Gender Equality

Why are women so uncooperative?

Female professors are less cooperative than men, which is exactly what we would expect from watching the behavior of men and women in groups. That is the claim recently published in a letter to Current Biology.

Or, at least that’s the tabloid version of the letter. For example, Science 2.0, describes the research results as follows.

In society, there is a belief that women will be more cooperative than men. In academia, that is not the case, according to a paper in Current Biology. Instead, women in academia are less likely to cooperate than men.

A closer look at the letter, however, shows that it isn’t quite so straightforward. Joyce F. Benenson, Henry Markovits, and Richard Wrangham studied 50 departments of psychology in the United States to see if there were different publishing patterns for men and women.

There was no difference between men and women full professors in terms of their likelihood to co-author papers with other full professors. There was also no difference between men’s and women’s track records for publishing with junior colleagues of the opposite sex.

No gender differences were obtained when comparing publications with other senior professors or when comparing senior professors with other-gender junior professors.

The difference that was found, however, involved publishing with junior colleagues of the same sex. Men had more same-sex co-authorship across ranks than women did.

Male full professors were more likely than female full professors to co-author publications with a same-gender assistant professor. This is consistent with a tendency for men to cooperate more than women with same-sex individuals of differing rank.

Maybe there’s something to be uncovered here, but I’m concerned that we are seeing a hasty generalization.

Is co-authorship about cooperation?

The research uses co-authorship to measure cooperation.

Using numbers of co-authored, peer-reviewed publications as an objective measure of cooperation and professorial status as a measure of rank, the researchers calculated the likelihood of co-authorship with respect to the number of available professors in the same department.

In some technical sense, co-authorship of course does reflect cooperation, at least when cooperation is taken to mean simply working together.

But the claims and discussion around this article are confounding this technical meaning of cooperation with the goodwill that is part of the meaning of the word cooperative — and, indeed, that is often part of the idiomatic use of the word cooperate. A belief that women will be more cooperative is a belief that women go into situations with more willingness than men to show goodwill or be helpful. The claim that men cooperate more inevitably assigns to them beneficence.

Do the co-authorship patterns revealed by this research really show women to have less goodwill than men; does it show that they are less cooperative? Of course not. But there is a risk that this article will be used to claim that—lo and behold—women aren’t nearly as cooperative as you once thought.

Indeed, Professor Benenson encourages this, according to a quote in Science 2.0. “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.” That’s a difficult claim to understand when she and her colleagues write in their letter that they would not expect any differences between male and female professors when it comes to collaborating with students. How is that not part of a hierarchy?

It is a mistake to think that co-authorship reveals goodwill, or an attitude of helpfulness or a desire to work together towards a common goal. The nature of science is such that none of these things can be reliably inferred from co-authorship.

Why not? It’s because authorship on papers sometimes shows who actually did the work. But only sometimes.

Authorship can also be determined by self-promotion and negotiation—two skills which men perform more successfully than women. By way of anecdotal elaboration, consider Declining Courtesy Authorships, in which a woman academic tells of asking to have her name removed from papers to which she did not contribute, to the horror of her male colleagues.

The Matilda effect

In fact, it is so well known that women are routinely slighted in lists of authors that the phenomenon has a name, the Matilda effect, named after suffragist Matilda J. Gage. 220px-MatildaJoslynGage

The Matilda effect is the opposite of the Matthew effect. In the latter, those who have much, get more. In the former, those who have little, get less.

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. (Matthew 13:12)

Matthew would have hit the nail on the head if he had only used her and she in the second phrase. Women, already in weak positions in science, routinely are under-credited or under-attributed for their contributions and discoveries.

A recent study on the role of gender in scholarly authorship shows that women are disproportionately absent from the prominent final position on scientific articles — a criterion often used when awarding grants or promotions.

Because of the Matilda effect and all that’s behind it, the absence of co-authorship cannot be taken to imply that two people have not worked together, nor does it demonstrate that they have not cooperated and it certainly does not demonstrate a lack of friendliness. For all we know, the women professors are so friendly and cooperative that they promote their junior women colleagues by letting them take single authorship on the papers.

Is cooperation increasing?

Co-authorship is increasing in science. The average number of authors per paper has increased from 3.8 to 4.5 over the past several years. There surely are many legitimate reasons for this, such as the increasing size of externally funded projects. It is entirely plausible that growth in the number of authors reflects an upswing in genuine cooperation.

