How Women and Men View Competition Differently

The average woman is less competitive than the average man: She is less likely to describe herself as competitive and less willing to enter a competition.

In the workplace, this difference translates to performance; recent research indicates that competitive people do better socio-economically. Among graduates of a top MBA program, the gender difference in competitiveness accounted for 10 percent of the gender gap in earnings nine years after graduation; among female and male economists in France it accounted for 76 percent of the promotion gap.

By Selin Kesebir
February 21, 2020

So why are women less competitive than men? Past research has pointed to evolutionary pressures, the domestic roles that women have traditionally played and the patriarchal social order. These accounts suggest that men are more competitive because the payoffs of competition are higher for them. Other accounts have linked the gender difference in competitiveness to men’s higher levels of confidence: Women shy away from competition because they’re less likely to think they’ll win.

My colleagues and I wondered whether the beliefs women and men hold about competition today — which can be articulated, examined and changed through reflection — might also explain their different appetites for competition. If so, we might be able to equip women and men with a way to change those beliefs, those appetites and their careers.

In our research, we tested whether women and men differed in these beliefs. They did. In our sample of 2,331 people (49 percent women, 51 percent men, with an average age of 34), 63 percent of the women were less convinced than the average man that competition boosts performance, builds character and leads to innovative solutions. While there was no robust gender difference when it came to negative beliefs about competition, it was clear that men see more of an upside to competition than women.

We ultimately found that this difference in beliefs explains some of the gender difference in competitiveness. After measuring people’s beliefs about competition, we invited them to participate in what we told them was a different study, for which they could earn a bonus. We asked them whether they preferred that their bonus be based on their competitive performance (how their performance compared to others’), or their absolute performance (regardless of how others performed). We found that, indeed, people with more positive beliefs about competition were more likely to choose the competitive bonus scheme. Of the women, 21% chose the competitive option, compared to 36% of men. Men’s higher levels of competitiveness are partly explained by the more positive beliefs they hold about the outcomes of competition.

This has implications for all of us when we are confronted with the opportunity to compete in the workplace. Few of us ever explicitly wonder whether work contests are good or bad or whether we should strive to be more or less competitive. But we may hold these beliefs anyway — and they may seriously affect our professional prospects and earning potential. It is thus worthwhile to give serious thought to those beliefs so we’re better prepared to respond thoughtfully to potentially competitive situations.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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