Top Dog: Gender Differences In Competition

New York Times bestseller and award winning journalist Ashley Merryman (L’98) came back to the Hilltop this week to speak to a group of 100 alums about her new book Top Dog: The Science of Winning & Losing.  After presenting a webinar for us in the spring on the topic, we found that many (many!) of the questions that came in were about gender differences in competition so her talk specifically focused on this aspect of her book. What was an hour lecture could have continued for two or three more.

Ashley’s books (co-written with Po Bronson) take a scientific journalistic approach – Ashley and Po research, read, assimilate, attend conferences, interview experts, and examine data for months  in order to live and breathe a topic.  The outcome is what I think of as a research-based compilation of everything interesting and important about a particular topic (in this case, competition). They take the scientific research hiding from the general public in journals and ivory towers and make it accessible, relatable, and actionable.  [Their first book, Nurtureshock, focused on children’s development and parenting.]

What we thought was going to be a conversation mostly about competition between and among men and women in the workplace really became a conversation about gender differences in all aspects of life; it’s difficult to extricate work from home, personal from professional.  And you definitely can’t look at adult competition without examining it’s childhood roots. As a woman, a working professional, a mom, and specifically the mom of a daughter, I found the conversation to be intensely personal.

Here are some of my take-aways:

  • Women compete – they just compete differently – “they choose competitors differently, they don’t have the same timing in their attacks and withdrawals, they differ in whether they play to win or play not to lose.. and they judge risk differently, even more so under stress” (p. 92).
  • Girls grow up playing in pairs; boys in groups.  Interesting foundation for competition.
  • The real benefit of competition is improved performance, not winning. This is one reason Ashley advocates for children’s programs not giving every child a trophy.
  • Only 4 women ran for Governor in 2010 – Women will run for political office when the odds of winning are decent by not a long shot.
  • Similarly, women tend to apply for jobs when they have all of the requisite skills, men when they have some.
  • Among start-up employees, women are outnumbered by men 2 to 1; Women tend to look at the odds of success as opposed to their male counterparts.

We’ve been hearing about “leaning in” lately… Its the buzz-phrase of the day.  Some people love it, some people hate it.  But regardless, Cheryl Sandberg should definitely have  a copy of Top Dog on her nightstand.

Other articles by Ashley Merryman & Po Bronson:

How to Tell If A Woman Will Be Successful In Business
Why Can Some Kids Handle the Pressure and Some Fall Apart?
Helping A Worrier Become A Warrior
Forget Brainstorming
The Creativity Crisis

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing and Nurtureshock are both available on

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