Women really are as competitive as men in the corporate world

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Women really are as competitive as men after all, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Arizona say there’s been a perception that women are not as competitive as men and are more likely to pass up the opportunity to land a higher-ranking role with a larger salary. However, the new findings point to that belief being far from the truth.

Researchers found that women enter into competition at the same rate as men and are more likely to share their winnings.

“If we’re finally going to close the gender pay gap, then we have to understand the sources of it – and also solutions and remedies for it,” says Mary Rigdon, an associate director of the Arizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, in a university release.

In 2021, the team finds working women earn 82 cents for every dollar men earn in the workforce. This means women must work nearly three extra months extra to receive the same amount of pay. However, those figures don’t account for an employee’s age, their experience level, or their education background. Even with those factors in mind, the team finds women still earn about 98 cents for every dollar working men earn.

Is it job choice or discrimination?

Prof. Rigdon notes that economists believe one reason for this could be the theory called the “human capital explanation,” which suggests that there are gender differences in certain skills, leading women to enter career fields which pay less. However, another common theory is patent discrimination.

Prof. Rigdon worked with Professor Alessandra Cassar from the University of San Francisco to zero in on the assumption that women are less competitive and, therefore, less willing to take risks than men. Arguing against this, Rigdon says if women were really more reluctant to compete, then they would occupy fewer high-ranking positions at the top of major companies. That, however, has not been the trend over the last several years.

Study authors report that women make up about eight percent of the CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. While that number is low overall, it’s still a record high.

“We thought it must be the case that women are as competitive as men, but they just exhibit it differently, so we wanted to try to get at that story and demonstrate that that is the case,” Rigdon adds. “Because that’s then a very different story about the gender wage gap.”

Winner-take-all or spread the wealth around?

To demonstrate this, the team split 238 men and women and split into two groups, according to their gender. Participants in each group were then randomly assigned to four-person subgroups. For all participants, the first round of the study was the same. Each individual looked at tables of 12 three-digit number with two decimal places in them. They had to find the two numbers that add up to 10.

The participants then had to solve as many tables as possible – up to 20 – within two minutes. Each participant received two dollars for every table they solved in the first round. In the second round, the participants had to complete the same task, but researchers incentivized the two groups differently.

For the first group, the two participants in each four-person team who solved the most tables earned four dollars per table, while their other two team members received nothing. For the other group, the top two performers of each four-person team also earned four dollars per table, but they had the right to decide how much of the prize money to share with one of the lower performing participants.

In the third round, all of the participants could choose which payment scheme they preferred from the two previous rounds. For half the study participants, this meant a choice between a guaranteed two dollars per correct table, or potentially four dollars per correct table if they became one of the top two performers in their four-person subgroup.

For the other half of the participants, the choice was two dollars per correct table or four dollars per correct table for the top-two performers with the option to share the winnings with one of the losing participants.

Women bet on themselves

The number of women who chose the more competitive option nearly doubled when they had the option to share their winnings. Researchers found that about 60 percent chose to compete under that option, while only about 35 percent of women chose to compete in the winner-take-all version of the tournament.

Just over half of the men in the study chose the winner-take-all option and 52.5 percent chose the format that allowed them to share with the losers. Prof. Rigdon says that she and her colleague have a few theories about why women are more inclined to compete when they can share the winnings.

One theory suggests that female participants are simply interested in controlling the way the winnings are divided up among the other participants. Conversely, Rigdon says that another theory, which has emerged among evolutionary psychologists, suggests that female participants may be inclined to smooth over bad feelings with losers of the competition.

“We really have to ask what it is about this social incentive that drives women to compete,” Rigdon explains. “We think it’s recognizing the different costs and benefits that come from your different biological and cultural constraints. But at the end of the day, I think we still have this question.”

What does this mean for corporate America?

The researchers are now developing an experiment that gets to the heart of that question. Although they have been careful to not propose policies for corporate America based on their line of research that still has many questions to answer, the researchers’ latest findings suggest that corporations might do well to engage in more socially responsible activity.

“Maybe you’ll attract a different set of applicants to your CEO positions or your board of director positions,” Prof. Rigdon concludes. “Women might be more attracted to positions where there is this social component that isn’t there in more traditional, incentive-based firms where it’s all about CEO bonuses.”

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.