The early bird catches the worm. This motto, which eulogises the competitive spirit, has been feted the world over and is perhaps best expressed by the dominance of industrial capitalism. But the early birds are usually men: global cultures acknowledge them to be the torchbearers of the rat race. Study after study has been devoted to proving that men edge out other species, including women, when it comes to competition. Evolutionary rhythms, domestic responsibilities and the patriarchal social order, past research argued, have rendered women less competitive and, hence, more empathetic. But then science is not set in stone. New research by a human evolutionary biologist at Harvard claims that women can be more competitive than men. Yet, this competitive streak is underlined by a different motive. Catching the proverbial worm is, apparently, not a prerogative for women: it is the scarcity of resources that forces women to compete. This perhaps explains why such rivalryis strongest among women, all of whom are trying to elbow out one another to gain access to the crumbs left for them.
The new Harvard study is thus a confirmation of the primordial nature of women’s exclusion. It is also consistent with past findings. For instance, an earlier study, also at Harvard, had revealed that the biggest driver of female rivalry is the concept of ‘one seat at the table’: the practice of giving women a nominal presence in the name of equality. Significantly, this intra-sex rivalry adds to the challenges before women lower down the pecking order — one study found that in 59% of cases, the gender pay gap in favour of menincreased under female managers. That is not all. Women forced to compete by the inequitable structural conditions pay a concomitant cultural price — aggression and ambition in women are frowned upon; shaming and vilification of ambitious women are thus not unheard of in cultures across the world. Little wonder then that researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that young female professionals tend to play down their ambitions around men. But this ‘taming’ is not enough to break the vicious cycle: women continue to be turned down for leadership roles as they are perceived as ‘soft’ creatures averse to competition.
Women, then, are in the rat race too. But the podium finish remains elusive for them. The belief that men — the creators of this uneven field — would turn a new leaf and, one fine day, make it easier for women — be it in jobs, rewards, social security — is touchingly innocent, even a bit shallow. Women have and will continue to battle to ensure that the competition is, at least, fair. This is where State policy in the liberal political project needs to be more accommodating. Could reservation be broadened and the ambit of affirmative action widened to make life — public and private — and its resources more generous for women? Why should the early birds — the menfolk — catch all the worms?