Tall poppies and pulled punches

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Not long ago three colleagues and I published a study in the Journal of Political Economy (JPE) that shows that women are habitually given less credit than men for their collaborative work, that is, in situations where it is unknown who contributed what. We used field experiments that allowed us to control for many situational factors, such as departmental differences, and thus isolate the causal relationship between collaborative work and credit attribution to women and men.

When we presented joint performance in an experiment that asked human-resources managers to select the best candidates for a (simulated) recruitment, we could demonstrate that their selection of men over women was due to biased beliefs about individual contributions, and not to gender differences in effort.

Beliefs that women are innately less competent relate to what can be called the ‘demand side’ explanations of discrimination dynamics. I count myself among those scholars who think that it is not enough to examine bias among those who assign different rewards to members of a team; it is as important to look into the actual effort and performance of women and men under various circumstances. This captures the ‘supply side’ of gender inequality.

How do women and men view their own competence? Does that differ when they are competing with each other? What competitive conditions can affect their performance and why?

Not all contests are the same

Experimental research into various aspects of the gender gap in work performance has accrued evidence that generally speaking, women tend to avoid situations of competition more than men do – when ‘competition’ refers to securing scarce resources in rivalry with others (Niederle and Vesterlund 2011).

But there is another aspect of competition that has received less attention in gender research: when your performance is compared to that of other people, and when you know that this ranking will be revealed to all. This is referred to as social-status ranking.

In several recent publications, my co-authors (Jordi Brandts and Arthur Schram) and I explore the effects of status ranking on gender differences in performance. For this work, experiments were conducted in three European countries: Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Participants are randomly grouped; each group has women and men in it. Group members are assigned to complete the same task involving mental effort and they complete the task individually. A higher score brings a meaningful (individual) reward. Members of some of the groups were given to know they will be ranked against their peers (that is, the others in their group) and this ranking would be reported to a third party. Those who know this perform differently from those whose status will not be judged. Strikingly, these studies found a large drop in the women’s performance as soon as they knew they were in a competitive situation of status comparison. Moreover, when the gender of the third party they report their performance ranking to is male, men have a much stronger desire than women to maintain this competitive situation.

Sharpening the explanations

We are now pushing our understanding of these findings forward to find explanations for why the status ranking dimension of competition makes women underperform and whether it is different than under the rivalry for resources dimension of competition.

To do so, we ran various experiments that tested the role of several mechanisms that have been proposed in theoretical work. We find that the gender gap remains in both competitive conditions. Importantly, we show that this gap occurs because either dimension of competition both makes men perform better and women perform worse.

In our search for why this is the case, we got a remarkable result when the ranking took place not in comparison to the others in one’s own group but in comparison to people who had previously participated in the task. At first sight, this would seem not to matter; women still know that they will be compared to others. Yet, women performed much better (and equally to men) in this experiment. Another important explanation from our experimental data is that men believe they are better than women (only) when there is competition and this belief might make men actually perform better. From these two findings, we conclude that under competitive conditions, women perform worse not because of how they view their own competence, but because they want to avoid harming the success of others; men on the other hand do better because they believe that they are better.

It’s not the pants suit

All of this shows how seemingly irrelevant factors in the environment in which women and men are placed affects how they perform. This may have consequences for gender differences in many domains. Think, for example, of electoral speeches given by female and male political candidates during a campaign. While the candidates may be equally competent, the fact that their speeches will be compared may drive the performance of the female candidate down and that of the male counterpart up.

Women are increasingly participating in public life, including in competitive environments. Understanding better the effects of different forms of competition is important, because it will help policies aimed at reducing gender gaps to focus on the dimension where the impact will be the greatest. Moreover, by identifying potential explanatory mechanisms, we can better understand the sources of gender inequalities, which in turn will aid in the development of policies to mitigate such inequalities. Contributing to this knowledge is precisely our goal in a manuscript we are preparing for the American Journal of Sociology.


Klarita Gërxhani is Professor and Chair in Sociology at EUI’s Department of Political and Social Sciences. Her interdisciplinary research pursues a combination of laboratory and field experiments with field surveys. She has published in Journal of Political Economy, Annual Review of Sociology, Social Networks, European Sociological Review and Experimental Economics, among others, on topics including social norms, institutional change, labour market and organisations, social status and gender inequalities, social capital, informal economies and tax evasion.

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