But a new study suggests that women can be just as competitive as men -- if they have the right incentive. Although they shy away from going up against men and other women when money is at stake, they are just as eager to face off when the payoff is a bookstore voucher for their children.
The difference could be that it is more socially acceptable for women to show their competitive streak for their children than for money.
"For women, we always have to manage our image. We don't want to be seen as bossy but we can compete for children or other people because that does not lower our image," said Alessandra Cassar, professor of economics at the University of San Francisco, and lead author of the study
that was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cassar and her colleagues carried out their work in a group of 185 mothers and 173 fathers living in Shanghai, China. Their children were in middle school or high school. The parents completed several rounds of arithmetic tasks and had the option of receiving a small compensation for each correct answer. Depending on the round, it was either cash, the equivalent of about 30 U.S. cents per answer, or value on a book voucher they could use to buy textbooks or learning aids for their children. Alternatively, parents could choose to play against an opponent and double their compensation per correct answer. But if they did not beat their opponent, they got nothing.
The researchers found that, when the cash prize was at stake, 26% of mothers chose to go up against an opponent compared with 36% of fathers. However, the same number of mothers and fathers, 31%, decided to go double or nothing for the book voucher.
When just as many women as men took the chance to compete, the result was that women were slightly more likely to win (53%) the competition than men. But when the prize was cash and women participated less in competition, they only won 45% of the time.
"If we apply this knowledge to the workplace, we can create different incentives," Cassar said. Women may be less likely to vie for high-powered jobs with big salaries, but they would go up against men and other women for jobs that offer child care on site or scholarships to good schools, she added.
"(Employers should) be creative so women will compete and high-ability women will take over, and overall the economy will be better off, not just because we would have the diversity but also because there would be more ability," Cassar said.
Although it is unclear if women in the United States would also step up their competitive game if the incentive helped their children, like the Chinese women in the study did, Cassar thinks the same phenomenon would happen the world over. "This is a universal thing in terms of what is socially acceptable to compete for," she said.
Moms fight for kids, dads fight for money
There are probably not any biological differences that make men more competitive than women, said Emily Amanatullah, a research scholar at Georgetown University's Women's Leadership Institute. "There are differences in social constraints on women, and if those are alleviated, you see women acting just as competitively as men," added Amanatullah, who was not involved in the current research.
Social constraints could hold women back from competing for things that would benefit her rather than someone else, Amanatullah said. Her research
has found that women negotiate for lower salaries for themselves, and worry about seeming too pushy, as opposed to when they negotiate on behalf of a friend.
"When we see women fulfilling the role of supporter, aggressive behavior is accepted and there is no social backlash whatsoever, like a mom storming into a principle's office to fight for her child. But going into her boss' office and asking for a raise is something she shouldn't do," Amanatullah said.
The lesson is that women who act aggressively on their own behalf should beware the social backlash, which could come in the form of being seen as unlikable or less capable, as research
has suggested to be the case, Amanatullah said. "Women intuitively understand this" from a young age, she added.
However, the gender differences in competitiveness could have more to do with deeply engrained male motivations, said Moshe Hoffman, a research scientist in Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics.
"Men evolved to be more competitive over resources that could be used to obtain mating opportunities, like money or power or food. But this wouldn't apply to resources, like educational books, that can only be used to benefit their existing offspring," said Hoffman, who was not involved in the current study.
Do moms care more about their children than dads do?
The new study reports that just as many men as women were willing to compete if it could help their child. However it does raise questions about why the men in this study were more eager to compete for the cash reward than for the book voucher, whereas the reverse was true for women.
"Women do a lot more for their children, I don't know if it is nature or nurture ... but whether that means women care more is the million dollar question," she said.
Cassar and her colleagues are getting ready to do experiments in Brazil and Italy to test how willing women and men are to compete for incentives that benefit their child compared with their whole family. The research could help answer whether women are more inclined to help others in general or if there is something special about helping their children.
Amanatullah said she does not think there is any reason to think women inherently care more about their children than men do. "I think (women) are maybe more socialized to think that they do and feel pressure to conform to that, (but) what we think of as gender differences are social constraints."