Gender Relationships in Competition: It’s (really) complicated

Women are simply not as competitive as men – that’s one of the beliefs that are as wide-spread as over-simplified, and not even proven. Contextualised insight, however, provides learning for D&I and HR.

The inclination to compete – sometimes simply called competitiveness – is often used as one of the major explanations for persisting gender gaps, particularly on executive levels but also regarding compensation. Similar to other aspects of diversity, an easy-to-believe narrative was established: Women are – generally, statistically or by nature – less competitive than men are. Similar to other questions, initial research (in the 1990s) seemed to confirm the assumption so that people stuck to it. Similar to most of these simple explanations and their simple confirmation, the reality turned out to be much more complex. Another wide-spread story turns out to be yet another myth.

Women are willing to compete – yet not against men

The most recent of a number of studies into the competiveness of men and women was carried out in the Netherlands. Researchers studied two types of decision making situations that occur in TV game shows following the ‘deal or no deal’ format. While most lab-based experiments use small amounts of money to study decision-making behaviour, this type of game show raises the bar to what researchers call high stakes, which are supposed to be similar to the high-impact choices people face in executive careers.

Their first analysis examined a tournament-entry decision situation: after having accurately answered an estimation question, participants have to choose between competing in the next elimination game and opting out for a prize. The researchers found that women are more than twice as likely to opt out as men. However, the higher opt-out rate derives entirely from situations, when the majority of their opponents in the next stage would be male!

The second analysis looked at head-to-head competition of single and mixed sex pairs respectively, where a decision to compete automatically leads to a win if the opponent opts out. The researchers found almost no difference between pairs where men competed against men and women against women. In mixed pairs, however, women were (again) twice as like to opt out as men. This not only shows a ‘particular dislike of women to compete against men’, it also shows that ‘men expect women to be less competitive and act accordingly in strategic settings’.

The paper, written by three men, adds to a significant body of research, much of which employed TV game shows to study gender effects on decision-making.

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Solutions for Talent & Career Management

Priming, self-nomination or automatic nomination with an opting-out possibility are some of the solutions that companies have considered to balance the perceived gender differences in competitiveness. Two scientific studies provide evidence for some of these practices.

In one experiment, researchers showed that priming subjects with power can close the gender gap in competitiveness. While in neutral or low-power priming situations, men were more likely than women to choose competition, the gap vanished when subjects were primed with a high-power situation. This seems to make competition entry decisions more realistic and to reduce the level of risk tolerance among male participants.

In another experiment, researchers analysed a scheme where candidates were considered for a position if they did not opt out. Here women and men had the same participation rate as men in the ‘traditional’ opt-in setting (i.e. actively putting yourself forward as a candidate = compete). In a separate analysis, they showed that the different framing had no negative impact on the perception of evaluators. The findings not only confirmed the power of choice architecture but also – once more – the high context sensitivity of gender differences in competitiveness.

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Different studies – different results

Considering findings from scientific research requires caution from practitioners. For the insight must be seen in relation to the setting and framing of the study. In order to illustrate this, we mention two more studies that deliver different results.

  • Using 4,279 episodes of the US game show Jeopardy!, researchers found that gender differences disappear when women compete against men. This surprising result emerged consistently for the probability to (i) respond, (ii) respond correctly, and (iii) respond correctly in high-stakes situations. Even risk preferences in gambling situations did not differ across gender once a woman competed against a man. Researchers say that gender differences in performance and risk attitudes were not gender-inherent but emerged in distinct social contexts.
  • A scientific study analysed the decisions of 164 participants over 42 episodes of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. They wanted to explain, e.g. from different uses of information sources (lifelines) and different perceptions of risk, why men appear to win more than women. They found evidence of gender differences in the certainty effect and suggested the counterintuitive conclusion that men are rewarded for acting slightly more cautiously than do women. These differences, however, may be related to self-selection of participants and to different goals – researchers conclude.

Implications for D&I – and HR 4.0

The consolidated results from these five gender studies confirm once again that wide-spread, stereotypical explanations – and related solutions – for gender gaps should be avoided. They also reconfirm that women do not need any support or guidance how to behave in a corporate or career setting – and neither do men. The systems – i.e. processes and their application – must be carefully redesigned and monitored. The complexity, depth and relevance of this cannot be overestimated – particularly in a period when HR and IT are incredibly busy trying to digitalise people processes. “We see a dangerous dynamic towards simplifying processes and tools in a way that reduces the quality and will for sure harm outcomes, including from a D&I perspective”, warns The D&I Engineer, Michael Stuber. Part of his work consists of identifying diversity-related biases that are embedded in assessment, selection or development processes or tools.


Related readings



Van Dolder, Dennie; van den Assem, Martijn; Buser, Thomas (2020), Gender and Willingness to Compete for High Stakes. In: SSRN Electronic Journal

Balafoutas, Loukas; Fornwagner, Helena; Sutter, Matthias (2018), Closing the gender gap in competitiveness through priming. In: Nature Communications, Vol. 9, Article number 4359

Joyce He, Sonia Kang, Nicola Lacetera (2019), Leaning In or Not Leaning Out? Opt-Out Choice Framing Attenuates Gender Differences in the Decision to Compete, NBER Working Paper No. 26484

Jetter, Michael; Walker, Jay K. (2016), Gender in Jeopardy! The Role of Opponent Gender in High-Stakes Competition, IZA Discussion Paper Series, DP No. 9669

Johnson, Daniel; Gleason, Tracy (2009). Who REALLY Wants to be a Millionaire? Gender Differences in Game Show Contestant Behavior Under Risk. In: Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 90, pages 243-261