What Women Want To Compete

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Written by Alessandra Cassar - Professor of Economics at University of San Francisco

My experimental work probes the hypothesis that women have a naturally lower desire to compete than men, an idea widely embraced by economists and offered as an explanation for why women are a minority in high-ranking economic and political positions.

Contrary to this idea, recent advances in evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology have highlighted the evolutionary significance of female competition. These groundbreaking studies have indicated that there is no convincing evolutionary reason to support the idea that selection pressures for females should have resulted in overall less competitive traits, but rather that the different sexes have evolved to pursue different competitive strategies with females reserving their most intense competitive behaviors for the benefit of their offspring.

The initial research of my team and I demonstrated that by substituting the tournament reward traditionally used in the experiments with an equal value voucher intended to benefit the winner's children brings the level of mothers' competitiveness to the level of fathers’, even when a gap is found using cash incentives.

In my current work, I further explore the idea that the incentive structure of the games used to elicit gender preferences may be especially tailored to register a trait the way it is expressed in males, leaving out important features that matter to women.

Specifically, I look at the costs and benefits of reaching high status and point out important sex differences, arguing that men’ strategies have adapted from situations of clear winners and losers (they get more opportunity at reproductions). Women, on the other hand, would not find such strategies suited to their goals. Instead, if the incentives to compete are socially-oriented, as when the incentives to winning include the possibility to share some of the gains with the losers (hence avoiding some of competition’s costs – losing potential mates and allies) women will reveal competitive traits similar to men.