Competition, part I
Men, Women, and (some of) the Differences Between Us
In college, I had a mixed-sex friend group that skewed male—five guys, and me. We did things that many would view as male-typical: biking fast, jumping off rope swings, exploring new trails, and when inside, playing games—cribbage, backgammon, cards. There was a young woman who was sometimes around, although she didn’t participate with us in our usual activities. One of the guys was interested in her romantically, but she toyed with him—sometimes she was flirtatious, sometimes reticent—and the rest of us didn’t love the dynamic. One day the lot of us were at the guys’ apartment, all of us playing board games except for her. We invited her to play. “I don’t play games,” she announced.
As I remember it, we all laughed out loud at that pronouncement. Of course she played games—she was constantly playing games with our friend. What she didn’t play were structured games with explicit rules laid out in advance. She didn’t play overt games. But many a researcher who was studying game-playing would have taken her at her word, and coded her as not being one who plays games. Yet game-playing is ubiquitous—just as is competition more broadly. It’s everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it always looks the same. Specifically, it rarely looks the same in men and in women.
The picture has been muddied for us by the tendency for men to be used as the standard model. This tendency is hardly unique to the study of competition, however. Let’s consider medicine for a moment.
Heart attacks (aka myocardial infarctions) do not tend to look the same in women as in men. The warning signs are not the same. But because medicine historically used adult men to establish its standards, its baseline expectations, this fact was not understood for far too long. Indeed, for many years, the symptoms typically experienced by a woman when having a heart attack were considered “atypical” rather than “female.”
In the case of heart attacks, there are obvious health risks to women from the miscategorization. The category error was in imagining that something that humans experience—in this case, heart attacks—is the same regardless of the sex of the person experiencing it. Men and women are anatomically and physiologically distinct, so our default assumption should be that there will be different manifestations for at least some health conditions as well.
Just as there turns out to be no “typical” presentation of heart attack that is not sex-specific, we should not expect “competition” to look the same in men and women. We differ anatomically and physiologically; so too do we differ behaviorally and socially, due to the many downstream effects of sexual selection. And just as the “classic” warning signs of a heart attack can be more accurately understood as the warning signs of a heart attack if you are male, the question “are you competitive?” tends to come with it an unstated assumption of male-style competition.
Sex Differences and the Division of Labor
Sex differences are ancient. Gender differences—gender being the software to sex’s hardware, and downstream of sex, and emerging from sex but far more fluid and changeable than is sex—gender differences are ancient too, but far less so. In our lineage, we have had two and only two sexes for at least 500 million years.
Furthermore, there are initial inequalities in what each sex brings to the act—females have eggs, which are huge (for cells), and rich with nourishing cytoplasm; males have sperm, which are tiny, stripped down, and excellent at finding what they want. Lo and behold, hundreds of millions of years later, females across species are far more likely to provide love and nutrients to their young, and to seek a mate who will help with the care, often in the form of defense; while males across species are far more likely to look for easy opportunities—to “sow and go”—but also, when partnered, to actively defend those they love.
Sex differences are ancient and mostly immutable; gender differences are less ancient and often mutable. The division of labor between the sexes is reliably trotted out as evidence of the patriarchy, but in truth, division of labor can be a wonderful and enriching thing for all involved. If there are ten things that need to be done on a regular basis, both members of a partnership can do all ten of them, half-heartedly and with none of the expertise gleaned from frequent practice, or each can take five, come to do those that they do better, and know that they and they alone are responsible for the completion of those tasks. It is also true, however, that precision bean-counting of who is doing what domestic duties is a fairly certain recipe for relational disharmony.
In 1973, Murdock and Provostwrote a remarkable review of the anthropological literature on 185 pre-industrial societies, in which they looked at 50 activities, and assessed each activity as to how gendered it is in that society: Is fuel gathering, for instance, done exclusively by men, exclusively by women, mostly by men, mostly by women, or do both sexes do it in roughly equal measure?
