In society, there’s a general idea that women are more cooperative than men. But in academia, at the very least, that’s not the case. According to a recent study published in Current Biology women in academia are simply less likely to cooperate than men.

The findings are based on an analysis of the publications from 50 American Universities (so no information about other areas in the world), and what’s really interesting is that the lack of cooperation is most evident in one of the few areas where women overwhelmingly dominate – psychology.

“People are often upset to hear evidence of sex differences in behavior,” says Joyce Benenson of Harvard University. “But the more we know, the more easily we can promote a fair society.”

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Males also cooperate more in nature, especially when it comes to primates, but the study doesn’t detail if this is a biological or more of a psychological thing. To explore this dynamic, Benenson and colleagues looked to academia, because that’s where the data was most easily available; it’s fairly easy to find out individual rank, evidence of mutual investment, and a baseline number of males and females — which is less easy to find about people working in the government, military, or in the business sector.

Females are still underrepresened in many academic areas (such as physics or chemistry for example) – so researchers went where they had ample data – psychology departments. Using numbers of co-authored, peer-reviewed publications as an objective measure of cooperation and professorial status as a measure of rank, they calculated the likelihood of co-authorship with respect to the number of available professors in the same department. When it comes to individuals of the same rank, men and women were equally likely to collaborate with their peers – something which was nice to observe.

But the big difference arose elsewhere. When it comes to collaborating with peers of lower rank, men were much more likely to collaborate than women; in other words, men are almost just as likely to collaborate with colleagues, research assistants or even students – while women are likely to collaborate with colleagues, but not with assistants or students.

Benenson says they want to study the matter more, to figure out if maybe there was some misrepresentation in the data, or if this trend gets carried on in all departments. He concludes:

“In ordinary life we often think of women as being more cooperative and friendly with each other than men are, but this is not true when hierarchy enters the picture,” Benenson says.

Citation: Joyce F. Benenson, Henry Markovits, Richard Wrangham, ‘Rank influences human sex differences in dyadic cooperation‘, Current Biology 24(5) pp. R190 – R191 3 March 2014 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.12.047

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