These research findings were originally published in ESADE Knowledge Pills magazine. Subscribe now! Are men more competitive by nature or is that a biased belief? Some research has shown that women underperform in competitive environments compared to men and are more likely to avoid such environments in their careers. If that were true, it would lead to a gender gap in wages, either because women are less effective in certain competitive environments or because they are less likely to seek promotions. However, other research has shown that women's underperformance in competitive environments depends on the task and the gender composition of their competitors. In light of these contradictory findings, ESADE Associate Professor Pedro Rey Biel and his coauthor Nagore Iriberri from the University of the Basque Country conducted a study to gain insight into whether women underperform in competitive environments and, if so, why. The researchers ran several behavioral experiments with 640 male and female participants. In each session, half the subjects were men and half were women. The subjects were not told that the experiment included a gender study to prevent biased perceptions. The experiments consisted of two tasks, which the subjects performed in sequence in two four-minute periods. One task involved spatial relations, a skill that men are supposedly better at. The other involved verbal and memory skills, an area in which women tend to outperform their male counterparts. Relative underperformance and stereotype threat The results show that women underperform only in specific situations. "We found relative underperformance by women only in competitive environments in very specific contexts," said Prof. Rey. When women know their rival is a man, it seems to trigger a stereotype that makes them feel threatened. That, in turn, leads them to underperform. "Specifically, we found women underperformed only in the task believed to favor men and only when the rival's gender was revealed or when the women were informed that their rivals were ready to start competing," Prof. Rey explained. Women underperform only in the task believed to favor men What does this mean exactly? The experiments demonstrate that when the rival's gender is not revealed, the two genders tend to perform similarly: men showed an average improvement in the number of correct answers of about 5, while women improved by about 6. However, when participants were provided with information about their rival's gender, men on average improved by 8 answers while women improved by only 3. In other words, when men and women know their opponent is of the opposite sex, men's performance improves by 75%, while women's performance declines by almost 50%. Manipulating information So technically women's underperformance does not depend on their rival's gender itself, but on their preconceived stereotypes of their opponent's sex before they perform the task. When the rival's gender is not revealed, the two genders tend to perform similarly "Our findings demonstrate how manipulating the information given to men and women before they perform a task influences how they will perform in competitive environments. Women are more likely to underperform when they are provided in advance with information about their rivals' gender and supposed gender-based differences," said Prof. Rey. "If women believe they are about to perform a task that favors men, their performance will tend to decline." When researchers briefed participants with gender-related information, such as telling women whether the task they were about to perform tended to favor men or vice versa, they found the belief that they were performing a "male" task caused female performance to decline significantly. "Based on our evidence, it seems that omitting or emphasizing gender-related information can weaken or reinforce previous perceptions about differences in tasks and competitive abilities, thereby affecting performance," the authors explained. "The effect of correcting false preconceptions about women's relatively lower ability to perform jobs traditionally considered male should be studied, since such perceptions are not true." You may also like: 7 mindsets of innovative leaders

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Men vs. women: who performs better in competitive environments?

04/2019

These research findings were originally published in ESADE Knowledge Pills magazine. Subscribe now!


Are men more competitive by nature or is that a biased belief?


Some research has shown that women underperform in competitive environments compared to men and are more likely to avoid such environments in their careers. If that were true, it would lead to a gender gap in wages, either because women are less effective in certain competitive environments or because they are less likely to seek promotions.


However, other research has shown that women's underperformance in competitive environments depends on the task and the gender composition of their competitors.


In light of these contradictory findings, ESADE Associate Professor Pedro Rey Biel and his coauthor Nagore Iriberri from the University of the Basque Country conducted a study to gain insight into whether women underperform in competitive environments and, if so, why.


The researchers ran several behavioral experiments with 640 male and female participants. In each session, half the subjects were men and half were women. The subjects were not told that the experiment included a gender study to prevent biased perceptions.



The experiments consisted of two tasks, which the subjects performed in sequence in two four-minute periods. One task involved spatial relations, a skill that men are supposedly better at. The other involved verbal and memory skills, an area in which women tend to outperform their male counterparts.


Relative underperformance and stereotype threat


The results show that women underperform only in specific situations. "We found relative underperformance by women only in competitive environments in very specific contexts," said Prof. Rey.


When women know their rival is a man, it seems to trigger a stereotype that makes them feel threatened. That, in turn, leads them to underperform. "Specifically, we found women underperformed only in the task believed to favor men and only when the rival's gender was revealed or when the women were informed that their rivals were ready to start competing," Prof. Rey explained.


Women underperform only in the task believed to favor men


What does this mean exactly? The experiments demonstrate that when the rival's gender is not revealed, the two genders tend to perform similarly: men showed an average improvement in the number of correct answers of about 5, while women improved by about 6.


However, when participants were provided with information about their rival's gender, men on average improved by 8 answers while women improved by only 3.


In other words, when men and women know their opponent is of the opposite sex, men's performance improves by 75%, while women's performance declines by almost 50%.


Manipulating information


So technically women's underperformance does not depend on their rival's gender itself, but on their preconceived stereotypes of their opponent's sex before they perform the task.


When the rival's gender is not revealed, the two genders tend to perform similarly


"Our findings demonstrate how manipulating the information given to men and women before they perform a task influences how they will perform in competitive environments. Women are more likely to underperform when they are provided in advance with information about their rivals' gender and supposed gender-based differences," said Prof. Rey. "If women believe they are about to perform a task that favors men, their performance will tend to decline."


When researchers briefed participants with gender-related information, such as telling women whether the task they were about to perform tended to favor men or vice versa, they found the belief that they were performing a "male" task caused female performance to decline significantly.


"Based on our evidence, it seems that omitting or emphasizing gender-related information can weaken or reinforce previous perceptions about differences in tasks and competitive abilities, thereby affecting performance," the authors explained.


"The effect of correcting false preconceptions about women's relatively lower ability to perform jobs traditionally considered male should be studied, since such perceptions are not true."


You may also like: 7 mindsets of innovative leaders


More Knowledge
Stereotypes are only a threat when beliefs are reinforced. On the sentitivity of gender differences in performance under competition to information provision
Iriberri , Nagore; Rey Biel, Pedro
Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Vol. 135, nº -, 03/2017, p. 99 - 111
Diferencias en competitividad como explicación de brechas de género en el mercado laboral
Rey Biel, Pedro
Informe Económico y Financiero
Nº 23, 07/2018, p. 42 - 51
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