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Competitiveness And The Gender Gap

Written by: Patricia Faust, MGS, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘testosterone’? Maleness? A manly man?! That is a valid response because testosterone is a steroid hormone that stimulates male secondary sexual characteristics – produced mainly in the testes. But here is a little twist that we don’t usually think of, testosterone is also produced in the ovaries and adrenal cortex. That means that both sexes produce testosterone. Other than a simple biology lesson, what is this all about? Testosterone responds to competition. Assumptions then are that men are more competitive than women – in athletics to the board room.

There has been a lot of discussion and research about the differences in brain chemistry between the sexes as it relates to competitiveness. Because men produce more testosterone, they are believed to be more competitive. Even though women also produce testosterone, it is believed that women are less competitive due to the greater effects of estrogen and oxytocin (the bonding neurochemical). Because this belief isn’t based on hard facts, the Stockholm School of Economics wanted to determine if men perform better than women in competitions. The research team wanted to examine whether gender differences are ‘hard-wired’ or biased by cultural norms. Seven to ten-year-old participants competed in traditional feminine and masculine activities. The results showed that across all the different activities, girls and boys were equally competitive. Professor Gina Rippon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Ashton University, wrote, “the brains of a newborn boy and girl are very similar. Any small differences in brain circuitry come through the ‘drip, drip’ of gender stereotyping, the result of environment, not biology.”

If men and women are more biologically the same than different, how did the gender gap start and remain entrenched in our society? How did it come to be that women are less competitive than men? Past research in this field points to evolutionary pressures, the domestic roles that women have traditionally played, and the patriarchal social order. These accounts suggest that men are more competitive because those payoffs of competition are higher for them. Other studies have linked the gender difference in competitiveness to men’s higher levels of confidence: Women shy away from competition because they are less likely to think they will win (Kesebir, S. November 06, 2019, Harvard Business Review).

Men’s beliefs about competition take a remarkably different turn. Harvard Business Review reported a study of 2,331 people (49% women, 51% men with an average age of 34), 63% of the women were less convinced than the average man that competition boosts performance, builds character, and leads to innovative solutions. This statistic reveals that men see more of an upside to competition than women. To draw out more information, this group of people was asked to participate in a different study where they could earn a bonus. They were asked by the researchers whether they would prefer their bonus be based on their competitive performance (how their performance compared to others), or their absolute performance (regardless of how others performed). They found that people with more positive beliefs about competition were more likely to choose the competitive bonus scheme. Of the women, 21% chose the competitive option, compared to 36% of men. Men’s higher level of competitiveness are partly explained by the more positive beliefs they hold about the outcomes of competition. (Kesebir, S. November 06, 2019, Harvard Business Review).

When women retreat from the competition, it has a cascade effect. They are less likely to apply for positions that require a competitive edge. And the underrepresentation of women in certain types of jobs reflects that belief. Top-level jobs with high salaries usually require a certain level of job-related competitiveness. The gender gap is not determined on this singular viewpoint about women and competition. Women might, on average, also get lower wages for the same type of jobs as men because they are less aggressive when it comes to initiating salary negotiations. Additionally, any on-the-job negotiations for a pay raise also demand a certain level of competitiveness. If women are less competitive during this critical salary or promotional phase, then this will ultimately translate into them receiving lower salaries than their male colleagues for the same types of jobs. (

It all comes down to this: A woman earns 83 cents of every dollar a man is paid. This stat has barely budged in decades. The persistent gap in average earnings suggests women consistently go into careers that pay lower salaries than those that men go into or are systemically underpromoted. High-risk competitive roles like managers and lawyers tend to come with lofty salaries. In the workplace, this difference translates to performance; recent research by economists and political scientists indicates that competitive people do better socioeconomically. (Kesebir, S. November 06, 2019, Harvard Business Review).

Women are equally as qualified and talented as their male counterparts. To level the playing field, women must be coached to understand their value in the workplace and be ready to compete with male colleagues for promotions. Women need to get past the barrier they create that they can’t win at the competition. The brains of women are quite capable of competing on that high level.

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Patricia Faust, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function, and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy.

My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach, and consult about brain aging, brain health, and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe, and Canada.

Patricia’s speaking experience spans the spectrum of audiences as she addresses corporate executives on brain function, regional financial professionals on client diminished capacity, and various senior venues concerning issues around brain aging and brain health.





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