Taken at face value, the data from my Big Running Survey suggests that women runners are significantly less competitive than men. Only 16% of the women surveyed reported a strong motivation to do well in races compared to 30% of men. And taking part in races – one potential measure of a competitive leaning – was more common in men too. Only 19% of the women I asked raced more than once per month on average, compared to 33% of men.
Does this simply reflect some innate difference in competitiveness between men and women? Is it just an inevitable consequence of differences in the levels of our hormones or the wiring of our brains?
This sounds suspiciously reductive to me. And digging deeper into the data we can find evidence to support much more nuanced conclusions.
First, there are two notable caveats to the big gap in overall competitiveness between men and women runners.
The first of these is that the gap in competitiveness is much smaller for experienced runners than it is for newbies. Figure 1 shows how the gap between mean competitiveness rank for men and for women shrinks from .45 ranking points (out of 2) amongst newbie runners to just .23 points for runner with over five years experience behind them. So, the difference in competitiveness basically halves when you only look at experienced runners compared to those with less time in the sport.
What’s going on here?
We must remember that these two groups are made up of different runners, not the same runners asked at different points in time. So it’s possible this result could reflect the fact that less competitive female runners tend to drop out before they get past the two year mark, whilst more competitive runners stay on.
But if we assume that the data does – at least in part – reflect change over time, we could hazard the speculation that time spent involved in running, thinking about and discussing running, and generally soaking up running culture might gradually pull uncompetitive women towards a more competitive outlook, similar to that which men ‘bring to the table’ as newbies (more on this below).
That in turn would suggest that running culture is dominated by an ethos that is more in tune with traditionally male characteristics such as competitiveness. If so, men would not need to adapt much to fit in with the culture (hence their competitiveness score hardly changes over time), whereas women who enter the sport with a less competitive outlook may gradually adapt in line with the prevailing culture.
The second caveat is that the competitiveness gap does not exist at all for lifelong runners. Figure 2 shows the mean competitiveness score out of 4 (this measure combines the desire to run fast times and to do well in races) for six groups.
The blue bars represent men, and the orange, women. They are split into three categories: ‘Since childhood’ runners consider themselves to have been regular runners since childhood; ‘Hiatus’ runners ran regularly as children but stopped, only to begin again later in life; ‘Adult starters’ do not regard themselves as having been runners until they were adults.
We can see that amongst adult starters, women have a markedly lower level of competitive motivation, but that this gap shrinks for hiatus runners. And amongst the continuous runners the gap has vanished. In fact there is a marginal (statistically non-significant) gap in the other direction!
One way of interpreting this is that women who were running regularly when they were children experienced a different kind of socialisation to most girls. Their involvement in running would have exposed them to overt competition in an environment that valued and rewarded competitiveness and the desire to win. Could this have reinforced a competitive outlook that was not nurtured in other girls (the majority of whom do not participate in highly competitive forms of sport as hobbies)?
For boys, competitive sport has always been a big part of growing up. Their social lives can revolve around football, rugby or cricket. And many researchers have argued that sport plays an important role in shaping boys’ personalities and dispositions in ways that diverge from those traditionally encouraged in girls… but not, perhaps, from those girls who have been involved and encouraged in competitive sport from an early age.
The role of talent
Many factors determine how we are socialised in relation to sporting competitiveness. Gender is one of them, but of course it’s only part of the story. Another important factor is talent.
People identified as talented are often treated differently, nurtured and encouraged. They are rewarded and praised for their special skills or abilities. As a result, as a child or adult, a talent can often become a central part of an individual’s identity.
It seems reasonable to assume that talented people would be more comfortable with competition, simply because they see more likelihood of a positive outcome. Talented runners enjoy racing because they are good at it and get recognised for it; races offer an opportunity to publicly ‘perform’ their identities as athletes.
And indeed, this is reflected in the data. Self-perceived talent level is a strong predictor of competitive motivation and race frequency in adult runners. Figure 3 shows how, as respondents’ self-perceived level of running talent increases, so does their level of competitiveness and their frequency of racing.
This is a robust finding. It’s true if you only look at men or women, adult starters, hiatus or lifelong runners.
What’s interesting in relation to our question is that as group, women significantly downplay their own talent compared to men. Women rate their talent, on average, as 3.5 out of 7, whereas men come in at 4.2.
Women significantly downplay their talent compared to men.
Theoretically, men and women should, on average, regard themselves as equally talented. The same number of women should see themselves as exceptional (or useless or somewhere in the middle) as do men. But that’s not what we find when we ask. Either women systematically underestimate their ability, or men overestimate theirs. Or a bit of both.
Given the relationship between talent and competitive orientation, it looks like part of the difference between men and women’s competitiveness is caused by differences in perceptions of talent. In other words, many women don’t compete because they don’t think they are good enough – even though many men of similar talent feel quite comfortable doing so.
And indeed, the statistics back this up. The gender gap in competitiveness gets significantly smaller once we account for the difference in talent perceptions between men and women. Just look at figure 4. It shows how close the race performance motivation level is for men and women of the same perceived talent level who have run for at least five years. The difference is only 0.1 of a ranking point in a range of 2.0.
Why are women less confident in their abilities than men? This is a big question, and has been asked in many fields other than running. But surely the relative lack of encouragement for girls to participate in competitive sports at school plays a role here: How can you learn you’re good at something if you’re never encouraged to give it a try?
And this kind of channelling of girls away from competitive sports isn’t just a historical problem. It’s still going on today, and often with the best of intentions. A recent attempt by a ‘progressive’ school to engage girls in sport, for example, involved offering three ‘pathways’ described in a BBC online article from 2017*:
“The girls-only pathway is tailored to boosting levels of confidence.
There will be a bit more aerobics, dance, being inside in the winter. So they’re not turned off by being outside in the rain and cold.
More sporty girls are offered a mixed programme with the less athletic boys – this might involve dodgeball, football and more competitive games.
And sporty boys have a boys-only programme.”
So the sporty girls are thrown in with the un-sporty boys to play watered-down sports and ‘games’ whilst the sporty boys get to play serious sport on their own. Note also, that even the un-sporty boys are given competitive games, whereas the un-sporty girls are given some sort of self-esteem building sessions!
So, are women less competitive than men?
Certainly overall, women runners are less competitively oriented than men. But we’ve seen that for some groups the gap is small or even non-existent. Part of the reason for the overall gender gap in competitiveness levels appears to be a difference in the levels of running self-confidence (perceived talent) between men and women. Part of this may be down to differences in the expectations placed on men and women, girls and boys, and the experiences they have throughout their lives that reinforce traditional ideas of appropriately gendered behaviour: Boys are expected to be competitive and athletic; girls are encouraged to be self-effacing and passive.
This is all quite speculative, and would require a great deal of quantitative and qualitative follow-up work. But it’s a great example of how running can shed light on and stimulate thinking about much wider social phenomenon. If you have any of your own thoughts or interpretations of the data I’d love to hear from you.
* Burns, J. 2017. ‘Tubby and terrified’: How fear puts girls off PE. BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41893475.