Participate or win? Women, men and competitiveness

Pedro Rey Biel, Researcher at ESADE-Universitat Ramon Llull
Nagore Iriberri, Ikerbasque Research Professor at Universidad del País Vasco

Men still enjoy better salaries and occupy more management posts than women as well as facing a lower unemployment rate. Why do women not fare as well as men in the labour sphere? The differential impact that decisions on maternity and paternity have on the working lives of men and women has frequently been brought to the table. However, cultural and socialisation aspects exist that affect men and women differently when it comes to competing, and these aspects ultimately have an impact in competitive settings such as the working environment.
Key points
  • 1
       In general terms, the mere existence of a negative stereotype around a group makes individuals in that group feel themselves subject to a scrutiny that puts them under pressure, which causes them to perform worse, thus confirming the stereotype.
  • 2
       Factors such as gender stereotypes, the type of tasks in which they compete, who their adversaries are or prior information about their performance in a task, have an influence in the form of a disadvantage for women when competing which, in turn, may have repercussions on their situation in the jobs market.
  • 3
       In competitive environments, studied under laboratory conditions, important gender differences are only observed in the performing of a task when three situations occur: 1) a strong stereotype exists about women being worse at the said task; 2) the stereotype is reinforced by reminding participants of aspects that make them think about the gender issue; and 3) women who are more negatively affected by competition are those who believe that the stereotype is true.
Boys and girls in the Spring Mathematics Competition. Distribution by gender of the participants in the different elimination rounds of the Spring Mathematics Contest (by age groups).
Boys and girls in the Spring Mathematics Competition. Distribution by gender of the participants in the different elimination rounds of the Spring Mathematics Contest (by age groups).

The Community of Madrid’s Spring Mathematics Contest is a real-life case where the gender bias in competitive processes can be clearly studied. It is a mathematics competition by rounds in which secondary students participate. 

Dividing the participants into four age groups, it is observed that there are barely any girls left in the final round to the point that, for the older age group (16-17 years), there is has been no winning female student in this competition. 

Furthermore, for all participants in the contest, their mathematics grade at school is made available; in these grades, there are barely any differences between boys and girls. Thus, the experiment leads to the observation that is not a matter of knowledge that is at play, but one of competitiveness. This is why, as competitive pressure grows, the gender differences in the results increase.

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Pedro Rey Biel , Researcher at ESADE-Universitat Ramon Llull
Nagore Iriberri , Ikerbasque Research Professor at Universidad del País Vasco

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