Gender Differences In Competition: Evidence From A Matrilineal And A Patriarchal Society

Women are less competitive than men in patriarchal societies, but this result reverses in matrilineal societies, where women are more competitive than men.


Although women have made important strides in entering and advancing in the workplace, a gender gap persists both in wages and in prospects for advancement. One explanation for this gender gap is men’s propensity to be more competitive than women. If men opt to compete more often than women, even in tasks where women have greater ability, then men will achieve higher success in the workplace. This study examines the link between culture and competitiveness that influences economic outcomes. Researchers study the differences in competitive preference among men and women in two distinct societies: the Maasai tribe of Tanzania (a patriarchal society) and the Khasi tribe of India (a matrilineal & matrilocal society).

The Khasi in northeast India are a matrilineal society, where inheritance and clan membership follow the female lineage through the youngest daughter. Family life is organized around the mother’s house, which is headed by the grandmother. A woman never joins the household of her husband’s family, and husbands leave their mothers’ households to join their wives’ households. Khasi husbands have no authority or property in the household, and works for the gain of his wife’s family. The Khasi community is unique in terms of how they treat their unmarried girls, as there is no presence of bride price or dowry that reflects the economic value of girls.

Maasai men in Tanzania have multiple, often younger, wives and make all household decisions. Men distinguish themselves based on age and cattle, as almost all of their wealth is in cattle. Maasai women are required to seek permission from an elder male before they can travel, seek healthcare, or make any important decisions.


When asked to throw a ball into a basket, men in patriarchal societies chose to compete at twice the rate as women, whereas in matrilineal societies, women chose to compete more than men.   

  • In the patriarchal (Maasai) culture, 50% of men chose to compete, whereas only 26% of women chose to compete
  • In the matrilineal (Khasi) culture, 54% of women chose to compete, and only 39% of men chose to compete.
  • When controlling for age, income, education level, work activities, marital status, and relationship to the head of household, women in patriarchal societies (Maasai women) are 25-32% less likely to compete than men. In matrilineal societies (Khasi), women are 15% more likely to compete than men.

It is not universally true that the average female avoids competition more often than the average male. In matrilineal societies, where women can accumulate wealth and where their competitiveness is rewarded, women are more likely to engage in competition than men, suggesting there are cultural pressures defining women and men’s willingness to compete.


Two identical experiments were conducted in India and Tanzania. The experiment with the Maasai was conducted in two villages in the Arumeru district in the Arusha region of Tanzania, and the experiment with the Khasi was conducted in the Meghalaya region of India. 154 participants (52 Khasi women, 28 Khasi men, 34 Maasai women, and 40 Maasai men) had 10 chances to toss a tennis ball into a bucket that was place 3 meters away. Participants were told that they were randomly matched with another participant (who they could not see) who was performing the same task at the same time in another area. Participants then chose whether to be paid per successful shot (500 Tanzanian shillings or 20 Indian rupees), regardless of the performance of the other participant, or three times per successful shot if they out-performed the other participant.

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