Focal random selection closes the gender gap in competitiveness

Using random selection from a preselected pool of applicants closes the gender gap in competitiveness and can increase the number of high-performing women who apply to senior-level positions.


Evidence suggests that gender differences in choosing to enter competitions are an important contributor to the “leaky pipeline” for women in leadership roles, as choosing not to compete might decrease their share of leadership positions at the top. Numerous field experiments have demonstrated that women opt out of competition more than men, even when they are equally or better qualified (see GAP articles 1, 2 and 3) Competition can discourage women from applying for top jobs and subsequently lead to fewer women in leadership or higher status roles. Though there have been many attempts to combat the gender gap in competition, including have women compete among other women, a previously unidentified institutional approach to encourage women’s participation in competitions is focal random selection.

Focal random selection is a process in which promotions are decided by a lottery from a preselected pool of the most highly qualified candidates. Lotteries could reduce competition and therefore tackle women’s tendency to opt out of competitive hiring processes. The authors of this study argue that the impact of luck could also help women avoid the psychological costs of risky decision making and discrimination. Using random focal selection could also lessen the impact of negative feedback on women, as well as anxiety caused by women underestimating their abilities.

The researchers used a randomized controlled trial to investigate how focal random selection can be used to close the gender gap in competitiveness. The experiment tested which condition more women would select as a reward system in a mathematical calculations competition. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three treatments groups: (1) the winner was selected purely by performance, (2) the winner was drawn randomly by lot, and (3) the winner was chosen using focal random selection. In the latter treatment group, winners were drawn by lot from among the three participants with highest number of correct answers.


The gender gap in competition can be narrowed, particularly among high performers, by using focal random selection to choose a winning candidate.

  • When the winner of the competition was selected by performance, men chose to compete around three times as often as women (49.28% vs 14.19%). However, for the pure random and focal random treatments, the differences of choice between men and women were not statistically significant.
  • For the pure random treatment, men’s entry rates were slightly lower and women’s entry rates were markedly higher than in the performance treatment (31.94% and 44.44%, respectively).
  • In the focal random treatment, men did not change their entry rates, but women markedly increased their entry rates relative to the performance treatment (47.83% and 40.54%).
  • The pool of women who took part in competitions was three times higher in the focal random treatment than in the performance treatment: 40.58 and 14.49%, respectively.
  • The proportion of women on the shortlist for winner selection is also higher under the random and focal random treatments compared to the performance treatment. The percentage of women on the shortlist for winner selection are 45% (25 of 55) for focal random selection and 57.14% under random selection, compared to 5.26% under performance selection.
  • There was an overall reduction in the experiment earnings gap between men and women.
  • Focal random selection increased the earnings gap between low- and high-performing women (from an earnings gap of 1:1.3 to 1:2.1) and reduced the earnings gap between low- and high-performing men (from a pay gap of 1:3.8 to 1:2.1).
  • In the performance treatment high-performing men competed three times as often as high-performing women [63% versus 20%, P = 0.000]. This gender gap closes in the pure random and focal random treatments. However, the results were not statistically significant in terms of the differences in proportion of high-performing men versus high-performing women selecting the pure random and focal random treatments.
  • In terms of risk-aversion, risk-seeking men selected the performance treatment four times as often as risk-seeking women (62% and 17%). Conversely, risk-averse women selected the pure random treatment four times as often as risk-averse women (12% and 40%). Nearly the same proportions of risk-seeking men and women selected focal random treatment.
  • Men who do not conform to masculine gender stereotypes competed 17 times as often as women not conforming to typical feminine gender stereotypes (50% versus 3%).

Findings suggest the pool of high-performing women who apply for top jobs can be substantially increased when organizations introduce focal random selection for promotion pipelines. Moreover, focal random selection closes the gender pay gap between high-performing men and women. 


Participants, 210 male and 210 female students, were randomly selected and assigned to groups of three men and three women. Participants were asked to add up as many two-digit numbers as possible within 3 minutes. The experiment proceeded in three stages.

In stage 1, each participant received 1 MP (money point; 1 MP = CHF 0.5) for each correct calculation in payment scheme A. The winner within each group received 10 MPs for each correct calculation and the other team members received nothing in payment scheme B.

In stage 2, groups were assigned to one of three treatments. In the performance treatment, the member who solved the highest number of calculations was selected as the winner. In the pure random treatment, the winner was chosen by lot. In the focal random treatment, the winner was drawn by lot from the three participants who had correctly solved the highest number of calculations.

In stage 3, the participants had to choose between payment scheme A or payment scheme B before solving the calculations. Participants in the performance selection treatment and the focal random treatment who chose payment scheme B were compared to their group members ’performances in stage 2. This was done to avoid the possibility that expectations about other members ’choice of payment scheme might affect participants ’choices. Scheme B participants performing equal or better than the fourth-listed group member from stage 2 were shortlisted. The winner was then chosen at random from the shortlist. The winner’s payoff in stage 3 was 6 MP for each correct calculation.

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