However, the increase in the average number of authors probably also follows in part from the publish or perish culture of modern university life. The pressure on academics to publish more and more and more is enormous, and it’s deeply entrenched, as I noted in A funding scheme that turns professors into typing monkeys.

Physicists, by the way, must be extremely cooperative folks. The CERN particle accelerator gave rise to 110 articles in 2011 that had over 1,000 authors each. And there probably aren’t many women among them—presumably showing how uncooperative women physicists must be.

I don’t want to underplay the importance of identifying differences in publishing activity. Co-authorship patterns are important to bring out. But in this case, the conclusions overreach.

Of course there are differences in the collaboration patterns of men and women. But there are many other differences in the daily lives of men and women in research environments—differences that are relevant for publication and authorship patterns.

The idea that independent evidence of a lack of cooperation between women of different ranks is affirmed by looking at publication patterns in one field, in a few departments, based on papers with exactly two authors who are both in the same academic department, without considering any other aspects of the academic lives of women researchers seems like a methodology that, frankly, is too clever by half.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Indeed! As I was reading your synopsis, I thought “This might suggest that senior male academics are more likely to bully their way onto papers by male junior colleagues.” Or “Senior female academics are more likely to help junior female academics without seeking reward via authorship”. Or… There are multiple possible reasons for the patterns – pinning it on women being uncooperative seems a massive leap.

  • Lynn Roseberry says:

    I wish you had chosen a different title for this post – you’re spreading a myth that you’re trying to debunk by tweeting the title. How about something like “Mismeasuring gender differences in cooperation”?

    • Curt Rice says:

      It’s a little tabloid, I agree, Lynn. And it’s good of you to nudge me on this. I’ve sent it out to a bigger forum, and if it gets in there, I’ll reconsider the title. But, do you think yours would get more readers? 🙂

      • Hazel Oatey says:

        Would it not have been possible to write the title as a question? Adding in the word “ARE” would have made a small yet significant change. Which leads me on to my next comment, that maybe men co-author because they are keen to get ahead quickly and be published in more articles and therefore use each other more in that regard. Co-authoring does not necessarily imply that men are co-operating and women are not. We don’t really know. Is it not important that we are seen as people/individuals not women and men and just get on with doing the job? Isn’t it time we moved beyond the male/female divide = beyond serving self to serve the greater good? If we were to operate from this perspective it can/would remove such gender issues. Each one of us has the choice and resulting responsibility/accountability for what we say and do and the integrity this holds – either for more unity or division. If we perceive there to be such an issue, there will be. If we operate from a completely different level of perception it will dissolve. It’s all in the mind at the end of the day!

      • Mollie Simmons says:

        I agree with Lynn, I think the title is slightly problematic. It definitely has great pull for readership, considering that I was intrigued and read it myself. However, I feel that there is a large possibility of people seeing the article listed at the bottom of a page, reading the title, and without reading the article, forming some sort of opinion or idea based off of it. I find many people I know either skim articles or merely read titles and are convinced of the validity of what they think they have read. Perhaps a title of “Are women uncooperative?” may be better. I think it still keeps the intrigue, but the subtle change in wording is less accusatory and harsh.

        Just some thoughts.

        • Curt Rice says:

          Thanks for the feedback, Mollie. Title-writing is very tricky. As you note, one tries to pull in readers. But it’s an art, and one can always be better 🙂

          • Peggy Murphy says:

            People who are just going to read the title and draw conclusions, probably already have drawn the same conclusions anyway. The title drew me in. Since I’d really like the work to pull others in, I think the title should remain the same.

            Also, thank you for pointing out the flaw in this work. Since I read this article, I’ve lost respect for most academic “research”: It’s like trying to read Aristotle as a contemporary. Thank you.

      • Fran Carter says:

        I read the article from beginning to end (I’m female) simply because of the title and I’m not an academic. Thanks for an introduction to a field well away from my own.

    • Derek says:

      The click-bait headline is the only reason I ended up reading the article. I wouldn’t have even considered reading one with your headline. Sad, but true.