Here is Table 1 from their paper, in which the five data columns are, left —> right:
M: exclusively male participation
N: predominantly male participation
E: equal participation by both sexes
G: predominant female
F : exclusively female participation
There are three big take-aways for me from this table. The first two are somewhat obvious, the last one not nearly so much, and as such, I think it the most important:
High-risk tasks which require high strength, stamina, and/or burst speed are likely to be exclusively or nearly exclusively male tasks across the societies censused. See: the hunting of whales, or bison, or the cutting down of trees, or the mining of ores.
Among this list of 50 activities—from which all anatomically and physiologically mandated tasks, like gestation and lactation, which are exclusively the domain of women, have been excluded—there are very few activities that are exclusively done by women in a high proportion of societies censused.
Many tasks are highly gendered, but which sex does the task is highly variable between cultures. That is: many tasks are gendered, but reality seems agnostic as to which sex ought do them.
To the third point: Consider weaving (#38). And the preparation of skins (#26). And the preservation of meat and fish (#37). Each of these tasks are highly gendered in most cultures, but in some cultures female involvement is curtailed, whereas in others, male involvement is curtailed. For instance, among the Zuni, Basques and Punjabi, weaving on looms is a distinctly male activity; while among the Kazaks, Vietnamese, and Javanese, only women engage in such activity.
One obvious lesson to be learned is that much of what is gendered in some cultures—what it means to act manly, or womanly—might have been the opposite. This suggests that there is value in the division of labor, even when neither sex is inherently better at the task.
And as Bret Weinstein (my husband and the father of our two children) and I wrote in A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, only women make the beautiful and functional ceramics for which the Pueblo people are well known—but this has not always been the case:
Consider, also, the Pueblo people, who have long been understood to be master ceramicists. It had been assumed, given contemporary patterns, that pottery making was exclusively the domain of women. In Chaco Canyon, however, in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest, a different story is emerging. When Chaco Canyon was a rapidly growing religious and political center one thousand years ago, the population was expanding, and with it, the demand for pottery. More and more vessels were needed to carry and store grain and water, so gender norms loosened, and men began to do this otherwise highly gendered work.
The fact is, women are limiting in a population, and men are not. If a population is to continue into the future—which is, after all, the banal and uninteresting “goal” of evolution, persistence—it must propagate.
A population of 100 people in which 99 of them are male will not persist for very long. One woman cannot have all that many babies. A population of 100 people in which 99 of them are female will have its problems, to be sure, but a shortage of babies is not inherently one of them. Men are (on average) bigger, stronger, more likely to be interested in taking risks, and more expendable. Women are (on average) smaller, less strong, less driven to take big risks, and less expendable.
There is solid evolutionary precedent for saving the women and children first when shit gets real, even if many of us modern women recognize that we are unjustly double-dipping if we receive the advantages of modernity—equal opportunity and pay, for instance—while still collecting on the perks of premodernity—being protected from the world’s slings and arrows, and letting the men do all of our fighting for us. (Failure to recognize when one is double-dipping is one form that toxic femininity takes.)
So men have, historically, been the ones to defend the borders, and to bring down big animals for meat. And women have, historically, been the ones to stay closer to home, engaging in daily activities like child care and food preparation. Those roles are not our fate—they do not need to be our future—but they do comprise much of our history, which has set the stage for differences in how we compete.
Are Women Less Competitive than Men?
The scientific literature would, in large part, have you believe that women are less competitive than men. Look closely, however, and find a category error. It is not that women are less competitive, it is that we are, on average, differently competitive.
