Study: Women Take Longer to Form Hierarchies

ByABC News
February 5, 2002, 11:32 AM

Feb. 6 -- Put three strangers in a room, and if they're all male, within minutes one of those guys is going to try to take charge.

And in not much more time than it takes to say "macho," one will emerge as the commander in chief, another as his lieutenant, and the third will be the peon who has to answer to both.

Such "dominance hierarchies" just seem to come naturally to males. Social psychologists say it's part of something they call the "pecking order." No kidding.

Females, of course, are quite different.

Democrats or Crabs?

They tend to be less comfortable in a hierarchical structure, so whenever females gather together, they tend to work things out democratically, according to long-standing theory in psychology. They are less comfortable than men in forming alliances with some of their colleagues in order to rule over their peers.

But along comes Marianne Schmid Mast to throw a monkey wrench into all of that.

In a report published in the January issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Mast, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, shows that women also form dominance hierarchies. It just takes them a little longer to do it.

What that suggests is that women ought to be just as good as men at clawing their way to the top, because both are equally willing to form the friendships and associations necessary to take control.

"So that's probably not the reason that we don't have more women in top leadership positions," she says.

Mast's research, involving 116 strangers who took part in the project, contradicts two popular theories of how women handle themselves in a group setting.

One is called the "Egalitarian Structure," in which democracy prevails, and no hierarchical structure evolves.

The other is known as the "Crab Basket Structure," according to her paper. You don't need to put a lid on a basket full of crabs to keep the crabs from crawling out, she writes, because "every time one crab tries to crawl higher, another will hold her back by crawling over her."