Men compete harder against women than other men, according to an unsettling study of speedboat racers

Ready… set… go!
Ready… set… go!
Image: Wikimedia Commons
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There has been some progress in closing the gender pay gap across the world, but the World Economic Forum estimates it could still take 170 years to eliminate pay disparity between men and women worldwide.

Why does this disparity still exist? Experts attribute it to a number of factors: Among them, women are more likely to be working in lower-paid job sectors, tend to be less represented in senior roles, and more often work part-time. A new study has explored whether the gap is also due to gender differences in attitudes to competition or to risk.

A new working paper (pdf) analyzed how male-dominated circumstances affect women and men—by looking at speedboat racing, or the Kyotei. In the popular and tightly regulated Japanese sport, one of the few where gambling is allowed on site, male and female athletes are able to compete in the same conditions, with the same training.

Across the country, there about 1,600 racers, around 1,400 of them men and 200 women. Athletes are assigned to mixed-gender or single-gender races.

Men and women receive the exact same intensive training, according to researchers, and women are well-established in the sport. The first female racer was registered in 1952, the same year the Japanese Speedboat Racing Association was established. Formal training of women racers began in the 1980s—15 years before the 1997 Act on Securing Equal Opportunity and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment was amended to stop businesses from discriminating against women. In short, women were more equally competing in speedboat racing long before they were in any other labor market in Japan.

Researchers analyzed a total of over 15,000 women-racer observations and over 127,000 men-racer observations to see how the gender of competitors influences women’s performance. For a woman racer, her only competitors in women-only races were other women, while in mixed-gender races all or almost all her competitors are likely to be men (almost half of the mixed-sex races have only one woman competing with men racers).

The study’s findings revealed that women’s race times were slower in mixed gender races than in all-women races, but men’s race times were faster in mixed gender races than all-men races. Researchers found men to be more aggressive in mixed-gender races, despite the risk of being penalized, while women followed less aggressive strategies.

Researchers though it was of “great interest” that women performed better in same-sex environment than mixed-sex environment, in which they were the minority. Their findings could have important implications for male-dominated fields—such as science and the military—where men and women compete with one another.