Gender, Competitiveness and Career Choices

Boys are more likely than girls to engage in competition and this gender gap affects girls’ willingness to choose math intensive tracks in their school and future careers.


Although considerable gains have been made in reducing the gender gap in education and labor market outcomes, it has yet to completely disappear. Men are still significantly more likely to graduate from college with a major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), which can lead to higher earning careers. In the Netherlands, students selecting into the prestigious “math track” are overwhelmingly male while those selecting into the less prestigious “literature track” are predominantly female. This gap is important because the choices of math and science classes are the largest predictor of college attendance and completion. Educational outcomes relate to labor market outcomes as performance in those classes is a consistent predictor for future earnings. Psychological factors and ability have commonly been used to explain these gender differences, however, very little evidence has been found to support these claims. Another theory suggests that women are less likely to choose to participate in competitive environments, which may self-select them into arts and humanities – fields that tend to have lower salaries. In this paper, the authors assess the relationship between competitiveness and gender differences in educational outcomes.


The authors administered an experiment in Dutch secondary schools where grade 9 students select one of four study tracks. The experiment had students perform tasks in competitive and non-competitive environments. Competitive environments featured a tournament payment scheme (i.e., only the top performer was paid), while the non-competitive environment featured a piece-rate payment scheme (i.e., all individuals are paid per unit of output they produce).

  • The authors find significant gender differences in competitiveness. Boys were two times more likely than girls to select the competitive incentive scheme (i.e., winner-takes-all)  for the subsequent round in the experiment.
  • Girls were significantly less confident than boys about their performance relative to others. Differences in confidence between girls and boys partially drive the gender gap in competitiveness. However, controlling for performance, confidence, and risk aversion, the gender gap in willingness to compete persists.
  • The researchers obtained data on students’ subsequent choice of academic track at the end of the school year. Girls were significantly less likely than boys to choose the prestigious, math intensive tracks; this gender gap was significant after controlling for academic performance and perceived math ability.
  • Next, the experimenters examined the correlation between willingness to compete (manifested during the experiment) and students’ subsequent choice of academic track (at the end of the school year).  There was a significant correlation between competitiveness and subsequent academic choice. Controlling for grades, perceived math ability, confidence and risk attitudes, competitiveness still accounts for 15% of the gender gap in the prestige of chosen academic track.

In short, gender differences in competitiveness influence students’ academic decisions and subsequent career choices.


The study is based on an experiment conducted in four secondary schools in and around Amsterdam, Netherlands. A total of 397 students participated in the study, which took place in the spring of 2011. Participants were pre-university track students in their third year of secondary school. In this grade, students are required to choose one of four study profiles: science, health, social science, or humanities.

A classroom experiment was conducted to measure competitiveness. Students performed a timed math task of adding sets of numbers. Participants completed three rounds of tasks and were randomly paid for only one.

In Round 1, participants worked under a piece rate compensation scheme (a non-competitive set up). In Round 2, participants, in groups of four, performed the same task under a competitive tournament compensation scheme. In this scheme, the top performer in each group was paid, while everyone else received no payment. In Round 3, participants chose one of the two previous schemes to apply to the round prior to completing the math task.

After the experiment, a short questionnaire was administered to collect information on confidence and risk attitudes. At the end of the school year, the schools provided information on students’ grades and choices of academic track.

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