A very interesting gender difference emerged at the Boston Marathon this year. Lindsay Crouse of the New York Times explains that the Boston Marathon is “one of the most competitive marathons in the world.” In other words, this race is one of the toughest courses where thousands of the world’s elite runners and runners who have completed multiple qualifying races to gain the right to enter this race push themselves to complete the course. The weather this year had heavy rains and was the coldest in decades, and women endured to the finish at much higher rates than men did.
Crouse notes that this year’s Boston Marathon provides an opportunity to consider why women were able to persevere in exceptionally miserable conditions at higher rates than men to finish the race:
- For men, the dropout rate was up almost 80 percent from 2017.
- For women, the dropout rate was up only 12 percent from 2017.
- Overall, 5 percent of men dropped out versus 3.8 percent of women.
Crouse discusses some theories about why women may have more physical endurance than men:
- Differences in body fat composition
- Decision-making tendencies
- Pain tolerance, including the experience of childbirth where quitting is not an option
The body fat composition argument says that women can deal with cold weather better because essential body fat composition is about 3 percent for men and 12 percent for women. The subcutaneous fat layer is twice as thick for women, thereby insulating women from cold and increasing their ability to finish the race in conditions of extreme cold. Crouse points out the flaw in this argument, though, when she notes that “in 2012, on an unusually hot 86-degree day, women also finished at higher rates than men,” which was not the case in the years between 2012 and 2018. The gender difference then is not explained by body fat composition.
Differences in decision-making traits may provide at least part of the explanation for the differences in finishing rates for women and men in races. Dropping out of a race is a decision. Previous research
has shown gender differences in decision-making that are just as applicable to business situations as to running races. Crouse also lists psychological differences:
- Women are better at pacing themselves.
- Men start out more aggressively and take more risks—and can lose steam before the end.
- Women are better at recalibrating behavior and adjusting their goals and expectations to keep going.
- Men see “succeed or fail” as the options and drop out if they think they will fail.
Crouse cites psychologist Adam Grant’s research to offer another possible explanation of gender differences in finishing versus dropping out. Grant suggests that there exists a “biological and social tendency for women to tend toward caregiving.” He goes on to state that “when the going gets tough, the men either quit or they double down and say, ‘I’m just going to push through,’ whereas women are more likely to reach out to runners next to them and offer support and seek support. Sharing pain and being part of a group can make it easier to withstand pain.” In fact, Crouse offers several stories of women running the Boston Marathon in pairs or small groups and encouraging each other to keep going. In one case, a woman who wanted to quit kept going to support her friend and then ended up winning the race herself when she got a burst of energy toward the end.
While no one has a definitive explanation of why women endured at higher rates than men in 2012 and 2018 in extreme weather conditions, the fact that this did happen—and the possible supporting theories of why—should encourage women to persevere. It can also add fodder to the argument that women can add value to any endeavor. Let’s hope that the old stereotype of women being fragile and unreliable is finally collapsing under the weight of all the evidence to the contrary.
Photo courtesy of Patrik Nygren
(CC BY-SA 2.0