In analyzing publication records of 50 North American universities, researchers at Harvard University showed men were more likely to co-author a study with someone of the same sex but of lower or higher professional rank -- a professor teaming with an associate professor, for example -- than women were.
The study found that men and women were equally prone to cooperate with peers of the same professional ranking.
"In ordinary life we often think of women as being more cooperative and friendly with each other than men are," explained lead author Joyce Benenson. "But this is not true when hierarchy enters the picture."
The researchers chose academia for their study because equal numbers of men and women with easily quantifiable ranking and mutual investment were less apparent in government or business settings.
Even within academia, sufficient numbers of women researchers weren't found in areas of study such as biology, chemistry and physics. Researchers settled on psychology departments as the most suitable for testing their hypotheses about gender differences and cooperation.
"People are often upset to hear evidence of sex differences in behavior," Benenson said. "But the more we know, the more easily we can promote a fair society."
Benenson says more research is needed to determine why women don't cooperate more in academia. It's possible that they attempt cooperation but fail for one reason or another, or that men somehow encourage the lack of female cooperation.
The findings of the study were published recently in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.