Sex Disparities in the Workplace: Is Competitiveness to Blame?

It’s no secret—across many cultures, men and women aren’t equal in the workplace. Men are more likely to hold high positions, and earn higher salaries than their women counterparts on most rungs of the corporate ladder. A study performed by Drs. Corin Apicella and Anna Dreber, published in this September’s issue of Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, suggests that that some of these workplace disparities may exist because men are more willing to engage in competition than are women, though this willingness to compete may differ depending on the type of task.

Participants were all members of the Hadza hunter-gatherer group, which is a group living in remote areas of Tanzania. The Hadza population is often studied when determining whether certain psychological traits, like mate preferences or competitiveness, may have been present in our early ancestors.

Participants engaged in 3 different tasks: a gender-neutral task, a female-centric task, and a male-centric task. Results suggested that:

“Hadza boys and men are more competitive than Hadza girls and women. This difference, however, is only significant for the gender-neutral task (skipping rope) and the male centric-task (handgrip strength)”.

However, when it came to actual performance,

“Boys and men are significantly more competitive than girls and women in skipping rope, even though they perform equally well when it comes to both practice jumps and actual performance. The sex difference in competitiveness found for handgrip strength, with men competing more than females, is less surprising since men are typically stronger than women.”

In the female-centric task (bead collection), women performed better on the task than men, but they did not display significantly different levels of competitiveness than men.

The sex differences in competitiveness observed in the Hadza population across all age groups, though only present in certain tasks, tend to support the idea that

“Financial and labor outcome disparities… may, in part, result from sex differences in economic preferences such as willingness to compete.”

While we have previously assumed the existence of evolutionary sex differences in competitiveness in humans, these assumptions have come largely from work done in nonhuman primates. Some prior work in humans has suggested sex differences in competitiveness, though Apicella and Dreber provide us with some of the first data on these sex differences across different task types.

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