Researchers interested in the subject of competition have too often made the same mistake that doctors did when they were assessing symptoms of heart attacks. In one 2015 paper, which looked at data from over 25,000 people in 36 countries, the methods included asking the respondents whether they “strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement: ‘I like situations in which I compete with others.’” Given how this is phrased, it should come as little surprise that men “agree” or “strongly agree” with this statement more often than do women. The researcher then concludes that women have a “lower preference for competitive situations than men.” But women are swimming in the same cultural waters as men are, the waters that synonymize “competition” with “male-style competition.” So the fact that women answer this question in the negative more often than do men should not be taken as evidence that women don’t compete, or that they don’t enjoy competition. The competition is just different. Furthermore, as I will argue more extensively next week in this space, competition in women is more likely to be covert, compared to competition in men being largely overt. This, in turn, lays the foundation for female-typical covert competition to be obscure, even from the people engaging in it.
Remember the young woman who said she didn’t play games? She may not have played the kinds of games the rest of us were playing, and she may not even have known that she was doing it, but she most definitely played games.
Tune in next week for the second half of this essay, in which I will explore the distinct manifestations of competition in women, and pose several hypotheses about these manifestations.
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Bits of this week’s post, and most of next week’s, are based on an academic paper that I was invited to write early last year, which was published last week: Heying 2022. Covert vs. Overt: Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of Sex Differences in Competition. Archives of Sexual Behavior, pp.1-5.
See: Goldberg et al 1998. Sex differences in symptom presentation associated with acute myocardial infarction: a population-based perspective. American Heart Journal, 136(2): 189-195. -and- Peterson & Alexander 1998. Learning to suspect the unexpected: evaluating women with cardiac syndromes. American Heart Journal, 136(2): 186-188.
I have written extensively on this elsewhere. Take a look at the Sex and Gender chapter of A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century. I also have a relevant essay in Iconoclasts, an anthology that will be published this year, titled Me, She, He, They: Reality vs. Identity in the 21st Century.
That said, in my own home, all four of us (2 adults, 2 teenage sons) do our own laundry, and have since the children were in middle school. And the boys have (nearly always) prepared their own lunches and breakfasts on school days since they were in elementary school—a practice I learned in my own natal home. There are other examples, too, of the “inefficiencies” in our household that are introduced by the fact that what might, in many other households, be Mom’s job, is everyone’s individual job in our home. Everyone, it seems to me, needs to be able to run their own life, regardless of what agreement they come to in their own relationships later on.
Murdock & Provost 1973. Factors in the division of labor by sex: A cross-cultural analysis. Ethnology, 12(2): 203-225.
Kantner et al 2019. Reconstructing sexual divisions of labor from fingerprints on Ancestral Puebloan pottery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(25): 12220– 12225.
Bönte, W. 2015. Gender differences in competitive preferences: new cross-country empirical evidence. Applied Economics Letters, 22(1): 71-75.
Agreed. It’s important to note the health of the family lies with the mother. Preparing safe food keeping clean house watching for safety of the young. Without these skills whether innate or learned family is doomed. The birth rate is usually 51 percent born are male. With preferential breeding however this number has likely changed without natural selection deciding what’s best for evolution. Humanity fails to recognize these vital skills females have bc they think they are easy to obtain. We know better.
A woman will give her life for her young. Birthing is dangerous business. She will risk her life to kill prey for her young. She will give up monetary opportunities and impoverish herself. for the privilege of raising her young. If not she risks the loss of opportunity to imprint herself on her young or know their safety. Society wishes this loss bc then they get to control the mindset of the innocent. Look at the many fatherless children who become subject to controls outside the family. The mother is stretched beyond bounds and can’t watch the innocents. Then they lose them. Whether to government controls like Edward Snowden was lost to an evil government project until he found his truth. Or to drugs or evil exploitive trades.
All I can say is when it happens to you get off your chairs stand up and fight back. You might lose but you will have sent a message and inspired others. I could go on but you can do this better than I can. Have a great day !
One possible reason (far from the only one) that activities may be gendered is the associational risk of putting two genders in common contact over time. Perhaps it is simply “safer” societally to have genders separated, when not in the established family setting, so when at “work” (fewer murders; less disruption of successful raising of offspring).