NYT’s Tierney: Gender gap in running suggests men are naturally more competitive

I’m quite a fan of the NYT’s John Tierney, and he has another interesting column today exploring personality differences between men and women. On personality tests, Tierney writes, “women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive. Men tend to be more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat. Clear differences appear in early childhood and never disappear.”

Not really a surprise — but the big question is, are these differences socialized into us, or biological? Fascinatingly, in more traditional cultures like India and Botswana, sex differences are less pronounced than more developed ones such as the Netherlands or the United States.

Tierney quotes David P. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, as saying that life’s hardships in poorer countries may mask sex differences.

“Humanity’s jaunt into monotheism, agriculturally based economies and the monopolization of power and resources by a few men was ‘unnatural’ in many ways,” Dr. Schmitt told Tierney. “In some ways modern progressive cultures are returning us psychologically to our hunter-gatherer roots. That means high sociopolitical gender equality over all, but with men and women expressing predisposed interests in different domains. Removing the stresses of traditional agricultural societies could allow men’s, and to a lesser extent women’s, more ‘natural’ personality traits to emerge.”

Here’s where it gets even more interesting, at least to me as a runner. To buttress this claim, Tierney examines competitive running:

Competitive running makes a good case study because, to mix athletic metaphors, it has offered a level playing field to women the past two decades in the United States. Similar numbers of males and females run on high school and college teams and in road races. Female runners have been competing for equal shares of prize money and receiving nearly 50 percent more scholarship aid from Division I colleges than their male counterparts, according to the N.C.A.A.

But these social changes have not shrunk a gender gap among runners analyzed by Robert Deaner, a psychologist at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, who classifies runners as relatively fast if they keep close to the pace of the world’s best runners of their own sex. When Dr. Deaner looks at, say, the top 40 finishers of each sex in a race, he typically finds two to four times as many relatively fast male runners as relatively fast female runners.

This large gender gap has persisted for two decades in all kinds of races — high school and college meets, elite and nonelite road races — and it jibes with other studies reporting that male runners train harder and are more motivated by competition, Dr. Deaner says. This enduring “sex difference in competitiveness,” he concludes, “must be considered a genuine failure for the sociocultural conditions hypothesis” that the personality gap will shrink as new roles open for women.

If he and Dr. Schmitt are right, then men and women shouldn’t expect to understand each other much better anytime soon. ….

The studies are available on Deaner’s webpage, but I haven’t had time to read ’em yet.

2 comments to NYT’s Tierney: Gender gap in running suggests men are naturally more competitive

  • tallman

    I think this actually supports a theory that I have about the specialness of female athletes. I think most women’s bodies just will not respond to training and allow them to do anything like what the top female athletes. Guy’s bodies, on the other hand, will generally respond pretty well if we push them. So, for example, I don’t think most women could hit a golf ball far enough to even be in the league of LPGA. They just can’t generate that sort of power. However, I’d guess about 25% of all guys could, with training, at least be able to meet the power minimums of the PGA tour. I use as an example me and the three guys I play golf with. Three of us can drive the ball over 300 yards. Two of the guys can do that basically at will. That puts them, on a power level basis only, in the range of the PGA players. Now they are better than average golfers and athletes, but they aren’t anything really special.
    Another example, when I look at female long distance runners, they don’t look like at all like normal women, nor do they look like they have bodies that the women I know could really become in any reasonable manner. But the male long distance runners look kind of normal. They look like something that a lot of guys could get to with a few months of dieting and running. Not saying that a normal guy would be anywhere close to as fast as the fast guy, but he would at least be somewhat like them.
    Anyway, I think it is more biology than a lack of competitiveness that is causing this gap, especially at the high level.

  • Gina Kolata had an interesting piece about this in the NYT. Basically, it’s all about that famous male hormone…

    “To a large extent, it’s a matter of testosterone,” said Dr. Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Presbyterian Hospital and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “That’s why systematic doping of women is even more effective than systematic doping of men. That’s why the East German women were so much more successful than the East German men.”

    The hormone affects everything from muscle size and strength to the size of the heart to the amount of oxygen-carrying blood cells in the body to the percentage of fat on an athlete’s body. Every one of those effects gives men a performance advantage.

    But looking at Deaner’s studies, I think you’re missing its point. It’s not that women are slower than men, it’s that the field of fast women (women who are fast _for women_) is so much “shallower” than the field of fast men.

    He looked at the top 40 men and women from 20 large 5K races (including the 2003 Gridiron Classic in NYC), 20 large marathons (including the 2003 NYC) and 47 collegiate, high school and professional track and field events. He compared the mean time of the top 40 men and women to the top 10 times ran worldwide in that distance _by sex_ that year. In all 87 races, the mean time of the top 40 guys was closer to the male world-class standard than the mean time of the top 40 women was to the female world-class standard.

    Does that make sense? Basically, the guys races are just more competitive … even if you come up with a sex-adjusted definition of a fast runner, there are about twice as many fast men than women.

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