Why do women tend to make less money and occupy fewer management positions than men? Do social influences affect the competitive spirits – or lack thereof – women? Or could it be that women are simply less competitive than men?

With support from the National Science Foundation, Uri Gneezy Kenneth L. Leonard, and John A. List, set out to test assumptions about biologically based competitiveness in two of the most culturally different places on the planet: the ultra-patriarchal Masai tribe of Tanzania and the matrilineal Khasi people of northeast India. The researchers conducted experiments in both environments to see what they could unearth regarding the competitive spirit of women across extremely different societies that held women in diametrically opposite roles.

They started in Tanzania with the Maasai, where men, who tend not to wed until they are around 30 years old, marry multiple women who are often in their early teens and make all household decisions. If you ask a Maasai tribesman, “How many children do you have?” he will count only his sons. Women are taught from birth to be compliant, and wives are expected to work in their homes and villages. If her husband is absent, a woman must ask an elder male for permission to travel, obtain health care or make important decisions.

Here, the researchers invited 34 Maasai women and 40 Maasai men in two villages in the Arumeru district in the Arusha region of Tanzania to take part in an experiment. Participants, two at a time, were invited to step over to a separate place where a member of the research team waited for them. Participants were told that they were randomly matched with another participant (who they could not see) who was performing the same task at the same time in another area. They were asked to throw 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. Then, they asked the villagers to choose one of two payment options: they could either elect to play it safe and receive the equivalent of $1.50 — a full day’s wage — each time they landed a ball in the bucket or they could compete with their partner and 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. However, if their opponent was better at throwing the ball, they received no payment for the experiment. In the first option, payment depended only on their own personal success, but in the second option, payment hinged on how they well competed against someone else.

Not surprisingly, 50% of the Masai men chose to compete, while only 26% of the women did.

The Khasi, in contrast, are a matrilineal society, in which inheritance and clan membership follow the female lineage through the youngest daughter. Women do not leave to join the household of her husband’s family like in many cultures; instead husbands leave their mothers’ households to join that of their wives. Khasi husbands have no authority or property in the household. Family life, therefore, is organized around the mother’s house, which is headed by the grandmother. 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.

Again, the researchers conducted the same ball-throwing experiment with 52 Khasi women and 28 Khasi men in the Meghalaya region of India. Strikingly, the results were reversed: 54% of the Khasi women chose to compete, while only 39% of the Khasi men competed. Moreover, Khasi women were evenmore likely to choose to compete than the Masai men.

The study suggests that, given the right culture, women are as competitively inclined as men, and could even be taught to be more competitive. Competitiveness, then, is not an evolutionary dictate that pre-determines the behavior of men or women.

Some may argue that these two cases are extreme, and that gender disparities in other parts of the world, where gender norms are openly discussed, would produce moderated results. If that was the case, the gender differences ought to be smaller in countries such as Norway, which is ranked as the most gender equal country in the world, according to the UN's Gender Equality Index.

Unfortunately, though, that is not the case.

In a study of competitiveness, "Willingness to compete in a gender equal society," the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) in Bergen gathered 523 students from the ninth grade to take part in a research project at NHH's Choice Lab. Fifty boys and girls, around 15 years of age, who were not aware in advance that they were taking part in a study on gender differences, were invited to take the personality test The Big Five Inventory and complete some math exercises in which they could make money.

Just as the Maasai and Khasi, the Norwegian students had to make a strategic choice: play it safe or risk high rewards/losses. In the first round, they made 50 Norwegian kroner if they got as many points as the average. However, in the second round, they could earn one Norwegian krone for every correct answer— this is the safe choice— or three kroner for every right answer if they found a better solution to the exercises than the average. If they didn’t find a better than average solution, they got nothing.

Unlike other geographical regions, there are no gender differences when it comes to the students' belief in their own skills in Norway, but once again there was a stark difference in competitive drive. Among the boys, 51 per cent chose the competitive alternative but only 31 per cent of the girls did the same.
These studies indicate that culture— not biology— is a decisive factor in determining how competitive an individual becomes, and that not all women from all walks of life are less competitively inclined than men.

This distinction has implications for hiring managers, policymakers, business owners, educators and parents alike who want to increase diversity in the workplace, level the playing field for women in politics and management, or improve the gender balance in an array of settings.

There are dramatic gender differences among the top executives around the world: women currently hold just 20 (4.0%) of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, and now we can say that this discrepancy is not due to an inherent lack of competitiveness among women, but perhaps a socially constructed lack of it.

While encouraging females to be more competitive- in isolation- is probably not a ticket to greater equality or inclusivity, the idea that competitiveness is learned bears some thought because it reveals that societies are both subtly and overtly teaching females to behave and approach risk in certain ways— and this we have the power to change.