The XX Factor

Are Women Really Less Competitive Than Men?

In recent years lab experiments have shored up evidence for the nostalgic notion that women just aren’t as competitive as men are. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finally steps out of the lab and into the workplace to test these claims. Economists posted want ads in 16 cities, randomizing pay schemes to see if offering compensation contingent on work product impacts how many men and women apply. Whenever workers had to outperform their colleagues to obtain the maximum salary advertised, fewer women applied than men.

Media outlets like ABC News jumped on the study as proof that “[w]omen shy away from competitive workplaces whereas men covet, and even thrive in, competitive environments.” Or, as a Time blog , put it: “The conclusion: Women don’t like competition.” In fact, the study explicitly rejects these oversimplifications. As the authors, Jeffrey A. Flory of the University of Maryland and Andreas Leibbrandt and John List from the University of Chicago explain, “This gap is not driven by men opting to compete and women opting not to compete.” In fact, “women and men both prefer non-competitive workplaces,” it’s just that women prefer them more.

And here’s the important part: According to the study, women will apply for competitive jobs as long as they pay more, on average, than the fixed salaries they can get elsewhere. That finding strongly undercuts the claim, often advanced by employers , that women simply don’t want competitive jobs. What lawyers call the ” lack of interest defense ” might explain why women don’t go for competitive jobs that are mediocre, but it doesn’t justify their underrepresentation in the really remunerative ones.