Study: Women View Competition More Negatively Than Men Do
It’s going to be a decade since researchers conclusively studied competitiveness and found that the average woman is less competitive than the average man. She is less likely to call herself competitive and is less willing to enter a competition. Present-day research further suggests a link between the gender differences in competitiveness and the gender pay gap. But why are women less competitive than men?
This is the question that four professors from London Business School (LBS) recently sat down to research. They were curious to see whether beliefs held by people about competition shapes their appetite for it. To comprehensively measure something as abstract as beliefs about competition, they asked 119 women and 111 men (American; between the ages of 18 and 82; 99% of them had work experience) what they consider to be good and bad about competition.
The researchers then condensed the replies they received into themes; three reasons emerged explained why people thought competition is good and three why they thought it was bad. “On the positive side, competition has the potential to (1) boost performance, (2) develop one’s character, and (3) lead to innovative problem-solving. On the negative side, competition potentially (1) encourages unethical behaviors, (2) damages people’s self-confidence, and (3) hurts relationships,” Selen Kesebir, PhD, one of the four researchers and an associate professor of organizational behavior at LBS, wrote in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).
Based on this, the professors created a scale and asked the study’s participants to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements corresponding to each of the six beliefs. They found 63% of the women were less convinced than the average man about the three positive beliefs about competition. While there was no significant gender difference in the negative beliefs about competition, the study concluded that men’s higher level of competitiveness can be explained to some extent by their more positive beliefs about the outcomes of competition.
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The researchers then approached the study’s participants and asked them to participate in a second study — a completely different one — for which they could earn a bonus. They asked them if they wanted this sum of money to be determined by their relative performance (their performance compared to others) or their absolute performance (their performance regardless of others’ performance). The results of this study cemented the earlier conclusions: people with more positive beliefs about competition were more likely to choose the first option; 21% of women chose the competitive bonus scheme, compared to 36% of men.
Past research has suggested the gender difference in competitiveness arises for evolutionary reasons, or due to the patriarchal social order that has historically kept women away from spaces of professional work, and by extension, competition. Other research has pointed to the fact that men are more confident than women that they’ll win a competition upon entering one, which is why they’re more competitive.
“But no one can change evolutionary or past historical trajectories,” Kesebir writes. Through their latest study, the researchers confirm a link between beliefs about competition and level of competitiveness in people — and beliefs, according to the researchers, can be changed through reflection. And, if women’s beliefs about competition can be changed, they will be more likely to put themselves in situations that necessitate competition — for instance, CEO succession — increasing the chances of them ending up with better job titles and bigger paychecks.
“Our findings also point to a number of questions for future study. How do people come by their beliefs about competitiveness? Are they transmitted through peers, parents, schools, or the popular culture? Does early experience in competitive sports instill more positive beliefs about competition? Are women more pessimistic about the upside of competition because they indeed do experience competition differently? Understanding these triggers may be able to help us design more effective messages around competition,” Kesebir writes, with the end goal that this may level the playing field in the workplace, and reduce the ever-stubborn gender pay gap to some extent.