  • But if you examine same-sex co-authorships in this study, women are just as cooperative as men. If you examine children 3- to 5-years-old, then girls prefer equal partners, and boys will interact with equals and higher- and lower-ranked individuals in larger groups. My book Warriors and Worriers provides the background for this article. From early childhood through adolescence and in adult organizations, females feel more comfortable with one other same-sex equal partner in many domains, whereas males like hierarchies and competition which ironically translates into their being more inclusive and cooperative with a larger number of individuals.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Hi Joyce, and thanks for sharing the reference to Warriors and Worriers, which I look forward to exploring. I don’t understand your first sentence here; I almost wonder if it’s a typo. The piece you and your colleagues published, as far as I — and every other reference I’ve seen — seems to emphasize exactly the opposite of what you say here, namely that when it comes to same-sex co-authorships, women are less than men. Or, do you mean when people are at the same rank? I guess I have to ask for your clarification here before I can respond further. Let me emphasize that I’m not questioning the more generalizations about the group dynamics issues, but I’m rather questioning the method of relating co-authorship to cooperation of the type the other research is referring to.

      • Sorry, what I meant was that if you consider same-sex equal (2 full professors) co-authorships, then women are the same as men in terms of number of publications. It’s only across rank that it differs. But it’s not simply in academia. It’s true with adolescents too- females like equals and don’t like high or low status girls, whereas males like high status males, and those low status males who contribute to the group.

        • Curt Rice says:

          Right, and that what I understood you and your colleagues to be saying. Or, almost. the co-authorship patterns across rank only for same-sex work, as I understood it. So, leaving aside for a moment the use of the word “cooperative,” the group dynamics generalizations still leave some big questions, i would think. For example, why is the case that women are willing to go “cross status” with men, but not with women, if their basic urge is to prefer equal status interactions? And there’s the student issue I raised in the piece, to? But, really, I don’t have any qualifications to question the sociology here, and I’m not. What I am questioning is the methodology. One important assumption of the work I’m responding to is that authorship is somehow objectively determined, i.e. that we can read “cooperation” out of authorship. As I read the literature, that’s just not true. The second big objection I have is in the rhetoric, namely the use of the word “cooperate.” I infer that you must mean “work together” with that word, and that is not incorrect. But it’s not entirely idiomatic, either. And when you are quoted as adding words like “friendly” alongside “cooperative” … well, like I said in the piece, that seems like a pretty big conclusion to draw. Do you really stand by that claim? (Or you imprecisely quoted, because I’ve certainly had my share of that kind of experience, so I don’t want to automatically assume that you actually said what you’re quoted as saying.)

  • Of course women can’t win in the media “spin.” If we’re “cooperative” we’re schmucks, characterized as too “nice” to compete in a “man’s world.” If we’re not “cooperative” we’re harridans, who have been made spiteful and cold-blooded by our participation in the games men play. In all events, we’re marginalized and disrespected unless we stay within our gender’s tight boundaries. The girdles may be gone but the behavioral restrictions have barely lifted. Keep up the good work, Curt. This kind of sensationalism continues to dog women in male-dominated professions and these kinds of baseless conclusions continue to flow from the social sciences. Here’s ONE reason I’m glad I went to law school. You could get this study into evidence through an expert, but not to prove the point claimed by its authors.

  • Mark says:

    Wow! No doubt a significant effort was attributed to this research resulting in significant cost? During this time of stifling economic cash flow for the rest of society, wouldn’t it have been more prudent to spend that money on promoting papers from junior scientists, equally balanced spend between men and women?
    What a waste of money!

  • Sandra says:

    And…male professors are also notorious for using junior colleagues to.actually author works which the professors then ascirbe to themselves.There are innumberable cases of professors using junior researchers to put materials and information together for them, as well as writing the work itself, and then conveniently “forgetting” to put tthe true authors´ names or give them due credit for the document in question..

    • aybc123 says:

      Are you sure about this?

      I work in a university chemistry department and have done for the last 5 years, i have never come across this or anything like in infact im fairly sure it not permitted. In general laboratory heads or PI’s will take the last authorship and whoever wrote the paper will take the first. Very occasionally a masters student who carried out the research under a mid level researcher but did not write the paper will have to settle for being second author.

      And thats just for not giving proper credit, flat out not adding someone who carried out the work as an author as you suggest would very probably see the professor out of a job providing you can prove the research was yours (which is trivial with a lab book or data/ manuscript access entries).

