NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 16, 2006

Why is the proportion of women in highly paid executive positions and in the professorial ranks of academic science and engineering so low relative to the proportion of women in the labor force? One answer may be a dislike of competition by some women, says Linda Gorman of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

A recent study put 80 paid volunteers through a series of three short tasks compensated either on a competitive winner-take-all or a non-competitive basis to find out if women, as a group, dislike competition. According to researchers:

  • Men and women answered the same number of problems correctly under both compensation systems, but when allowed to choose compensation rates, 75 percent of the men chose tournament compensation while only 35 percent of the women did so.
  • When men and women with the same performance in the second-task tournament are compared, women had about a 38 percent lower probability of entering the subsequent tournament than the men.
  • This implies that among high performing participants, more men than women enter the tournament; among low performing participants, it is the men who enter the tournament too much, and hence do not earn as much as they could.

So, what can account for this gender difference, asks Gorman?

  • Men might enter a tournament more than women because they feel more confident about their ability (even though they are not actually better).
  • Women may shy away from tournaments because they dislike facing the possibility of not being paid for their performance, or they dislike receiving feedback about their relative performance.

Furthermore, the study shows that there are large gender differences in the propensity to choose competitive environments and that this needs to be taken into account in understanding why women are under-represented in many fields of work, says Gorman.

Source: Linda Gorman, "Do Women Shy Away From Competition?" NBER Digest, February 2006; based upon: Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund, "Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?" NBER Working Paper No. 11474, July 2005.

For text:

For Niederle and Vesterlund text:


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