undoubtedly have operated a successful franchise, or even, given the blessing of a good education, a Silicon Valley–style software startup.

But Minott’s life was constricted. “I can’t get married,” he sighed. When we asked why, he explained that, as a Khasi man, he would have to live either with his sister or with his wife’s family, and he did not want to do that. He wanted to have a house of his own, but this was impossible in his society. He was not allowed to own property. Many of the things he wanted to do required his sister’s permission, because in the matrilineal Khasi society, women hold the economic power. Even the most able, enterprising men, like Minott, are relegated to second-class citizenship. The sign on the road, Minott explained, was part of a nascent men’s movement, as the men in Khasi society began to articulate their resentment over being treated as “breeding bulls and babysitters.”

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It was clear we were in a parallel universe — and we were thrilled. In fact, we had journeyed to this matrilineal region as part of a large-scale field experiment we had designed in order to help us solve some of the most vexing economic gender questions in Western society: Do women make less money and occupy fewer management positions than their male counterparts because they are innately less competitive? Or do societal influences play a vital role in our competitive inclinations?

There was only one way to find out the answers to these questions. We had to get away from Western society. With support from the National Science Foundation, we set out to test assumptions about biologically based competitiveness in two of the most culturally different places on the planet. We conducted experiments in one society in which women held virtually no power, and in another in which they ran the show. In the process, we were able to develop scientific experiments that permitted us a unique glimpse into women’s behavior in markets across extremely different societies that held women in diametrically opposite roles. In exploring the underpinnings of their behavior, we learned that not all women from every walk of life are less competitively inclined than men.

With the help of some anthropologist friends, we identified two polar-opposite tribes — the ultra-patriarchal Masai tribe of Tanzania, and the matrilineal Khasi of northeast India. Our goal was to compare the way men and women in these tribes competed under the same experimental conditions.

We started in Tanzania on the plains below Kilimanjaro with proud Masai tribesmen, dressed in brightly colored robes and carrying their spears, follow the calling of their cattle-herding ancestors. The Masai culture is very patrilineal. The men, who tend not to wed until they are around 30 years old, marry women who are in their early teens. If you ask a man, “How many children do you have?” he will count only his sons. Women are taught from birth to be subservient. A wife is confined to working in her home and her village. If her husband is absent, a woman must ask an elder male for permission to travel, seek health care or make any important decision.

We invited Masai men and women to take part in our experiment. Participants, two at a time, were invited to step over to a private place where a member of the research team waited for them. They were told the task involved throwing a tennis ball into a bucket from a distance of about 10 ft. Each participant would get 10 tries to land the ball in the bucket. We next asked the villagers to choose one of two payment options: in the first option, participants would receive the equivalent of $1.50 — a full day’s wage — each time they landed a ball in the bucket. In the second option, they would receive the equivalent of $4.50 for each successful pitch, but only if they were better than their opponent. If both participants succeeded the same number of times, they would both get $1.50 for each success. But if their opponent proved more apt, they received no payment for the experiment. That is, we asked the participants to choose between two options: one in which their payment depended only on their success, and one in which they would compete with someone else.

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The result? Fifty percent of the Masai men chose to compete, whereas only 26% of the women did. Interestingly, this result is strikingly similar to that of the men and women we studied in the U.S. and other Western countries.

The next stop in our experiment was the matrilineal society of the Khasi — where we were greeted by Minott, the friendly driver — in northeast India. As we described, life is considerably better for Khasi women than it is for their Masai counterparts. The Khasi are one of the world’s few matrilineal societies; inheritance flows through mothers to the youngest daughter. When a woman marries, she doesn’t move into her husband’s home; rather, he moves into hers (and out of his mother’s). The mother’s house is therefore the center of the family, and the grandmother is the head of the household. Khasi women don’t do much of the farming, but as the holders of the economic power, they wield a great deal of authority over men.

We conducted ball-throwing experiments identical to those we conducted in Tanzania with the Masai men and women. In this case, the results were flipped: 54% of the Khasi women chose to compete, whereas only 39% of the Khasi men competed. Khasi women were more likely to choose to compete than even the superpatriarchal Masai men. Generally speaking, the Khasi women behaved more like the Masai (or Western) men.

Of course, we looked at the behavior of women in a society unlike most others in the world. But that was the point: to strip away, as much as possible, the cultural influences of a patriarchal society. Our study suggests that given the right culture, women are as competitively inclined as men, and even more so in many situations. Competitiveness, then, is not only set by evolutionary forces that dictate that men are naturally more so inclined than women. The average woman will compete more than the average man if the right cultural incentives are in place.

This distinction has implications for hiring managers, policymakers, business owners, educators and parents alike who want to increase diversity in the workplace, even the playing field for women in politics, increase sales to female shoppers or boost a child’s confidence on the soccer field. As unique and unusual as the Khasi are, they can help us focus more on the cultural and societal influences that hold women back instead of fixating on biological sex differences.

