Under Pressure: Gender Differences in Output Quality and Quantity under Competition and Time Constraints

Although men outperform women in time-pressured math-based competition, women perform equally well in math-based competition without time constraints.


Gender gaps in the workplace are widespread, particularly in terms of compensation for high-profile positions. Many possible explanations of these gender inequities include gender differences in skills and preferences, discrimination in the workplace, or psychological factors, such as competition and time constraints. In this paper, the author examines the relationship between the gender gap in performance under competition, preferences for competition, and two pressure sources: time constraints and task stereotypes.


Participants were asked to complete a math or verbal task in a high-time-pressure environment, or a low-time-pressure environment. They were rewarded under two compensation schemes: a noncompetitive piece-rate, where participants received money for the total number of correct answers, and a competitive tournament, where participants received money for answering the most correct answers among their peers.

Men perform better than women in high-time-pressure tournament math tests, but women perform better than men in low-time-pressure tournament verbal tests. Both perform equally well in low-time-pressure tournament math tests and high-time-pressure tournament verbal tests.

  • Men and women perform equally well on the math test in high-time-pressure noncompetitive environments, with average scores of 5.17 and 5.11, respectively. However, in the high-time-pressure competitive tournament, men’s average scores of 6.31 were significantly higher than women’s average scores of 2.39.
  • In the low-time-pressure math tournament, women performed equally well as men.
  • Under high-time-pressure in the verbal task, men and women’s scores do not differ in either the piece-rate or the tournament scheme.
  • In the low-time-pressure verbal task, women significantly outperform men in the tournament. Under competitive tournament, women achieve a significantly higher mean score of 23.4 relative to men’s 17.8. However, men and women’s scores do not differ in the verbal piece-rate scheme.
  • 44% of men and 19% of women self-select into a tournament in the high-pressure math environment, but without time pressure, women are equally as likely to self-select in.
  • In the math tournament, a woman is 24% more likely to quit the game than a man in the same treatment. By contrast, quitting behavior in the verbal test shows no significant gender differences under either compensation scheme.

In short, when women are under time constraints in competitive settings, they underperform compared to men in math and are less likely to choose to compete. Interestingly, without time pressures, women perform just as well as men in tournament math tests and outperform men in tournament verbal tests.


This study is based on a multiple session laboratory experiment that evaluated the performance of groups of two men and two women on math and verbal tasks. The verbal sessions were comprised of 128 people, the math sessions of 84. Each session consisted of 7 rounds: 1 practice round, 3 high-time-pressure rounds, and 3 low-time-pressure rounds. Within each time pressure round, there were 3 rounds that tested the individuals’ performance in relation to the level of competition.

The non-competitive piece-rate treatment offered each subject compensation for correct responses. The competitive tournament treatment awarded each subject a score based on his or her relative performance. The individual with the highest score received compensation based on his or her total score, while the other three competitors received no compensation. A third treatment allowed participants to choose between the piece-rate or tournaments payments, thereby reflecting his or her preference for competition. Performance was measured in terms of both quality and quantity.

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