There is less cooperation among women of different hierarchical levels than among men in similar situations, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Quebec report.
Hierarchy refers to systems that have a pecking order, i.e. each member has a neighbor higher or below (except for the top and bottom ones).
Their study, titled Rank influences human sex differences in dyadic cooperation, turns the cliché on its head – the stereotype of massively competitive men compared to females who nurture relationships with each other.
Joyce Benenson, Richard Wrangham and Henry Markovits found that men of different levels of seniority within academic departments cooperate more with each other than women do.
However, cooperation among full professors of different levels was no different for men and women.
“The question we wanted to examine was: Do men or women cooperate better with members of their own sex? The conventional wisdom is that women cooperate more easily, but when you look at how armies or sports teams function, there is evidence that men are better at cooperating in some ways.”
“Because there is so much conventional wisdom and general impressions on these issues, I think it’s helpful for this paper to focus on a very clear result, which has to do with the differences in cooperation when rank is involved.”
The researchers set out to determine how well academic professionals of the same sex of different ranks cooperated by gathering and analyzing data on how often faculties at several universities collaborated on academic papers.
They selected 50 academic centers across Canada and the United states with at least two female and male professors, and to female and male assistant professors in their Psychology Departments.
They worked through papers that had been written by senior faculty between 2008 and 2012, and tracked how regularly senior faculty worked together with other senior faculty, and how often this occurred with junior faculty.
Is the stereotype of over-competitive males and relationship-nurturing women a myth?
The idea came from working with children
While this study concentrated on male and female hierarchical cooperation within academic institutions, Benenson said the idea came to her when she was carrying out a study on young children.
Benenson, the author of the book “Warriors and Worriers”, which explored similar questions, said:
“When I studied young children, I noticed that boys were typically interacting in groups, and girls tended to focus on one-on-one relationships.”
“There is even evidence that these differences exist in six-month-olds – but you can see it with the naked eye by about five or six years old, where boys form these large, loose groups, and girls tend to pair off into more intense, close friendships.”
Benenson explained that chimpanzees organize their relationships in almost identical ways to those observed in young human children.
“Chimpanzee males usually have another individual they’re very close with, and they may constantly battle for dominance, but they also have a larger, loose group of allies. When it comes to defeating other groups, everybody bands together. I would argue that females don’t have that biological inclination, and they don’t have the practice.”
The authors emphasized that their study in no way suggests that females have an inherent flaw regarding cooperation. In fact, women are universally seen as being much more egalitarian than men “but there’s a flip side no one thinks about, which is what happens when they’re with someone who isn’t the same rank?”
Nobody sure why cooperation among women is different
Wrangham said that despite evidence pointing to poorer cooperation between women in some situations compared to men, a range of questions as to why these differences exists still need to be answered.
Wrangham, whose book “Demonic Males” outlined similar findings, said:
“There is cross-cultural evidence for this phenomenon, you see it in early development, and in one of our closest relatives. That pushes us into thinking that there is a strong biological influence here, but we would never suggest this is impervious to environmental and cultural influences as well.
“Nevertheless these are the kinds of fascinating questions about fundamental sex differences in social relationships that would be tremendously important to recognize if you want to change the way in which women’s access to higher ranks happens. What we need to know, now that we have recognized these patterns, is what can we do to ameliorate them?”