  • Nicole says:

    The title of this article is grossly, offensively misleading, and intentionally inflammatory. “Uncooperative” has an entirely different connotation — indeed, denotation — from “collaborative,” which is what you actually mean here. Maybe there should be a follow-up article titled “Why are men such sexist pigs?” That would employ the same logic you’ve used here.

    • Curt Rice says:

      I thnk we’re on the same page here, Nicole. One of the central points of my piece is that “cooperate” and “cooperative” invite attitudes that don’t belong in the discussion about collaboration. I don’t quite follow how “sexist” equivocates in the same way.

  • Robert says:

    “The nature of science is such that none of these things can be reliably inferred from co-authorship.”

    This is quote you used to defend women’s goodwill. You are saying there is not a 100% correlation between goodwill and co-authorship, therefore one can not scientifically assume that women display less goodwill.

    Then, later on you write this:

    “For all we know, the women professors are so friendly and cooperative that they promote their junior women colleagues by letting them take single authorship on the papers.”

    By making ridiculous claims like this you effectively rendering your former statement meaningless and laughable. Either use science, or start making things us. For example: “For all we know, every time a women is offered co-authorship, she vomits blood on the professor with offer.” Get my point?

    “And there probably aren’t many women among them…”

    Probably? Now we’re just guessing are we? Convenient.

    Your article showed promise but turned out to be the kind of half-baked, inconsistent rubbish that “The Metro” would publish.

    • Curt Rice says:

      I didn’t realize that the metro had published this. Thanks for the tip.
      I’m afraid I don’t understand your objections. It’s correct that I’m saying we can’t assume a correlation between goodwill and co-authorship.
      And then you refer to my light-hearted speculation of another explanation, which you mistakenly refer to as a “claim.” But even if it were a claim, I actually don’t get your point.
      I took the comment about the physicists to be obviously ironic. Apologies for not getting that memo to you.

  • jacque says:

    I just graduated, its my second degree, female prof are mean to some of the young female students and sometime even racist against other ethic students .

  • qed says:

    It has been shown that bitching (female indirect aggression towards other females) has sound evolutionary roots. Basically, it is all down to sex: women trade sex for favours by men such as provision and protection. Through bitching — i.e., shutting out other women considered (or feared) to undermine the market price of the commodity — women basically seek to ensure that the value of their commodity remains high. So it is genetically programmed cartel behaviour. Perhaps this mechanism could also explain why women might prefer to collaborate with men than with other women. Certainly it would seem logical that older women would be less inclined to collaborate with younger women: who wants competition?

    Source: Vaillancourt, Tracy, and Aanchal Sharma. “Intolerance of sexy peers: Intrasexual competition among women.” Aggressive behavior 37.6 (2011): 569-577.
    See also:

    • Curt Rice says:

      Thanks for the reference. How do you think this line of argumentation can contribute to understanding the different patterns between men and women?

    • Sound evolutionary roots?

      Little girls learn, when they play with little boys that, when the boys resolve their problems with physical force, the girls will be subdued. The boys are mostly stronger and Testorone gives them an additional mental extra. So they learn other tactics, the thing that you (qed) maned as “bitching”. They develop their achieving styles based on their experiences of successes and failures, which are mostly different to those of the boys.

      This may have nothing to do with evolution.

  • Adriaan Kamp says:

    Dear Prof. Rice,
    Dear Curt,

    I have read your article with great interest- and I have enjoyed it!

    Thank you for sharing- and look forward to connect further with you and your work,

    Warm greetings from Oslo, Norway
    Adriaan Kamp
    Founder of Energy For One World/
    Program Director of Executive Education at Nyenrode Business University- The Netherlands

  • Lorie says:

    Actually, it makes me think that a guy really insisted to be a co-author of my article, although what he did for that article was really minimal. Also, I helped a few people for their research without ever asking to be in the list of authors.So, what I can say from my experience as a researcher is that some men are more opportunist than women.

  • Gert Jan Hofstede says:

    Well spoken Curt.

  • Guest says:

    Anecdotal evidence of about 30 years of married life confirms the above finding.

  • Daffy says:

    The author is playing at a semantics game. “Cooperate” does not mean “goodwill” or anything like that. Enemies can cooperate. Cooperation can be obtained by force, and there can be much resentment in cooperation. People can cooperate to further hidden, ulterior motives. And so on.

    No, cooperate does not mean goodwill, and starting off on such a flawed foundation renders everything it’s built upon, to be nothing but a counter-factual fantasy.

