NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 17, 2005

Suppose you could eliminate the factors often blamed for the shortage of women in high-paying jobs. Suppose that promotions and raises did not depend on pleasing sexist male bosses or putting in long nights and weekends away from home. Would women make as much as men?

Economists recently tried to find out in an experiment in Pittsburgh by paying men and women to add up five numbers in their heads. At first they worked individually, doing as many sums as they could in five minutes and receiving 50 cents for each correct answer. Then they competed in four-person tournaments, with the winner getting $2 per correct answer and the losers getting nothing.

  • On average, the women made as much as the men under either system.
  • But when they were offered a choice for the next round -- take the piece rate or compete in a tournament -- most women declined to compete, even the ones who had done the best in the earlier rounds.
  • Most men chose the tournament, even the ones who had done the worst.

The men's eagerness partly stemmed from overconfidence, because on average, men rated their ability more highly than the women rated theirs. But interviews and further experiments convinced the researchers, Muriel Niederle of Stanford and Lise Vesterlund of the University of Pittsburgh, that the gender gap wasn't due mainly to women's insecurities about their abilities. It was due to different appetites for competition.

"Even in tasks where they do well, women seem to shy away from competition, whereas men seem to enjoy it too much," says Niederle. "The men who weren't good at this task lost a little money by choosing to compete, and the really good women passed up a lot of money by not entering tournaments they would have won."

Source: John Tierney, ?What Women Want,? New York Times, May 24, 2005; based upon: Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund, "Do Women Shy Away from Competition?" Stanford University, May 2005.


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