College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Agricultural & Resource Economics

UMD Comparative Experimental Research Reveals Important Commonalities and Exposes a Gender Myth

Subjects in the paired experimental site in Malawi.

"Men are more competitive than women." Not only is this statement often met with little resistance, but significant economic research backs it up. All around the world, women prefer to avoid competition -- when given the choice to earn money without being compared to others -- while men seek the opportunity to be measured against others.

Analysis of university-aged subjects has constituted the majority of this research. However, Professor Kenneth Leonard, together with co-authors, AREC alumnus Jeffrey Flory, John List and Uri Gneezy, showed that competitiveness is not a male characteristic. By using subjects ranging from ages 18 to 90, both in Malawi and here in Maryland, they were able to prove that young women, indeed, tend to avoid competition, but that older women do not.

The research shows that:

  • Female competition preference sharply rises around age 50, erasing the gender gap.

  • The age gap among female subjects is as big as the gender gap among young subjects.

  • Older women have just as strong a preference for competition as men of all ages.

  • The impact of age and the vanishing gap are consistent across different societies.

  • Differences among women seem at least as important as those between men and women.

In reference to young girls playing well in sports, President Obama once said "... playing like a girl means you’re a badass." Leonard and his team show that "playing like a grandmother means you’re a badass."

SHEL students in experimental classroom.Pictured left are University of Maryland students within the Symons Hall Experimental Laboratory. It is here where Leonard is able to study differences in human behavior of college-level students.

The results from the study conducted both at UMD and in Malawi show that it is essential to pair subjects within a university setting with those outside a university setting. Experimental economics must go beyond college-level subjects to gather more accurate research. University students have high levels of education and are physically present near research sites for long periods of time, deeming them the ideal subjects for learning about regularities in human behavior. However, at some point, the variation among students reaches a limit, and researchers must be willing to go outside the university lab to test their findings, according to Leonard. Diversity of gender and economic background is relatively easy to find at the University of Maryland, but diversity of age is not.

For further information regarding the study:

Jeffrey A. Flory, Uri Gneezy, Kenneth L. Leonard, John A. List,
Gender, age, and competition: A disappearing gap?, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Volume 150, 2018, Pages 256-276, ISSN 0167-2681,


For further information regarding the Symons Hall Experimental Laboratory, please visit

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