Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?

Against their best interest, low-ability men compete too often, and high-ability women do not compete enough.


Research suggests that men are more competitive than women. This gender difference appears in childhood, as evidenced by the playtime activities that girls and boys choose, and increases through puberty and adulthood. Given that in the United States, only 2.5 percent of the highest paid executives are women, it is likely that these differences in labor market outcomes are only partially driven by differences in ability and performance. Discrimination and preferences related to job requirements, such as long work hours, may cause women not to select into these positions; however, competition preferences may also be an important factor behind this gender gap and the lack of women in the most competitive positions in the labor market. In the workforce, if women are less likely to compete, they are also less likely to succeed in competitions for promotions and better paying jobs.  In this paper, the authors examine whether men and women differ in their preferences for competition and how such differences impact economic outcomes.


Study participants were separated by gender into two groups. They were then asked to perform a real task, consisting of a simple addition exercise, under a non-competitive piece-rate compensation scheme and then under a competitive tournament incentive scheme. Participants were then asked whether they wanted to apply the piece-rate scheme or the competitive tournament compensation scheme to their next task.

  • First, there were no gender differences in performance or in the probability of winning under either compensation scenario.
  • However, men were two times more likely than women to select the competitive tournament compensation scheme for their next task. While 73% of men selected the tournament, only 35% of women did so. This gender difference continued to persist even after adjusting for performance. At any given level of performance, women were 38 percentage points less likely than men to select the competitive tournament.  
  • Against their best interest, low-ability men entered the tournament too often, and high-ability women did not enter it enough. Women who performed in the highest performance quartile were less likely to select a tournament for the next task than men who perform in the lowest performance quartile.
  • The tournament entry gap was explained by male overconfidence and by differences in gender preference for competition.

In short, while men and women perform equally well, women shy away from competitive environments.


The study is based on an experiment conducted at the University of Pittsburgh with 40 women and 40 men. Groups of two women and two men added sets of numbers for five minutes. The task was selected because research suggests that there are no gender differences in ability to do simple math tasks. Participants completed four rounds of tasks and were randomly paid for only one of them.

In Task 1, participants worked under a piece rate compensation scheme. In Task 2, participants performed the same task under a competitive tournament compensation scheme. Under this payment scenario, the individual with the highest number of correct answers in a group was paid per correct answer, while everyone else received no payment. In Task 3, participants chose one of the previous two schemes to apply to their future performance. In Task 4, participants did not have to perform a task, but could choose a different compensation scheme for their past Task 1 piece-rate performance.

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