Women and the Competitiveness Factor

women competeMany women don’t like to compete with men. That’s the upshot of a number of recent studies summarized today in the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog, which notes that Germany has become the latest country to require large public companies to fill at least 30 percent of their board positions with women (starting next year).

Germany’s new law strikes some as a form of affirmative action that will only taint its beneficiaries as having gotten their positions due to their gender, not their skills and/or accomplishments, writes Wonkblog’s Jeff Guo. However, he writes, a number of studies suggest that even highly qualified women are reluctant to compete — especially with men — and that quotas such as Germany’s may be necessary to ensure that high-performing women feel comfortable putting themselves forward.

Guo quotes Muriel Niederle, an economics professor at the University of Cologne who’s helped conduct a number of studies that found women are eager to compete with other women but much less eager to compete with men. In one such study, conducted in 2013, Niederle and her research colleagues gathered groups of six participants — divided equally between men and women — and gave them equations to solve. The participants had a choice of whether to be paid 50 cents for each problem they solved correctly or enter a competition to get paid many times that.

In a previous study in 2007, the researchers found the women were much less likely than the men to participate in the competition — even the ones who demonstrated an alacrity for solving the equations. This time around, however, the researchers added a twist: The competition would have two winners, and in some cases at least one of the winners was guaranteed to be a woman. Faced with a contest that guaranteed a winning spot to a woman, over 80 percent of women elected to participate in the competition.

These and other studies suggest that quotas mandating that a certain number of spots be set aside for women will help organizations be more competitive, University of Cologne economist Matthias Sutter told Guo.

“We find that quota rules encourage the best women to really go for it,” he said.