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Are women afraid to compete?

August 02, 2005

Women expect to do badly in competitions whereas men, jolly fellows, bash on regardless.

This column has now been in existence for a little over five years. Mostly, I draw from papers on the National Bureau of Economic Research website (

The other day someone asked why. I had no immediate answer.

But over the past few days I have trawled 12 websites, including World Bank, IMF and SSRN and a few others. And now I know.

NBER is the only one to publish, shall we say, highly unusual papers. The rest, in comparison, are dull as ditchwater.

For instance, can you imagine anyone else publishing a paper entitled "Denial of Death and Economic Behaviour"? Or one called "Life Cycles of Movie Directors from D W Griffith or Fredrico Fellini"?

Or whether "Falling Smoking Leads to Rising Obesity"? There is even a paper which asks "Is religion good for you?" (Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation, and Outcomes: Is Religion Good For You?)

But the one I like most is where the authors say that fat women cause a loss in family incomes (Gender, Body Mass and Economic Status, Working Paper No. 11343).

The paper says that "a one per cent increase in a woman's body mass results in a 0.6 percentage point decrease in her family income and a 0.4 percentage point decrease in her occupational prestige measured 13 to 15 years later."

Not just this. "Body mass is also associated with a reduction in her spouse's occupational prestige, and her spouse's earnings." No wonder my income is rising non-stop.

I can go on but the point must be obvious. NBER lets it all hang out.

Amongst the latest washing that is fluttering on the NBER string is a paper by Muriel Niederle of Stanford and Lise Vesterlund of Pittsburg*. They ask "whether women shy away from competition while men are drawn to it."

And the answer is yes. Women don't like the elbows-out approach to advancement. The paper is part of a research programme that is trying to figure out why there are so few women in high-profile jobs, and that too across whole professions.

The authors conducted two experiments. The first required the men and women to not compete while the second did. The two groups then decide how they would like to proceed in the future.

The competition involved a short task in which, say the authors, "we did not expect men to do better than women, a task that is in no way exciting but rather requires participants to be very careful not to make simple mistakes."

The idea was to keep it so simple that the neither group would get an ego-boost if it did well. And what happened?

"Despite there being no gender differences in initial performances," say the authors, "twice as many men as women enter the tournament. Neither performance before, nor after the tournament-entry decision, can explain this difference."

In other words, women avoid competition. The authors don't know why but offer a number of explanations.

One is simply that women are more risk-averse or dislike receiving information on relative performance. It could also be that they expect to do badly and, therefore, stay away from competition, whereas men, jolly fellows, bash on regardless.

The truly amazing thing is that even when women perform as well as men they opt out, while men opt in. "If given a choice, high-performing women will not enter the competition."

Indeed, it seems women not only avoid competitions, even when they are forced to compete, they first funk and then flunk.

This psychological quirk clearly has huge economic implications because, on the whole, society can end up getting a large number of highly competitive but useless males in top jobs while less competitive and more competent females get left behind.

*Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much? NBER Working Paper No. 11474, July 2005

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: Are women afraid to compete.

In the end the writer only seems too afraid to annoy his feminist bosses.

Posted by Hitanshu


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