What Women Want To Compete

Updated: Mar 23

Written by Alessandra Cassar - Professor of Economics at University of San Francisco

My experimental work probes the hypothesis that women have a naturally lower desire to compete than men, an idea widely embraced by economists and offered as an explanation for why women are a minority in high-ranking economic and political positions.

Contrary to this idea, recent advances in evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology have highlighted the evolutionary significance of female competition. These groundbreaking studies have indicated that there is no convincing evolutionary reason to support the idea that selection pressures for females should have resulted in overall less competitive traits, but rather that the different sexes have evolved to pursue different competitive strategies with females reserving their most intense competitive behaviors for the benefit of their offspring.

The initial research of my team and I demonstrated that by substituting the tournament reward traditionally used in the experiments with an equal value voucher intended to benefit the winner's children brings the level of mothers' competitiveness to the level of fathers’, even when a gap is found using cash incentives.

In my current work, I further explore the idea that the incentive structure of the games used to elicit gender preferences may be especially tailored to register a trait the way it is expressed in males, leaving out important features that matter to women.

Specifically, I look at the costs and benefits of reaching high status and point out important sex differences, arguing that men’ strategies have adapted from situations of clear winners and losers (they get more opportunity at reproductions). Women, on the other hand, would not find such strategies suited to their goals. Instead, if the incentives to compete are socially-oriented, as when the incentives to winning include the possibility to share some of the gains with the losers (hence avoiding some of competition’s costs – losing potential mates and allies) women will reveal competitive traits similar to men.

In fact, our data show that women compete as much as men in tournaments when the rules of the competition give the winners the option to share part of the rewards with the losers. This result supports the hypothesis that female competition can be just as intense as male competition given the right incentives, suggesting important implications for policies designed to promote gender equality.

These effects have both important scientific and policy implications. Economists, instead, looking for reasons why women are rarely found in top jobs, have accumulated a large body of experimental evidence pointing to women’s lower desire to compete; hence self-selecting into less prominent positions. My experimental findings support the hypothesis that women compete as much as men once we change the winner-take-all incentive used in the vast majority of the tournament experiments to one that might be more in line with a woman’s goal: enjoying competition’s benefits (acquisition of resources) without its costs (alienation of potential mates and allies).

These results also contribute a novel argument to the much-debated topic of how to close the gender gap in earnings. I believe that a change in the incentive structure in the workplace, namely a less skewed one, could induce more women to thrive in competitive workplace situations. Sharp experimental evidence showing that women are as competitive as men once the incentives are relevant to them is of general interest not just among the scientific community but for the wider public, especially among those interested in the differential economic treatment of men and women, affirmative action, and discrimination. With women still earning less than 80 cents on the dollar with respect to men and vastly underrepresented in positions of power and leadership, our topic is timely and relevant.

These issues are recognized as our generation’s pressing challenges on Capitol Hill and in the board room, in popular publications such as Lean In, Women Don’t Ask, and the pages of the Economist, as well as in the objectives of the NSF STEM education initiatives. My work shows that including socially-oriented rewards to contracts offers a new policy tool, less controversial than quotas, with the potential to close the gender gap in labor markets.

If you want to know more about this interesting topic and the research supported by Alessandra over the years, we invite you to watch the video of the event: COME COMPETONO LE DONNE, by clicking HERE.

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