Gender Differences in Competitiveness

… an Atlas concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105


Mario Lackner (reference below) summarizes the evidence on extent and implications of gender differences in competitiveness.

Lackner writes:

“The empirical literature regarding gender differences in competitiveness is rich and growing. Differences between the genders are found to be present in many different settings and environments, and are exhibited at different stages of the life span. The varying attitudes of women versus men towards competitiveness are seen as one viable explanation for multiple observed gender gaps, in particular when it comes to labor market outcomes. This gap in competitive attitudes, in combination with performance differences between the genders in competitive situations, can explain the well-documented under-representation of women in top-level and executive jobs. Women may not select themselves into these jobs, as they tend to exhibit a lower willingness to compete, especially when competing against men.

“Gender gaps in wages could also be partly related to a gender gap in competitiveness. Negotiating wages on the job or applying for a job with flexible wage schemes will demand a certain level of competitiveness, which will influence salaries later on in one’s career, irrespective of actual productivity. Indeed, there is evidence that women are somewhat reluctant and less aggressive when it comes to initiating negotiations or applying for jobs with negotiable salaries.

“Additionally, salaries for top-level jobs (e.g. fund managers) are often defined in relation to the performance of peers, which will benefit those who embrace the competition and perform well under competitive pressure.

“A large number of empirical studies present convincing evidence that gender differences in competitiveness are formed early on in childhood and are relatively persistent, exerting a profound influence on an individual’s future career. As such, obvious policy measures, such as quotas for certain job positions and job types, might not be the most efficient way to enact affirmative action policies to close the gender gap. Any fundamental policy measure designed to address this specific gender gap should be targeted directly at early childhood education, as well as the primary and secondary education systems in general.”

Evidence from distance running

Writing in The Conversation, Robert Deaner (reference below) describes how he has investigated psychological sex differences by studying competitiveness in U.S. distance runners. He writes:

“Distance running is ideal for study because the motivation to run varies greatly. While some runners are motivated by competition, most participate for other reasons, such as building social relationships, finding meaning in reaching their goals, and boosting their health and fitness. Distance running is also a great study subject because it is popular with both men and women, and the incentives do not favor men. There are, for instance, more collegiate athletic scholarships for distance running available for women than men. …

“In one recent study, we recruited over 1,100 varsity intercollegiate distance runners to complete surveys addressing their training, motivation and performance.

“Compared to men, women reported being less competitive, training less and wanting to train less. The women reported greater commitment to their studies. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that these sex differences were just as large among the fastest as among the slowest runners. That is, even the very best female athletes, the ones with full scholarships and realistic professional prospects, were still quite different than their male counterparts.

“In another recent study, we assessed the pacing of 92,000 runners at 14 different marathons. Although men and women both tended to slow their pace in the second half of marathons, this effect was stronger for men.

“The sex difference was especially pronounced when looking at runners who slowed by 30 percent or more – men were three times as likely as women to do this. These results indicate that more male marathoners undertake a competitive, risky pace. They begin at a pace that could lead to a superb performance, given their own talent and training, but one that also increases their chances of crashing or “hitting the wall.”

“Another study of ours focused on participation at track races and road races by masters runners, who are at least 40 years old.

“At road races, women comprised 52 percent of participants, but at track meets they comprised about 25 percent of participants. This pattern is remarkable because road races and track meets draw different kinds of runners. At road races, most runners have a recreational orientation, not a competitive one. This is revealed in how road racers answer questionnaires and in their generally slow performances.

“Track meets are different because, although they are not as popular, the runners who do show up almost always run fast relative to sex-specific, age-specific world records.

“The sex difference in participation at track meets indicates that the relatively small number of older competitive runners are still much more likely to be men than women. In this study, we also checked if the sex difference in track meet participation had decreased over the past 25 years, as it had for road race participation. We found that women narrowed the gap slightly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the sex difference has been stable since then.

“We have also found substantial sex differences in performance depth. For example, in a typical 5-kilometer road race, for every woman that finishes within 125 percent of the female world record, there are roughly three men who finish within 125 percent of the male world record.

“We have documented this pattern in hundreds of road races and also in large samples of high school, collegiate and professional runners. The best supported explanation for this sex difference is that more men are motivated to do the training necessary for fast performances. We have examined whether this sex difference is shrinking and, again, we found that it isn’t. …

“A vital question is whether the sex difference in competitiveness in distance running applies to other contexts and populations. This is a challenging question, and much research remains to be done.

“However, we recently reviewed the mounting research on sex differences in motivation and interest in sports besides distance running. This research fully supports our distance running results. That is, in the U.S. and all other known societies, males are, on average, more interested in participating in competitive sports, whereas there is no sex difference in the desire to exercise.

“Structural barriers cannot plausibly explain the difference in sports interest because we showed that the sex difference in sports participation is considerably larger, not smaller, in informal settings where there are no barriers. …

“A key question is whether the sex difference in competitiveness can be erased. This is, of course, a challenging question, but the existing research indicates that decades of expanding athletic opportunities for girls and women, although beneficial in many respects, have not decreased the sex difference in competitiveness.

“It may be that patterns of socialization for girls and boys are crucial yet beyond the reach of public policies. Another possibility is that the sex difference in competitiveness reflects, at least in part, innate predispositions that evolved in response to the different challenges men and women faced during our evolutionary history. …

“Among distance runners, men are, on average, more competitive than women, and there is no indication this difference is disappearing. This difference doesn’t make men superior to women, and it doesn’t make women superior to men. Different is different, and we should value and accept this diversity.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Gender Inequality (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


Mario Lackner (2016), Gender differences in competitiveness, IZA World of Labor, 2016: 236, at, accessed 13 March 2017.

Robert Deaner (2015), Distance running is a perfect lab to investigate whether men are more competitive than women, The Conversation, 25 March 2015, at Psychology Today, 4 October 2014, at, accessed 13 March 2017.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 13 March 2017.

Image: Robert Deaner (2015), Distance running is a perfect lab to investigate whether men are more competitive than women, The Conversation, 25 March 2015, at Psychology Today, 4 October 2014, at, accessed 13 March 2017.