Emirati women do not shy away from competition: Evidence from a patriarchal society in transition

Women were more likely to compete than men in this study from the UAE.


Previous research on gender inequality in labor market outcomes has indicated that a potential cause could be differences between men and women´s preferences, including willingness to compete. Previous studies have shown that men are usually more willing to enter into competition than women. As a result, women may be restricting their educational and employment choices. However, past research has also shown that this gender gap in competition differs significantly across cultures, which highlights the role of socialization in structuring gender norms and suggests that changing cultural gender norms may be able to increase women’s competitive inclination, reducing in turn differential labor market outcomes.

This study examines attitudes about competition in a group of university students in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The authors chose the UAE because of its recent cultural shifts regarding women. Historically a traditional and patriarchal society, in the last few decades the UAE has adopted targeted policies to reduce the substantial gaps between men and women by focusing on women’s empowerment. By exploring attitudes towards competition in both single-sex and mixed-sex groups, the study examines both women's willingness to compete and whether their attitudes towards competition depend on the gender of other competitors.

An experiment composed of three tasks was conducted. In the first task, students were awarded money for each correct answer to simple math questions. In the second task, students performed the same task competing against three anonymous students of either the same or mixed sex. Correct answers were worth more money than in the first task, but money was only awarded to the student with the most correct answers. For the third task, students could choose to repeat either the first or second task.


Overall, women are not less likely than men to compete. However, when controlling for performance, women are more likely to compete than men, with this difference being driven by choices in single-sex groups.

  • Across conditions, women and men are similarly likely to select the competition task, 54.3% and 50% respectively
  • Women perform significantly worse than men in all three tasks: women solve correctly 26.5% (task 1), 27.6% (task 2), and 17.9% (task 3) fewer addition problems than their male counterparts
  • Controlling for performance, across conditions women are 17% more likely to select into competition than men
  • Group composition affects men and women differently:
    • Women are as likely to compete in single and mixed-sex groups
    • Men are significantly more likely to compete in mixed-sex groups

147 students, 66 men and 81 women, at Zayed University participated in a set of three experimental tasks during their regular class time. The students were told that they were participating in a “special activity” rather than an experiment. The three tasks differ in how performance translates into rewards. In the first task, students completed a set of number addition questions and were awarded money for each correct answer. In the second task, students competed in anonymous groups of four – either single or mixed sex-  to complete a similar set of number addition questions. Compared to the first task, a larger amount of money per correct answer is given, but only to the student with the most correct answers. For the third tasks, students could choose to repeat the first or second task, and allocated to single or mixed sex group tournament when they chose the latter. Selecting into the tournament in the third task was measured as individuals´ attitudes towards competition. Finally, participants filled a post-experiment questionnaire to measure individual beliefs and risk attitudes. Students were paid just for one of the three activities, randomly selected at the end of the third task. 

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