From Birth, Boys Are In It To Win It. And Girls?

Boys are hard-wired to be more competitive right from the start. Where does that leave girls…and women?

I ‘m both amused and mildly horrified by the Wal-Mart’s “Running Shoes” commercial. It shows a band of kids dashing across a lawn in search of Easter eggs. A little boy pulls away from the pack. Amazed moms watch him fly by. He finds the first egg. He wins! 

Amused, because Easter egg hunts so quickly deteriorate into yet another candy competition – Halloween in prettier clothes. And horrified, because the ad so neatly encapsulates gender stereotypes: the cute white boy gaining an early and decisive lead. The frustration on the faces of the other kids who can’t figure how he got ahead of them so fast. The female audience. The winner-takes-all message.

Sad to say, Wal-Mart got it right, anthropologically speaking.

A report released in at a recent scientific conference in Europe found that boys are hard-wired from the start to be more competitive than girls. Boys are in it to win it, no matter what ‘it’ is.

In “Gender Differences in Competition Emerge Early in Life,” German researchers Matthias Sutter and Daniela Rutzler postulate that figuring out how boys and girls are programmed for competition can help us adjust workplace practices accordingly.

They constructed two different experiments for two different age groups, to equalize for skills and socialization. Here’s what they found:

  • At age three, boys emerged as more competitive and that gap never closes with age.
  • Boys gravitate toward more competitive options, given the choice.
  • If we want equity for working women, we have to figure out either how to encourage girls to compete, or…
  • We must look to outcome-driven programs, such as quotas.

Well, we all know what a capitalist society goes for: it’s a boy’s world, so women had better learn to operate in it.

But there’s one big factor that can make a difference: rewards. Outside the lab, rewards make a huge difference. Speaking in gross generalities, women like to collaborate to win and divide a big reward. Men like to compete to gain a big reward and keep it for themselves. How rewards are structured reinforces how rewards are won.

Even preschoolers learn to cooperate when it’s all or nothing for the group.  Maybe the answer is to focus a bit more on collaborative processes in school – right through business school – and design rewards accordingly.  For example, some employers are restructuring bonuses to tie to very specific project and client team goals, such as the client’s feedback and if the client is retained.  That keeps everybody’s focus on the overall goal. Trade-offs within the group for resources, time and priority are all within the context of achieving the greater goal together.

Collaboration-driven rewards seem like a winner.  Unless, of course, we include a reward for the ‘best collaborator. “   

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor phaewilk.


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