We Women DO Compete!

Well, there is never a dull moment in gender research! Just a few weeks ago I was telling you about some research on men, women and competition and here’s some more which may well support or contradict that – depends on your viewpoint.

Harvard Gender Research

Research from 3 Harvard professors seems to indicate that it’s not so much that women aren’t competitive but that we don’t like competing against men.

In their forthcoming paper, The Untold Story of Gender and Incentives, Harvard Professors Kathleen L. McGinn and Iris Bohnet, along with HBS doctoral student Pinar Fletcher, examine how men and women respond when they cooperate or compete in pairs on maths and verbal tasks.

Women DO Compete

“Women are competitive, but not in particular work environments or groups,” says McGinn, the Cahners-Rabb Professor and chair of the Doctoral Programs at Harvard Business School.

She and Bohnet, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School who serves as director of its Women and Public Policy Programme, have studied gender gaps and inequality in the workplace. Their research addresses questions about why women are paid less, have trouble being promoted in certain work environments, and hold a tiny percentage of top corporate management positions.

They teamed with Fletcher, to answer questions on gender, competition, and cooperation that have not been addressed in previous research: Do men and women react differently to diverse sorts of pay schemes? Do gender stereotypes about a task influence competitive and cooperative behaviour among men and women? How does the gender composition of groups affect competition and cooperation among individuals?

Their Experiments

Fletcher and McGinn conducted experiments with 236 men and women in April and May of 2011, using cooperative and competitive scenarios in which participants performed both a verbal and a math test at Harvard Business School’s Computer Lab for Experimental Research.

Each participant was given a pseudonym, with women receiving obviously female aliases (like Jennifer) and men obviously male names (like John). Then participants were paired with another participant—male against male, male against female, and female against female. Participants never knew the actual identities of their opponents, but they were given the pseudonym assigned to their opponent.

Competition between the participants was induced through a “winner-takes-all” payment scheme: only the participant with the higher score would receive a payment for each correct answer.

Cooperation was induced with a different payment scheme: the researchers would add up the number of correct answers each pair produced and split the payment equally between the two participants.

Interestingly, the researchers didn’t find a significant difference in performance between the cooperative and the competitive payment schemes for either men or women. “This is in contrast to previous studies,” says Fletcher. Prior research had found that men exerted extra effort and performed better than women when they were in a competitive situation, whereas women exerted similar amounts of effort whether or not they were competing.

“There’s a strongly held assumption that men are competitive and women aren’t, and our results show otherwise.”
Fletcher says that homophily—our tendency to associate and form relationships with those who are similar to us—might lead individuals to feel more comfortable and perform better on same-gender teams, whether cooperative or competitive.

Does Money Make a Difference?

Why the different results? Perhaps it came down to money. In previous studies participants were offered a higher pay rate per correct answer in the competitive scenario, so it’s possible that men respond more to higher pay rates than do women. Societal pressures might also hold women back from responding to higher pay as aggressively as men.

McGinn says their results suggest that gender effects around competition are contextual and that the results depend on the sorts of tasks men and women are asked to complete and the gender of those with whom they are interacting.

“There’s a strongly held assumption that men are competitive and women aren’t, and our results show otherwise,” she says. “Men and women work together differently when they’re dependent [on each other] versus independent and when they work on stereotypically male or female tasks.”

The researchers are undertaking further work. However, says McGinn, the preliminary research already tells the team something quite significant: “Organizations need to think about the ‘genderness’ of their tasks and the composition of their groups.”

Many thanks to Womaneer for bringing this piece of research to my attention, and to Kim Girard of the Harvard Business School newsletter.

Posted on October 3rd, 2011 by

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