    • Curt Rice says:

      I’m not sure if your reference to “the author” is to me, or to the author(s) of the study I am writing about. My point was indeed about semantics. Headlines about this research were claiming it showed that women are uncooperative. But “uncooperative” doesn’t mean “refusing to work together.” It means more. If you don’t like the term “goodwill” we could instead talk about “volition.” The point is that there’s an implication about attitude that is conveyed with this term. As I wrote, that is also true of the term “cooperative.” The tricky part is when it spills over to the word “cooperate.”
      So, yes, goodwill is part of being cooperative, and the term uncooperative does indeed cast aspersions the intentions of the person being described. But I get that it’s a subtle point.

  • Colin Cunningham says:

    If you have more male professors than female ones wouldn’t your analysis naturally show greater collaboration among male professors simply because there are fewer females to choose from?

  • Tarjei V says:

    “Men are by nature merely indifferent to one another; but women are by nature enemies.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

  • Dave says:

    Any sociology undergraduate knows about Foucault’s theory and women’s dislike of hierarchical structures, and women’s propensity to put female rivals down. Therefore, a combination of these result in these findings.

  • The data seems to suggest that there’s not a simplistic cooperate/uncooperative divide. It’s that men cooperate more in a competitive environment with either sex than women with their own sex.

    Take the data:

    “There was no difference between men and women full professors in terms of their likelihood to co-author papers with other full professors.”

    Both full professors means no competition for promotion and perhaps tenure.

    “No gender differences were obtained when comparing publications with other senior professors or when comparing senior professors with other-gender junior professors.”

    Full versus full means lessened cooperation. Both have arrived The opposite sex for senior with junior means the trouble women have competing with their own sex isn’t a factor here.

    “Male full professors were more likely than female full professors to co-author publications with a same-gender assistant professor. This is consistent with a tendency for men to cooperate more than women with same-sex individuals of differing rank.”

    Here males are cooperating with men in a competing (senior v. junior) environment but women aren’t.

    Age is likely to be a factor too. In most cases, that senior woman may resent a junior woman who’s also younger and perhaps prettier, so it isn’t just academic competition.

    Years ago, when I was on the nursing staff of a top children’s hospital I attended an evening nursing grand rounds. I was surprised that most of the nursing had taken the time to make themselves up and dress nicely. Did they really think eligible men would be there? Hardly, I was the only one.

    I concluded that dressing up among a group of mostly young and single women was intended to send a message, “I’m better looking than you, so if I’ve got my eyes on one of the single residents, back off.” That’s women competing with women.

    Men might send a similar message, one involving more physical prowess, but only when there is direct competition for a particular woman. Otherwise, they cooperate.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

    • Curt Rice says:

      Thanks for offering that analysis. Part of my objection was on the use of “cooperation” as the term under discussion, since it quickly gets turned into, “women aren’t as cooperative as you think.” Indeed, the media coverage of this research article did just that. Part of my point was that the absence of senior women as co-authors with junior women could potentially be an extremely cooperative act; since the seniors don’t “need” the publications, they could generously be giving single authorship to the juniors. But, in fact, this whole study is pretty lame, focusing on very few articles and making very big generalizations.

  • Dear Curt

    This sounds to me like a perfect example of “Rooster fallacy”: Quick conclusions while correlation is confused with causal relationship. The rooster crows every morning before sunrise, and at one point comes to the conclusion that the sun follows his call. It would remain dark if he wouldn’t call, he believes.

    The rooster may even ask other roosters, and they confirm his observation. Makes the fallacy a factoid.

    Female Professors are being named as co-authors of female scientists under their domain less frequently than men as co-authors of male junior scientists? Without research into into the robustness of the data and the causes of the observed correlation, if it exists, one should not conclude anything.

    I also agree with Curt that we need to be careful with language.

    Regarding Michael Perry’s comment: If women had “taken the time to make themselves up and dress nicely”, this may have several reasons. Competition for men may be among them or not. Simple self-esteem or self-actualization may be another explanation. Or, they may be shifting their Competitive Achieving Style (see to dressing and make-up, thus freeing their professional actions from the burden that comes with this behavior?

    Quick conclusions are the natural basis of rooster fallacy, and once they get confirmed by others, factoids replace knowledge.

    Kind regards,


  • Susanna Bell says:

    Thanks for your article. Good job, I have no further comments or complaints.

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