Are women less competitive than men? [Part 2]

A few weeks ago, I mused about women’s competitiveness in tennis, based on what I’ve seen locally in club level play and tournaments.

What might account for the difference?

Fewer women play tennis

Let’s face it – less women take up tennis. That’s a natural and obvious reason why there are less women in ladders and tournaments.

It’s hard to know why female participation rates are lower. In my experience, women are more likely to participate in non-competitive sports like yoga, running, biking or fitness training.

Some recent research supports the notion that there’s an evolutionary basis for the divide. Across many countries, men are more likely to play sports than women, and for competitive sports in particular, men participate at four times the rate. The disparity emerges early – boys self-organize 10 times as many pick-up games as girls.

And the divide extends to sports viewership: men watch more sports than women. Even for women’s televised sports, such as professional female soccer, the viewing audience is male-dominated.


I’ve noticed women privileging cooperation and friendship over competition on the tennis court. A friend of mine admitted that when she really starts to beat someone, she feels bad and wonders if she shouldn’t try so hard. I’ve often felt the same way myself!

For a long time, I figured that I could get to know others better and play tennis. That’s why I regularly chatted on the change of ends for most of my matches. But as soon as I started to compete more seriously, I found I needed to concentrate and naturally I stopped talking. Clearly, my early tendency was not competitive.

Different display of emotions

Despite everything, I still like to compete, although perhaps not as much as some of the men I know. It makes me wonder if women display their competitiveness differently than men.

It’s interesting to observe how men and women react to poor performance on the court. I’ve seen men swear at themselves, spike the ball or throw their racket. I suspect that if they could afford it, some of them would smash their rackets like the pros do on the tour!

On the other hand, the women show less outward signs of distress, tending towards quietness, excessive chatting in breaks and frowning. Could it be that outward displays of anger are instinctively seen as unladylike?

I doubt that women feel any less angry when they start to play badly, which means that either they a) suppress it or b) avoid the situation altogether. After all, you can’t lose a match if you don’t start one – hitting with a partner is always safe.

Paradoxically, though, not pushing yourself competitively means slower progress in acquiring advanced tennis skills. It’s a tradeoff, and one that leads back at the reason for playing: is it for skill development? making friends? getting fit? having social fun?

In the end, I believe that although women are competitive, they lean towards more cooperative and social behaviours in tennis.

Do you agree? I’d love to hear what you think.

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