Performance in Competitive Environments: Gender Differences

Women perform worse than men in competitive environments, even if they are able to perform similarly to men in the absence of competition.


Women are significantly underrepresented in executive level positions, which contributes to the wage gap between men and women. Possible explanations for why women are not in executive level positions in the labor market include gender discrimination or differences between men and women’s preferences, capability, and skills. Moreover, if women are less effective than men in competitive environments, it could reduce their chances of success when competing for new jobs, promotions, or skills training. The experiments in this study analyze gender performance in competitive and non-competitive tasks within single-sex and mixed-sex environments. The authors assess the relationship between competition and its effect on women’s performance.


Women perform significantly worse than men in competitive environments.

  • In the non-competitive task, there was a slight gender gap in performance. Men outperformed women by an average of 1.5 completed mazes. Single-sex and mixed-sex environments do not have a gender performance effect in non-competitive tasks.
  • For the competitive task in a mixed-sex environment, there was a significant gender gap in performance. Men outperformed women by an average of 4.2 completed mazes.
  • For the competitive task in a single-sex environment, the gender gap decreased. Men outperform women by an average of 1.7 completed mazes, which is similar to the gender gap in the non-competitive task.

In short, women perform significantly better when competing against other women as opposed to competing with men, while men perform better in competitive environments generally, and the gender of their competitors has no effect on their performance.


This study used a controlled experiment with 324 engineering college students in Israel to determine how men and women react to competition. Students competed in computerized maze games in all-male, all-female, and mixed-gender groups. The researchers used incentive structures to create different levels of competition. There were three treatments in the experiment: piece rate payment (a noncompetitive environment), competitive pay, and random pay. The noncompetitive environment captured the benchmark data for gender differences in performance.

Related GAP Studies