Leaning In or Not Leaning Out? Opt-Out Choice Framing Attenuates Gender Differences in the Decision to Compete

Restructuring the promotion process so that individuals are automatically considered for a promotion with the option to opt-out rather than having to self-nominate can narrow the gender gap in management.

Introduction

In many workplaces, obtaining promotions is not a level playing field for men and women. Previous interventions to reduce gender disparities in the promotion process that have focused on diversity training programs and teaching women to “lean in” have failed to show consistent positive results. Interventions that focus on organizational structures and processes, and work to debias those processes may be a novel way to combat the gender gap in promotions.

Research shows that women are less likely to compete or self-promote  in contexts where individuals have to self-nominate, which might contribute to the lack of women who self-nominate and apply for promotions at work. This scheme not only disadvantages women, but it also harms an organization’s ability to tap into the full talent pool and produces a gender gap within senior management positions. Structural interventions that focus on changing the promotion process  to be an “opt-out” system is one way to potentially close this gender gap in career advancement. An opt-out system is a default promotion process where individuals are automatically considered for promotion but can “ choose not to be considered (“opt-out”).

Through two experiments where participants were placed into a competitive tournament setting with timed math tasks, this study investigates whether a structure where participants must opt out of competition compared to having to opt-in will change gender differences in the decision to compete.

Findings

Compared to a system where participants had to opt-in to competition, a system where participants were competing by default (with the option to opt-out) eliminated the gender gap.

  • Within an opt-in system, where participants had to actively choose a competition based compensation scheme, women were less likely to compete than men (47% vs. 72%).
  • Within an opt-out system, where participants were by default enrolled in the competition with the option to opt-out, women and men were equally likely to compete (75% vs. 76%).
  • This increase in participation of women in competition did not result in negative consequences on performance, monetary payoffs, or well-being, as measured by reported anxiety.
  • With the opt-out system, candidates were not penalized by evaluators making the hiring decisions.

Due to the competitiveness of the promotion process, these findings imply that organizations can increase the number of women who apply for promotions by instituting opt-out systems, taking advantage of a broader talent pool. Rather than targeting a specific group, this structural intervention removes biases built into the promotion process, which could also lead to positive spillover effects for other underrepresented groups.

Methodology

In the first experiment, 482 undergraduate students (55% female) at a Canadian University completed three stages of a timed math task. Compensation for the first stage was non-competitive and for the second stage was determined by a competitive tournament against three other participants. For the third stage, participants randomly assigned to the opt-in system were automatically enrolled in non-competitive compensation but had the option to opt-in to competitive compensation. Participants randomly assigned to the opt-out system were automatically enrolled in competitive compensation but had the option to opt-out to non-competitive compensation. Afterwards, participants guessed their relative rank in the second stage and filled out an anxiety survey based on the State Anxiety Inventory.

In the second experiment, 827 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (42% female) were tasked with evaluating three groups of “applicants” from the first experiment for promotion. The top two scorers in each group differed as follows: a male applicant who clearly outperformed a female applicant, a female applicant who clearly outperformed a male applicant, and a male and female applicant who were closely tied in scores. The evaluators were given profiles of the applicants with information on their performance, age, gender, years of study, and major field of study. Evaluators were randomly assigned the opt-in and opt-out systems and received an explanation of the framing of their applicants’ decisions to compete.

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