We have discussed in the past four posts five Clichés on gender differences. We porceed with the sixth:

Cliché 6: Men are more competitive than women.

The facts: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem conducted a wide-ranging survey in 2003 to study the sex ratio of men to women at all ranks and levels, from students to full professors. The study produced an interesting set of data. A majority of students awarded the university’s bachelor’s degrees, 61 percent, were women. Among master’s students women comprised an even larger majority, 62.5 percent. But the percentage of women obtaining PhD degrees placed them clearly in the minority, at 46 percent. The representation of women among faculty members was even lower, 33 percent. Finally, the percentage of women who were full professors (the highest faculty rank at the university) was so low it was embarrassing—only 11 percent. These numbers did not surprise most people familiar with the composition of the faculty, but they did spark an intense discussion on the question of why the percentage of women drops so dramatically from one academic rank to the next.

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Source: flicker

A similar discussion at Harvard University a few years ago led to the firing of university president Larry Summers after remarks he made on the subject set off an uproar. Summers speculated that the lack of women in faculty positions in the sciences is related to differences in the competiveness exhibited by women and men. The Hebrew University discussion was less stormy. The data on the ratio of women to men completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees and the grades women were attaining in their coursework left no doubt that women are as intellectually capable as their male colleagues. Why, then, are women dropping out the higher up one looks on the academic ladder?

Some blamed the heavy burden that raising children places on women, a lack of day care opportunities for small children, and difficult hurdles that faculty members need to overcome for university promotion, which disadvantage mothers of newborns. Some accused the university of conscious or subconscious discrimination against women, claiming that men feel more comfortable in all-male working environments.

Pointing accusatory fingers at particular individuals or policies and blaming them for unbalanced sex ratios in corporations and institutions is convenient, but in my opinion this is an inefficient approach. It is convenient because it gives the mistaken impression that drastic changes can be immediately obtained if only aggressively enforced affirmative action policies are brought to bear. It is inefficient because it deals only with the supply side of senior jobs positions and not the demand side.

Several research studies conducted by behavioral economists in recent years have added to our insight in this subject. One such study, published by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, revealed that men and women behave differently in competitive conditions. The researchers gave men and women monetary rewards for solving maze problems on a computer. In the first stage of the study, the participants received a set uniform payment for every maze that was successfully solved. In this stage, there were no sex-related differences evident—women and men were equally successful in solving the mazes.

In the second stage, the offered payments terms were changed. Instead of a uniform payment for each successful solution of a maze, payments were based on the results of a competitive tournament. In other words, the participants were ranked in relation to others, with the payments they received depending on how high they were ranked. The money received by each participant now depended not only on his or her performance but also on the performance of others. In this stage men attained significantly better results than women. Not only that, women performed better in the noncompetitive stage of the study than in the competitive stage, managing to solve more mazes.

It is still unclear why the women performed worse in the competitive stage. One possible explanation is that they felt less motivated to make an effort to solve the mazes when the payments were based on tournament results. But another explanation is that the stress that was induced by the competitive environment of the second stage affected their abilities. Gneezy and Rustichini concluded that men perform better than women in competitive situations.

Another pair of researchers, Muriel Niederle from Stanford University and Lise Vesterlund from the University of Pittsburgh, also studied gender-based differences in competitive situations.6 Participants in their study were paid to solve tasks requiring cognitive efforts—summing five two-digit numbers. This time, however, the participants had the option of receiving either a uniform payment based on their performance alone or a payment based on their performance in competition with others. A majority of male participants, 73 percent, chose the competitive payment method compared to only 35 percent of female participants who preferred that option. That large gap was independent of the relative performances of men and women in accomplishing the tasks in the experiment. Part of the gap stemmed from the simple fact that many of the female participants felt less comfortable being in a competitive situation, no matter how good they were at the task of summing five numbers. This is one of the most important points that emerged from the study: even women who were very good at the task and could have attained higher payments by choosing the competitive payment method preferred the noncompetitive method.

Several other studies, in addition to the two described in detail here, also indicate that men and women differ in their attitudes toward competition. There are also studies showing that women prefer avoiding negotiating situations much more than men.

Gender-based differences in attitudes toward competition may, if only partially, help explain the imbalance between men and women in senior jobs. Sherwin Rosen and Edward Lazear of the University of Chicago composed a very influential article in the 1980s comparing the promotion process in large organizations to sports tournaments.7 An employee who wants a promotion in an organization needs to “defeat” several rivals in order to advance to the next level, just like a tennis player at Wimbledon. The higher one climbs in the hierarchy, the closer one gets to the spire of the pyramid, where it gets very crowded. At each successive level the competition gets fiercer.

Rosen and Lazear give a very interesting explanation for the fact that the greatest leap in salary typically occurs between the penultimate level of the pyramid and its apex. At every other stage of the competition, they explain, if you get promoted, not only do you get a higher salary and more prestige, you also get another important prize, namely the right to compete for the next level in the hierarchy, where you will get even more money and prestige. If you get to the very top of the pyramid, you cannot receive this added prize, simply because it does not exist. There are no more levels to climb. The compensation for this comes in the form of a greater increase in salary in the move from second-in-command to the top position than the salary increases in all the other promotions. Otherwise, organizations would be reducing the incentive for promotion at the highest level of competition, hurting their chances of getting the best person for the top job.

Workplace promotion competition is usually not as transparent and blunt as in Rosen and Lazear’s model. But it definitely exists, and the competition unquestionably gets tougher the higher up you climb in the hierarchy. That may be the reason that women, who on average avoid competitive environments more than men, often decide to bow out of the competition at a certain stage even when their talents and chances for promotion are equal to those of the men against whom they are competing. This is why gender-based affirmative action in general is unlikely to be the right policy to use for the goal of increasing the representation of women in senior positions in organizations and corporations.

In Rosen and Lazear’s model, affirmative action is akin to lowering the bar by half a foot in a high-jump competition when the jumper is a woman. Doing so will not change the fact that there is a competition in the first place. It won’t make women who prefer avoiding competition altogether feel any better about the process. In fact, it could have the opposite effect. Knowing that they are being judged by different criteria than those applied to men may harm their self-image and reduce the satisfaction they would otherwise get from winning the competition, reducing women’s incentives to participate from the start.

A more efficient policy to adopt would be one that judges men and women using equal criteria but gives women a greater incentive to agreeing to compete in the first place. Possible incentives include giving women a “prize” for participating in the competition, even before the winner is announced, or offering a bigger prize for women who win the competition (which would translate into a higher salary or bonus given to women who attain promotions).

Sex-based differences in attitudes to competition undoubtedly developed during the course of evolution. Competitiveness gave males a greater survival advantage than it gave females. Competition between males for female mates is characteristic of many animals. Competitiveness gave human males an evolutionary advantage in genetic propagation. Acquiring food resources, hunting, and protecting families against predators and enemies are inherently masculine pursuits (given the more muscular frames men generally have in relation to women). They require a good deal of competitiveness. In a hostile environment, with food resources scarce and difficult to obtain, a man who avoids competition risks death for himself and his family.

About the Author

Eyal Winter

Eyal Winter, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the Hebrew University and the author of Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think.

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