What women want

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What women want
The New York Times, May 24, 2005, A 25
John Tierney

Are men more competitive than women?

In this OP-ED piece Tierney discusses and draws conclusions from a recent study that explores gender differences in competitive environments. Two researchers, Muriel Niederle of Stanford and Lise Vesterlund of the University of Pittsburgh, ran an experiment in which women and men had to choose to participate in either a competitive or a non-competitive task. They found that, among other things, women chose to compete less often than they should have, while conversely, men chose to compete more often than they should have. The researchers apparently anticipated this result, so in addition, Nielderle and Vesterlund designed their experiment to explore potential reasons for this difference.

Specifically, participants were paid to add up as many sets of five two-digit numbers as they could in five minutes. The experiment consisted of four tasks, each containing a potentially different scheme for how participants would be paid. After the tasks were completed, for actual payment one of the four tasks was chosen at random. Here is a brief description of the four tasks. (A more detailed description and analysis may be found at Muriel Niederle's website, in the draft article "Do Women Shy away from Competition? Do Men Compete too Much?"

1. (Piece-rate) Each participant calculates the given sums and is paid 50 cents per correct answer.

2. (Tournament) The participants compete within four-person teams consisting of two women and two men. The person who completes the most correct sums receives $2.00 per sum; the other members of the group receive nothing.

3. (Tournament Entry Choice) Each participant is given a choice of payment scheme: either by piece-rate or a tournament scheme in which the participant is paid $2.00 per correct sum if and only if she completes more correct sums than were completed by the other members of her group in task 2. (Thus it is possible for more than one member of the group to "win" the tournament.)

4. (Tournament Submission Choice) No new sums are calculated. Instead, each participant is given a choice: either receive the same piece-rate payment as was generated in task 1, or submit one's task 1 performance to a tournament in which the participant receives $2.00 per correct sum if and only if she completed more correct sums in task 1 than did the other members of her group. (Again, it is possible for more than one member of the group to "win" the tournament.)

At the end of each task, each participant is only told her own performance on the task, and thus her decision to enter a tournament (in tasks 3 and 4) is not based on relative-ranking information. Also, after the tasks were completed, each subject was asked to guess the rank of her task 1 and task 2 performances. The main goal of the study is determine if men and women of the same ability on a task choose to compete at different rates, and if so, why.

Here are some highlights of their findings:

  • Women and men performed equally well on both tasks 1 and 2.

  • Women and men performed significantly better on task 2 (tournament) then on task 1 (piece-rate), and the size of the increase was independent of gender.

  • Of the 20 tournaments in task 2, women won 11, men 9.
  • 43% of the women, versus 75% of the men, ranked themselves first in their group.

  • 35% of the women chose the tournament in task 3, versus 75% of the men.

  • Women's task 2 performance does not predict tournament entry in task 3, and only does so marginally for men. In fact, women in the highest performance quartile for task 2 were less likely to enter the tournament than men in the lowest quartile.

  • Approximately 27% of the gender difference in task 3 tournament entry can be explained by women and men forming different beliefs about their relative ranking. The remaining difference comes from a mix of both general factors (e.g. risk aversion) and tournament-specific factors (e.g. bias in estimating future performance.)

  • Approximately 70% of women whose expected gain under a tournament scheme is favorable do not choose the tournament (tasks 3 and 4,) while approximately 63% of men elect a tournament when it is unfavorable to them (task 3.)

  • 25% of the women submitted their task 1 results to a tournament in task 4, versus 55% of the men. Virtually all of this difference can be explained by men's over-confidence in their relative ranking.


1. Why do you think the task 3 and task 4 tournaments were designed the way they were?

2. In discussing the above gender differences, Tierney writes, "You can argue that this difference is due to social influences, although I suspect it's largely innate, a byproduct of evolution and testosterone. Whatever the cause, it helps explain why men set up the traditional corporate ladder as one continual winner-take-all competition-- and why that structure no longer makes sense." What do you think?

3. The researchers determined the probability of winning the tournament in Task 2 by "randomly creat[ing] four-person groups from the observed performance distributions." How exactly would one do this? They also determined, for each performance level (e.g., 15 correct sums) and each gender, the probability of winning a tournament with that score. How would this be done?

4. Niederle and Vesterlund also briefly discuss the cost to women for under-entry into tournaments and the costs to men for over-entry. They write, "While the magnitude of the costs is sensitive to the precise assumptions we make, the qualitative results are the same. The total cost of under-entry is higher for women, while the total cost of over-entry is higher for men. Since over-entry occurs for participants of low performance and under-entry for those with high performance, by design the cost of under entry is higher than that of over entry." Explain and comment.