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Different Ranks Disrupt Cooperation Among Women

Update Date: Mar 03, 2014 07:05 PM EST
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Previous studies show that men are more competitive and women are more cooperative. However, the latest study reveals that hierarchy may complicate this picture. New research reveals that women of different social or professional "ranks" show less cooperation than men of different ranks.

"The question we wanted to examine was: Do men or women cooperate better with members of their own sex?" study author Richard Wrangham said in a news release. "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 latest study looked at faculty of 50 different institutions across the United States and Canada with at least two male and female full professors, and two male and female assistant professors. Researchers looked at papers written by senior faculty from 2008 to 2012, and tracked how often senior faculty worked with other senior faculty, and how often they worked with junior faculty.

While the latest study focuses on higher education, researchers said that the idea of differences between how men and women cooperate was first noticed when they were observing children.

"When I studied young children, I noticed that boys were typically interacting in groups, and girls tended to focus on one-on-one relationships," lead researcher Joyce Benenson, an Associate of Harvard's Human Evolutionary Biology Department and Professor of Psychology at Emmanuel College, said in a news release. "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."

Researchers said that this is intriguing because chimpanzees organize their relationships in nearly identical ways.

"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," Benenson said. "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."

Researcher noted that the latest findings do not mean that women are innately flawed when it comes to cooperation.

 While women are often thought of as being more egalitarian than men, Benenson noted that "there's a flip side no one thinks about, which is what happens when they're with someone who isn't the same rank?"

"There is cross-cultural evidence for this phenomenon, you see it in early development, and in one of our closest relatives," said Wrangham, whose outlined similar findings in his book Demonic Males. "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.

"There is cross-cultural evidence for this phenomenon, you see it in early development, and in one of our closest relatives," said Wrangham. "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," he added. "What we need to know, now that we have recognized these patterns, is what can we do to ameliorate them?"

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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