Adapted from the book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by Uri Gneezy and John List. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

 

14 comments
TruthDetector
TruthDetector

This is the most illogical pathetic article ever written. I doesn't deserve commentary accept that IF western women want the money and power fine, then give us their kids and be off to work as we'll receive the love...see how they like this. Disgusting!

xxxaudiophilexxx
xxxaudiophilexxx

Im from northeast India and this article is a FAKE, read 'theihep3' s comment to know the truth.

In short, Men work and earn for the family, Women look after the family and household. 

Unlike in the west where men and women compete at the work and leaves the child neglected at home, giving rise to a dumb generation.

theihep3
theihep3

I am a Khasi tribal woman and I disagree with Minott's story. Any man (or woman) in our society can own property if he can afford to buy it. he can have as many houses as he pleases !! It is not that the men can't own property!! it is just that (especially in the villages) , the property is handed down to the daughters as they are the ones carrying the family name. In the towns, most parents equally divide the property among the children!! Women may hold the economic power but that is only in the household, and often it is because most  husbands give  their wives salary  to buy whatever is needed in the house as they are too busy themselves working in the fields to look after other things.  When it comes to more pressing issues, it is the "Kni" or the male head of the entire clan on whose authority everybody relies. Even the major traditional practices and ceremonies are conducted by males  though women do play a part as well; the village head is always a male...and it is not always that any man who marries has to go and live with his in laws, most couples look for their own place to live. It is often the youngest who stays behind to look after the parents, though in the towns there is no such obligation... men are not treated like a  "nobody" as this guy seem to put it!!



XiraArien1
XiraArien1

Women don't need more female privilege. The already get all the breaks, while men are relegated to old-fashioned roles or they'll never find a mate. This is creating a generation of children raised without a father in the house because their women won't put up with a male who earns less than them.

With all these organizations dedicated to advancing women men are falling behind.

For every 2 men who graduate college, 3 women do.

Women now out earn men in the younger age bracket. (22-30)

There are almost 10 men in jail for every women, despite not committing much more of the crime.

If a 14 year old girl and a 14 year old boy have s--, the boy is the one listed as a s-- offender.

There are places in this country where 1/3 of the men are ineligible to vote because they are felons.

Women get the child in any divorce situation by default, and can usually get most of the money and a paycheck too.

If a woman doesn't want a child, she can abort it. If a man doesn't want a child, he has no say in the matter and the government will put him in jail if he doesn't submit to being used as an ATM for 18 years.


Women won. It's time to help out the men, who are the ones at real disadvantage today.

sixtymile
sixtymile

Is it possible that the results of this study show, more significantly, that the most successful social structures require both competitive and non-competitive roles? And also, of course, that the typical male-dominated solution is not the only option.

paf00757
paf00757

So throwing a ball into a bucket makes people more competitive? Perhaps the number of participants were disproportional in both tribes because they needed permission to help conduct the survey?

WienersPeener
WienersPeener

Give them clubs and let them beat each other. Last one standing gets honorary manhood.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Sorry , can't read the article , there's an advert in the way .

TruthDetector
TruthDetector

@xxxaudiophilexxx You are exactly correct.  The feminist movement has all but ruined our culture and the evidence abounds to attest to this fact

TruthDetector
TruthDetector

@theihep3 The family name is the mother's?  I have seen signs of feminism in India so "you go girls" and why not leave men alone with the children we are getting to love far more in any case than modern women.

TruthDetector
TruthDetector

@XiraArien1 Now this person speaks not only truth but facts.  The time is soon coming when women will wish they never heard the word feminism that has created this Even the Bible had it right where the woman wanted the tree of knowledge apple than gave it to Adam when they both fell from paradise.  It may be only symbolic but it is happening again before our pathetic western eyes.  My own Mom warned me this was coming in the 80s watching Oprah mouth off in her early years!

TruthDetector
TruthDetector

@sixtymile What a culture needs to realize is the dummies we are here in the west is when a woman is pregnant she needs to be helped, when she breast feeds she needs to be helped and so PEOPLE WAKE UP the man cannot get pregnant nor breast feed so he is naturally the provider outside of the DAM HOME!  God a simpleton can see this but BUT, High Technologies have screwed the families and the Environment plus GOVERNMENT soooooooooooo corrupt caters to the lobby groups like feminists and lazy Unions and so Family businesses, farms, churches, family life and everything naturally good about life goes down the shoot. The west is on its way to total destruction as a result and I pray that third world nations will not go the same route cuz they will regret they ever knew western society as it stands since roughly the late 60s with sex, drugs R & R, the PILL then feminism the final killer!

TruthDetector
TruthDetector

@paf00757 You don't even have to worry about the logistics of this moronic article.  Just read what is written above about different anatomies created by the creator who has to be shocked with the way we have twisted ALL Natural Laws into a hell on earth and it is about time Politicians shut the hell up and churches SPEAK OUT on this topic of women vs men cuz it is sickning and awful.  Since when were we placed here on earth to COMPETE?!?!  Awful!

TruthDetector
TruthDetector

@XiraArien1 Best reply by farrrrrr.  If people cannot read what you have written and accept this as gospel than they are LYING to themselves and God will deal with that.  Thank you as you give me hope