Women compete less than men (but why?)

After the intellectual draught that has been quarantine under Corona, I have finally managed to engage my brain cells and started reading "The Why Axis - Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everday Life" by Uri Gneezy and John List. I had already come across some of their work when I was working on my dissertation and tried to find economic literature on the differences between men's and women's behaviors. Gneezy and List spent their careers conducting economic field experiments, trying to understand the motivations and incentives that guide human behavior - such as the difference in competitiveness between men and women. 

They motivated their work by the desire to understand the persistent gender pay gap and the lack of female representation in both politics, and firms' board rooms.* A common argument in "explaining away" the gender pay gap is claiming that women are innately less competitive than men and thus shy away from highly competitive (and/or highly paid) positions such as politicians or CEO. In their book, Gneezy and List first seek out to establish whether this is actually true; are women less competitive in the job market? In one experiment, they posted job listings on Craigslist; one with hourly pay and one where employees would be paid relative to the performance of their co-worker (whichever employee performed better would be paid more). They find that men are much more likely than women to opt for the second option. These results and evidence from other experiments lead them to conclude that women tend to behave less competitively than men. 

To their credit, they don't just stop there and conclude that women are less competitive by nature (looking at you, Larry Summers). Instead, they investigate the nature vs. nurture hypothesis; are women "naturally" less competitive or is the entire world telling them from a young age - whether it's teachers, parents, social media, politicians, the toy-industry, social norms (I could go on for ages) - that iT's NoT LaDy-LiKe To COmpEtE. To test this theory they run a pretty cool experiment comparing competitiveness in the most patriarchal and the most matriarchal societies on earth. Armed with tennis balls, money, and some anthropologists they visit the Masai Tribe of Tanzania - a patriarchal society (I mean they could've just stayed in the U.S.) - and the Khasi society in India - a matriarchal society (where dreams come true). In the experiment, they asked the participants to throw tennis balls into a bucket. Beforehand, the participant could choose to get paid a set rate for each hit, or they could make some extra money if they chose the competitive option and performed better than their opponent. The results in the patriarchal society looked similar to the ones from the job listing; men preferred the competitive option, women the safer one. Cue the Khasi society, where women are socialized to be their society's leaders and providers. When they conducted the experiment in the matriarchal society, the results are reversed (surprise!). Suddenly, women were more likely to choose the competitive option. If women were innately less competitive, we would expect to see the same results for this experiment everywhere regardless of socialization. What this experiment suggests, and what many others support, is that from a young age women are socialized to be less competitive making them less likely to go for highly competitive jobs or negotiate higher wages.

So, what can we do about this? This is where the authors disappoint. Everything up to this point was evidence-based and rather carefully explained, but here they just make some vague statements. They suggest hiring managers should realize they miss out on talent by discriminating against applicants and need to change their hiring tactics and question their own biases. Fair enough. However, the authors also suggest whether salaries are negotiable or not women should just "go for it" as well as simply ask for more money, because "that's what men do". Hm. Is women asking for money and men asking for money really the same thing? Maybe, do hiring managers perceive one claim to be more legitimate than the other? Feminist philosopher and author of "Down Girl - The Logic of Misogyny", Kate Manne, frames misogyny as the policing system of a patriarchal society. Patriarchal culture and norms define how women should act in society; what they can and cannot do. In this system, a woman asking for money might be considered greedy or too ambitious, and ought to be "punished" (= not get the job) for diverging from patriarchal norms. Maybe, what Gneezy and List have understood as non-competitive behavior, could be strategic thinking? If I am a woman applying for a job with four other male applicants, do I really want to risk my chance at getting the job by asking for more money and maybe be considered too greedy? 

In the end, I don't know the answer to these questions, but neither do Gneezy and List. Or if they do, they should explain it rather than just assuming women's competitiveness in a patriarchal society would be equally accepted as men's.


* Actually, they say they have daughters and are concerned about the inequalities they face. I don't know whether this is storytelling or the actual motivation, but either way.... *sigh*. Personally, I think gender discrimination should be of concern to you whether you have women in your life or not, but let's not be too fussy.