This is the study that definitely proves men aren’t born more competitive than women

Khasi women relish a challenge.
Khasi women relish a challenge.
Image: EPA/Harish Tyagi
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A memo circulated by a Google engineer decrying the tech giants’ diversity efforts as misguided ricocheted around the Internet over the weekend. The manifesto, which accuses the company of pushing its ideological biases on its employees, drew scorn almost everyplace it’s landed, and triggered a response from Google’s vice president of diversity.

The memo is illuminating, in part because it reveals how a segment of the tech industry still feels about the value and importance of diversity. It also demonstrates how biological determinism, the idea that human behavior is innate and rooted in evolution, remains a potent organizing philosophy.

The author, who remains anonymous, argues that the under-representation of women in Silicon Valley can be attributed to biological differences between men and women; that men are more competitive than women; and this is a truth “universal across human cultures.”

Except it’s not.

In a fascinating and ambitious 2009 study (pdf),  a team of economists from the universities of Chicago and Maryland set out to determine if competition was a function of nature or nurture, using a simple field experiment in two dramatically different cultures. One experiment took place among the Khasi people of Meghalaya, a region of northeastern India, where property and status is inherited through women, and men are expected to work on behalf of their wives and her family. The other was conducted in the Arusha region of Tanzania among the Maasai people, a strict patriarchal society, where women have few rights.

In both countries, about 80 men and women were asked to toss a tennis ball into basket about 10 ft away 10 times, and told they were matched with another, anonymous participant, also playing the same game. They were given a choice of a simple payment for the task—about 40 US cents—or they could earn three times as much if they beat they the other player. Among the Maasai, half the men chose to compete, while only a quarter of the women chose to. Among the Khasi, not only were the results reversed, but Khasi women were even more competitive than the Maasai men: 54% of the women opted to compete, as did 39% of the Khasi men.

Setting aside all the anecdotal evidence that women can be as aggressive as men—or more so—in a range of domains from sports to politics to business, the study seems to offer hard proof that competition isn’t based in biology, but culture. In a society where women control their community’s wealth, they’re more competitive then men.

Authors Uri Gneezy, Kenneth Leonard, and John List are quick to point out the limitations of study that looks at just two societies, and they note there are lots of factors that could lead to the Khasi’s matrilineal culture, including genetics that favor competition in women. But they do conclude “it is not universally true that the average female in every society avoids competition more often than the average male in that society because we have discovered at least one setting in which this is not true.”

Explaining away differences as biological is appealingly simple. It’s much easier to shrug off disparities in power and status as the fault of genes, than to confront the much more complicated reasons of customs, institutions, laws, and regulations that created them.