Gender and Competition

My AFR op-ed today is on gender and competition, writing up a series of recent research papers. It would’ve been too cumbersome to mention all the authors, but you’ll find the studies hyperlinked if you’d like to read the original research. Full text over the fold. And of course, please remember that authors don’t choose their headlines.

Girls Need to be Pushed, Australian Financial Review, 16 February 2010

In the latest round of nationwide school tests, girls trounced boys in reading, writing, spelling and grammar, and were only narrowly beaten in numeracy. On university campuses, there are 6 female students for every 5 male students. The labour market is steadily feminising: women now comprise 45 percent of all workers.

Yet at the upper echelons of Australian business, men still tend to occupy the corner office. Women comprise just 8 percent of ASX200 board directors and 2 percent of CEOs. Although a majority of law graduates are women, four-fifths of barristers are male.

Explanations for this huge disparity include a lack of mentors, a family-unfriendly work culture, and discrimination. Yet a fascinating new line of research opens another possibility: that attitudes towards competition might help to explain part of the gap. Intriguingly, there are also suggestions that this may have more to do with nurture than nature.

One experiment asked male and female university students to solve straightforward mathematical problems. When paid a flat rate for every correct answer, men and women did equally well. Students were then given the chance to enter a four-person tournament, in which the top-ranked player won a handsome prize, and everyone else got nothing. Since men and women had similar ability, they stood a similar chance of sweeping the pool – but it turned out that men were twice as likely to enter the tournament as women.

Other studies suggest that gendered attitudes to competition emerge at a young age. When 9 year-old school children in Israel were timed running a short sprint on their own, boys and girls did equally well. When they were paired up and asked to race against another student, boys ran faster. But girls ran equally fast in a race as they did on their own.

A plausible interpretation of these results is that they represent an evolutionary norm, under which the genetic advantage lies with competitive males and cautious females. Another possibility is that the differences have more to do with culture and upbringing than with innate biological differences.

One way to separate the hypotheses is to look at extremely different societies. One of the most innovative tests involved economists carrying out the same experiment in an extremely patriarchal society (the Maasai in Tanzania) and a matrilineal society (the Khasi in India). The task in this case was throwing a ball into a bucket placed some distance away. In both societies, men and women were equally accurate. Then they were invited to enter a competition, in which the most accurate thrower won the prize. In the patriarchal Maasai society, the researchers found a higher take-up rate among men. But in the matrilineal Khasi society, women were more inclined to compete (indeed, Khasi women were even more willing to compete than Maasai men).

Another way to see the effect of context on competitiveness is to look at sex-segregated education. In two experiments involving British 15 year-olds, researchers tested students’ willingness to enter a competition that involved skill (solving mazes), and another competition that involved luck (tossing a coin). When the experiments were carried out with boys and girls from co-educational schools, girls were less likely to enter either competition. But girls from single-sex schools were just as willing to compete as co-ed boys.

The Australian National University’s Alison Booth, one of the co-authors of the project, is quick to point out that ‘our research should not be interpreted as saying that we should all immediately enrol our daughters in single-sex schools’. But the study does suggest that context matters. If the stereotype that girls are averse to competition can be broken by something as simple as single-sex schooling, it should be possible to change it in other ways too.

Together, evidence from economics laboratories suggests that researchers and policymakers should use a variety of strategies to raise the number of women at the top. Of course, this means continuing to tackle discrimination and change workplace cultures. But if we assume that success in business will always require a competitive streak, it may be worth investing on the supply side as well. To smash the glass ceiling, we may also need to improve female confidence about risk-taking.

Andrew Leigh is a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University.

On the topic of gender, Ulrike Jager and Anja Rohwer have a new article in the latest CESifo magazine about three popular international rankings of gender empowerment. Methodology matters. For example, Australia’s ranking ranges from 1st (on the UN Gender Development Index) to 20th (on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index).

3 thoughts on “Gender and Competition”

  1. Andrew, have you ever read “Is There Anything Good About Men?‘ by Roy Baumeister? It basically looks at the evolutionary hypothesis, and explores why men might be more inclined to be risk-takers. I read it a couple of years ago and it’s always stuck with me – especially this statistic: ‘Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men. I think this difference is the single most underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.’
    It’s a sensitive topic, but I don’t think it’s easy to disagree with his conclusions – that evolutionarily (or even just socially), an equilibrium lies where men are more motivated by risk. The Khasi result is very interesting, because it perhaps reveals how strong the social component is. Perhaps, given the reduced impact of previously important reproductive factors, plus the overwhelming trend towards monogamy, evolution is no longer prodding us towards this equilibrium.


    Another conclusion could be that Boys lack motivation when there is a lack of competition.  Based on the running race my understanding is that they only tried when running against someone else, while the girls ran the same time in both situations.  This suggests to me that females are more internally motivated while males benefit from external motivation.


  3. I am not familiar with the experiments on competition, however just because women are more cautous than men, does not imply they do not compete. It means competition for women is more subtle than the overt exmaples given here. In order to succeed in their choice of male to provide them good genes, and perhaps other, more nurturing males to raise them, means women compete at a different level. Running races does not fulfill womens biological imperative, as it does by raising a males status to be selected by a woman. It also raises the question of why we even want women to compete on the same basis as men do. Does this mean their own forms of competition will change or modify, or that it will produce a better society for all? I think this is a limited view of human progress and discounts the deeper biology of both men and women that underlies our behavior.


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