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. Recent 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
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 recent
study, "Gender and Competition at a Young Age,"
looks at an alternative explanation for why the gender gap
In the study, University of Chicago Graduate School of Business
professor Uri Gneezy 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
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
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
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 noncompetitive 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 constant.
"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 perform.
"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 relative disadvantage.
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 of results.
"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."