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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Competitive Woman: Evolutionary Insights and Cross-Cultural Evidence into Finding the Femina Economica


We propose to explain the gender gap in competitiveness often found in economic experiments with a theoretical framework rooted in evolutionary psychology: Women evolved adaptations to trade off the motivation to acquire resources in competitive environments for effort dedicated to investing directly into offspring, to attract and retain mates, and to not alienate potential allomaternal allies. Such a tradeoff does not appear similarly binding for men. To begin to test this idea, we conducted a series of experiments using cash and prizes (in-kind payments dedicated to either children’s needs, gender-specific interests, or gender-neutral interests for placebo tests) to reward subjects at different life stages (parents and non- parents) from countries differing in economic development and culture (novel data from Togo, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Colombia plus China data from Cassar, Wordofa and Zhang (2016)). Our hypothesis is that different incentive types (cash or prize) may induce specific frames which activate the motivation to compete in different domains of interest, with behavioral predictions that depend on an individual’s gender and life stage. Consistent with the predictions, our results on parents from China, Togo, and Sierra Leone and from non-parents from Bosnia show that, once the incentives are switched from cash to child- benefitting or gender-stereotypical goods, the gender gap in competitiveness was largely eliminated, shrinking by more than 10 percentage points, whereas placebo prizes had no impact. Importantly, economic and cultural elements matter, as not all societies exhibit a gender gap to start with (Colombia and Nana Benz of Togo). These findings indicate that competitiveness in women can be much more intense than has been observed, once we include incentives that matter to women, with implications for policies designed to promote gender equality based on labor market incentives aligned with women’ goals and respectful of the differential  constraints that nature and societies put on the individual.

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