Do Competitive Environments Favor Men More Than Women? Research by Uri Gneezy
From evolutionary biology to discrimination to personal preferences,
science and society have offered many reasons for why women
have not caught up with men in the workforce. New research suggests
that part of the answer lies in the different ways men and women
react to the incentive of competition.
Gender gaps are observed in a variety of economic and social
environments, including the widely acknowledged dearth of female
One reason for the gender gap may be explicit or subtle forms
of discrimination against women. Researchers have also pointed
to preferences, i.e. unobservable factors such as how much men
and women choose to sacrifice for their careers. A new study,
"Gender and Competition at a Young Age," looks at
an alternative explanation for why the gender gap exists.
In the study, Uri Gneezy, an assistant professor at the University
of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Aldo Rustichini
of the University of Minnesota suggest that one of the possible
factors creating a gender gap is that men are more competitive
than women in the short term. For this reason, when the competitiveness
of the environment increases, the performance of men increases
relative to that of women.
Choosing a natural environment over a laboratory, Gneezy and
Rustichini tested their theory in a physical education class
of 140 children (75 boys and 65 girls), ages nine and ten years
old. In a regular P.E. class exercise, the children ran alone
over a short track and then in pairs with different gender compositions,
with the teacher measuring the speed. The authors then studied
the speed of the children in the race.
When the children ran alone, there was no difference in performance.
In competition, boys but not girls improved. The girls in the
study did not perform worse, but simply the same, as if there
was no competition at all. On the other hand, the boys put much
more effort into their performance once they were competing.
By choosing to examine subjects in this age group, Gneezy and
Rustichini sought to understand whether differences in competitiveness
are due to socialization in the teenage years, or begin at a
much younger age. In addition, at ages nine and ten, gender
plays an insignificant role in speed in a short running race.
As their results show, the age of nine is already old enough
for socialization to work. In fact, it has been suggested that
the socialization of gender may even begin at birth.
The children in the study did not know they were being observed,
nor was there any motivation for their performance besides the
competition itself, as opposed to lab subjects who are typically
paid. This suggests that males are more competitive even when
only intrinsic motivation is present.
One factor potentially influencing performance was the fact
that in the open competition, the children saw the two competitors
as they ran, and received feedback during the race. Therefore,
the children knew exactly how much effort would be needed to
The results demonstrate that the gender composition of the
competing group affects the outcome of the race. Boys improved
in both mixed and homogenous groups, but improved more when
running against girls. The incentive of competition proved particularly
weak when girls ran against other girls, resulting in even slower
running times than when running alone.
The study builds upon earlier work by the authors and Muriel
Niederle of Stanford University, which also showed that competition
improves the performance of males more than females, creating
a gender gap which does not exist in non-competitive environments.
The earlier study tested responses to a mental rather than
physical task. In a lab experiment, men and women were asked
to solve simple maze problems on a computer, and were paid according
to different criteria. The average age of the participants was
twenty-three years old.
When subjects were paid for individual performance, there was
no significant gender difference in the results. When subjects
were paid on a competitive basis, and only the subject with
the best outcome was paid, the performance of the male subjects
increased significantly, while that of the female subjects remained
"In situations where only the best person in the group
is rewarded, males react very differently to this incentive
than females," says Gneezy.
Competition in the Workforce and Classroom
Similar to the children's races, applying for jobs is a short
Most job searches involve a high level of competition. In fields
such as sales, the ability to compete may be one of the required
skills or qualities. However, in fields such as marketing, creativity
may be the mostly highly prized attribute, rather than competitiveness.
"For some jobs, the selection process might be more competitive
than the job itself," says Gneezy. "So in the end,
what you get is the most competitive person, not necessarily
the person most qualified to do the job."
The authors suggest that if the behavior of subjects is affected
by the competitive nature of the selection procedure, then the
optimal selection procedure should take this into account, and
not be more competitive than the job a person is called on to
"People doing the hiring should think about what are the
really important aspects of each job," says Gneezy. "If
competitiveness is not one of them, give job applicants tasks
which are more creative, more related to the job, or base the
selection more on the personal impression you get in the interview."
Gneezy suggests that CEOs creating incentives in their firms
should be aware that making the internal environment more competitive
might create a bias that helps men, while putting women at a
In addition to workforce issues, Gneezy and Rustichini's findings
also relate to the debate over single sex public schools and
single sex classrooms. Standard legal interpretations of Title
IX, which forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, suggest
that single sex schools are against the law.
While the authors do not argue strongly for or against single
sex schools and classrooms, they do caution that the competitiveness
of the educational environment should be considered. They warn
that in mixed gender schools, a difference in competitiveness
and thus performance may appear as a difference in talent, penalizing
girls as a result. A single-sex educational system, while it
does have its limitations, may give a more balanced picture
of the merits and talents of both boys and girls.
Understanding the Gap
The study explains one reason for the gender gap, but Gneezy
notes that the study only looks at short run responses to competition.
Studies focusing on the long run may produce a different set
"Our study looks at a statistical woman and a statistical
man," says Gneezy. "The results don't mean that a
specific woman will be less competitive, and in fact a particular
woman may be more competitive than any man I know. If you look
in general at the population, then you see the differences."
Uri Gneezy is assistant professor of behavioral science at the
University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.