How Does Gender Affect One's Willingness To Compete? New social science research suggests highly competitive settings are likely to dissuade qualified women from tossing their hats in the ring.

How Does Gender Affect One's Willingness To Compete?

How Does Gender Affect One's Willingness To Compete?

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New social science research suggests highly competitive settings are likely to dissuade qualified women from tossing their hats in the ring.


There's competition at nearly every stage in life. We're not just talking about sports. Think school, college, career, and many of us believe that it results in the best outcomes, that the right people win or get the job. But what if competition isn't the best way to find the most qualified people? In fact, what if it actually discouraged them from making an effort? NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking at research into the downside of competition, and he joins us now. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So tell us about this research.

VEDANTAM: Well, there's actually three pieces of research I want to tell you about, Audie, and they come from very different places - China, India and here in the United States. So researchers at the National University of Singapore recently analyzed the performance of men and women taking China's national college entrance exam. Now, a month before the exam in conducted, there is a mock exam. And the researchers did something very simple and very clever. They compared the scores of 8,000 men and women in the mock exam versus the real exam. And they find that young women perform significantly better on the mock exam that on the real exam. If the mock exam were the real exam, nearly 1 in 6 women who don't qualify for a top school would indeed qualify.

CORNISH: OK, so that's 1 in 6 in the research in China. What's going on there?

VEDANTAM: Well, there could be lots of reasons why this is the case. It could be that men don't take the mock exam seriously. It could be that women perform worse under the pressure of the real exam. And here's where some of the other research I've read comes into the picture. There've been a number of studies, Audie, that suggest that women on average are simply not drawn to competition as much as men are drawn to competition. So studies in the United States, for example, show that if you have a highly competitive setting, fewer women will step forward - and this is the really important bit to remember - even when the women are likely to do really well in the competition.

In one study conducted with business school students, researchers at Stanford University, the University of Zurich and the University of Pittsburgh found that when it comes to solving math problems, women who are good at math often step forward only when the competition rules say the winners will always include both men and women. So these are highly qualified women who would actually compete fine against men but they're choosing not to do so.

CORNISH: So how should we think about this in the context of competition for jobs or, say, something like affirmative action, which is supposed to, I guess, correct for this kind of gap?

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I mean, there are obviously many dimensions to affirmative action. But I think one perception that many people have, Audie, is that you either have to be for merit or you have to be for affirmative action. And I think experiments like the one that I just described suggests this can be a false choice because in the absence of promising that both men and women are going to be represented among the winners of that math competition, many of the qualified women do not step forward at all. So, you know, we often imagine the talent pool is unaffected by the context and high-qualified people will always perform well regardless of the context. But what if the competition itself changes the willingness of people to participate? If competition dissuades qualified people from entering the arena, it's hard to make the case that competitions will always produce the most qualified people.

CORNISH: Can you talk about this kind of research when it comes to men and their inclination for competition?

VEDANTAM: You know, Audie, a lot of us, I think, believe that men are just innately more interested in competition than women. And I think this brings me to the last study that I brought in with me today. John List of the University of Chicago told me about a study he conducted with several colleagues in four villages in northeast India. The researchers measured how men and women performed a physical task - throwing tennis balls into a bucket 10 feet away. There were no real differences in performance between men and women. But List found significant differences in the willingness of men and women to compete in some villages versus others. In villages that had patriarchal system where men were the heads of households, young men in these villages were far more likely to be interested in competition than women. In villages that had matrilineal systems where women were the heads of households, young women in these villages were just as likely as men to be interested in competition.

CORNISH: All right, so bring this home to the U.S. What are the implications here and in what ways can we rethink the value of competition?

VEDANTAM: You know, I think it's fair to say that it's possible that what happens in China and India doesn't necessarily reflect what happens in the United States. But it is interesting, Audie, that many of the gender differences we observe in the United States are very similar to what List observed in India. List and his colleagues actually think that some combination of puberty and patriarchy seems to produce different attitudes when it comes to interest in competition. Here's the bottom line, Audie - if you're selecting athletes for the Rio Olympics, it makes sense that you select them as a result of competition because competitions are a really good way of finding out who does well at competitions. But that doesn't necessarily tell you that competitions are always the best way of finding out who does well at everything. They might not be the best way to find the best scientists or the best writers, even the best presidents.

CORNISH: That's NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: He's also host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain.

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