Women will compete against self, not others, to improve performance

A woman is less likely to choose competition than a man, even when she performs equally well, unless competing with herself for a better outcome, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, George Mason University and the German Institute for Economic Research or DIW.

Coren Apicella, an assistant professor of psychology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, teamed up with Johanna Mollerstrom of DIW and Elif Demiral of George Mason to conduct the research, a two-part study with a lab and online component.

Overall, they determined that “women are just as focused as men on self-improvement and mastery; they want to get better,” Apicella said. “But they shy away from competing against others.”

The researchers will publish their results in AER: Papers and Proceedings, the journal of the American Economic Association. (Click here for a copy.)

In total, almost 1,200 people, half of them female, participated in a short, three-round game. Some did so in the lab, others online. All participants were assigned to one of two treatments: “other” or “self” competition. 

Round 1 for both set-ups asked participants to solve simple problems, earning them $1 for each correct answer, in what’s called piece-rate performance.

Round 2, the tournament, changed depending on treatment: “Other” testing in the lab was a winner-take-all game against another anonymous in-person participant. The champion earned $2 per correct answer, and the loser got nothing. Online, Apicella and her colleagues included two additional conditions, one in which participants knew and competed against someone of the same gender, another in which they learned their matched opponent was of the same ability level. In the “self” version both in the lab and online, participants tried to beat their previous score from Round 1.

The researchers paid the closest attention to Round 3, for which participants chose whether to return to the piece-rate method or continue with the tournament. Participants then self-reported how well they think they performed, a measure of confidence and their level of risk-taking.

“Gender differences when competing against others is largely driven by confidence and risk-taking. Men tend to overestimate their own ability and underestimate their opponent’s ability,” Apicella said. “Men are also more willing to take risks.”

The data correlated with that assessment in the lab and online: In the “other” set-up in the lab, 58 percent of males chose competition in the final round compared to 38 percent of women, a 20-percentage-point gender gap. That disparity disappeared in the “self” version. The researchers replicated the findings online, with the willingness-to-compete gender gap 12 percentage points in favor of males in the “other” set-up but, again, disappearing in the “self” set-up.

What does this mean in real-world situations, particularly for fields and institutions that employ competitive situations to improve employee outcomes? Rather than completely doing away with such features, the researchers suggest a restructuring. Pit workers against themselves rather than each other.

“When they’re competing against their own past performance, it’s also boosting their current performance, and it’s no different from the boost they’re getting from competing against another person,” Apicella said. “Women still get paid less than men and are underrepresented in higher-ranking jobs, and it may be because they are shying away from competing against others.” 

Restructuring the workplace could potentially help shrink the gender gap that persists today, though the researchers note the need for more research to better understand the complexity behind such differences.