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Gender and Self-Perception in Competition

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Jul 01, 2017

In my first year of graduate school, I had the privilege of working for one of the most brilliant thinkers I have ever known — let’s call her Sarah. Sarah is objectively smarter than I am. She is also much better-credentialed and more knowledgeable. Yet, as we grew close over the course of the semester, Sarah confided that throughout her life she has often questioned her own intelligence. While this is likely a product of the hyper-intellectual circles she finds herself in, there does seem to be another component of this uncertainty that is socially-induced — one that may explain why Sarah has these doubts, while I tend not to.

Gender and Self-Perception of Intelligence

In an attempt to understand how self-perception of intelligence differs between genders, Hogan (1978) asked nearly 2,000 survey respondents to estimate their own IQs, as well as those of their parents and grandparents.[1] He found that female participants underestimated their own IQ scores, while males tended to overestimate theirs. More shockingly, without exception both male and female participants “projected higher IQs onto their fathers than their mothers.” Throughout the 90s, a number of follow-up studies successfully replicated these findings, and though some argued the effect is due to outliers rather than general differences (Reilly & Mulhern, 1995)[2], Furnham and Rawles (1999) demonstrated that these effects hold even after such outliers are removed.[3]

Expanding on these results, Rammstedt and Rammsayer (2000) showed that gender differences were not significant in overall intelligence, but rather in specific domains — with males overestimating “their mathematical, spatial, and reasoning abilities relative to females” and females rating their musical and interpersonal intelligence as higher than males.[4] The authors note that, because mathematical and spatial reasoning are often the traits most strongly-weighted when considering overall intelligence, these results may drive the differing perceptions of general intellectual ability.

From a behavioral economics standpoint, these gender differences are critically important. If one perceives herself (rightly or wrongly) to be less-qualified, she may also believe her academic or professional potential to be lower. Because elite academic and workplace environments tend to be thought of as highly competitive, self-perception may lead well-qualified candidates to not pursue such opportunities.

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Gender and Competition

The academic literature pertaining to gender divides in competitive attitudes typically looks at two related factors: propensity to compete and performance within competition. The former is used as a proxy for individual preferences over competitive environments (i.e., whether one prefers to compete or not) while the latter relates to some of the observable gender differences in competitive environments, such as timed standardized tests or high-frequency stock trading.

In a 2011 paper aptly titled “Gender and competition,” Niederle and Vesterlund review a number of the foundational studies on the topic.[5] One of these findings is that women “respond less favorably to competition than men,” and thus, self-select into competitive environments less frequently. Conversely, men are highly likely to choose competition, a fact they attribute to varying levels of confidence in one’s own ability. Citing their own previous study from 2007, the authors note that, while women are less likely to choose competitive environments regardless of ability, men demonstrate over-confidence in their relative ability when selecting competitive environments.[6]

This effect was studied as follows: participants in a lab experiment were broken into teams of equal number male and female peers, and asked to solve an individual task, initially compensated based solely on their own outcomes. This individual compensation scheme is referred to as “piece-rate” incentives. After receiving feedback on their performance, participants were then entered into a “tournament” compensation scheme, where payments were directly linked to relative performance within their group. In the third round of the study, participants were given the choice of selecting which incentive scheme they preferred, competitive or piece-rate. What the authors found was, regardless of one’s own performance on the previous tasks, men were substantially more likely to self-select into the competitive tournament than women — at a rate of 73 and 35 percent, respectively. As the authors write, this finding suggests that, given the same ability, men are roughly twice as likely to opt into competition than women.

Gneezy et al. (2003) further add to the weight of evidence that men not only prefer competition more than women, but also perform better in competitive environments.[7] Using a similar structure as the 2007 Niederle and Vesterlund study, within a competitive task environment they find “a significant increase in performance for men, but not for women.” One further distinction they add to the literature is that, when such competitions are within- rather than between-gender, this effect is practically eliminated.

Believing that some of this effect may be due to socialization, Gneezy et al (2009) sought to highlight the role that societal norms play in gender differences in preference for and performance within competition.[8] The authors were interested in how these norms dictate differences in competitive attitudes between sexes – and took to the field in two distinct environments. As they describe it:

" “One unique aspect of these societies is that the Maasai [in Tanzania] represent a textbook example of a patriarchal society, whereas the Khasi [in India] are matrilineal.” "

In both places, the authors asked participants to perform a task, and allowed them to choose between a competitive or non-competitive compensation structure. In Maasai, the results were similar to those observed throughout the West: men were nearly twice as likely to compete as women. In Khasi, however, the trend disappeared, and women were equally likely to compete as men. The result makes a compelling case for the role of socialization on behavior.

Perceptions and Professions

The impacts of these results are plenty. For one, they underline the enormous role that socialization has on self-perception. Moreover, they suggest that, ceterus paribus, women may be less likely to pursue careers in industries or roles deemed as highly-competitive. Indeed, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Industrial and Labor Relations Review found that much of the observed gender gap in compensation — i.e., the gender pay-gap — is driven by an underrepresentation of women in the highest-compensated jobs within large organizations.[9] Though, of course, there are a number of complicating societal factors that also contribute to this reality, the authors suggest that preferences for competition (dubbed “taste discrimination”) may also be a contributor.

The question that individuals and organizations must engage with is how to combat gender differences in preferences for competition. As the Gneezy (2003) study demonstrates, in within-gender competitions, women perform just as well as men. What, then, can be done to elicit the within- rather than between-gender responses to competition for women?

Perhaps a more fundamental question is how to make jobs and industries that are traditionally male dominated more appealing to female applicants. A study of how graduates from a top MBA program apply to and choose different professions showed a significant divide between genders — with women less likely to apply for finance and consulting jobs than their equally qualified male counterparts.[10] Of course, both finance and consulting are traditionally conceived of as “competitive” professions.

But what is the cause and what is the effect of this reality?

In studying labor segregation between the sexes, the social psychologists Cejka and Eagly (1999) found that “to the extent that occupations were male dominated, masculine personality or physical attributes were thought more essential.”[11] Surely enough, of the eight stereotypically masculine personality traits listed by the researchers, competitive is number one.

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Yet, it is not the case that personal competitiveness is a necessary (or even desirable) quality of a high-performing employee in these sectors. Perhaps, then, the culture of these professions has been driven by the fact that they are male dominated — rather than their being male dominated on the basis of their culture. One place organizations can start is by actively trying to dispel the stereotypes associated with them.

The gender divide in both job-choice and pay is not simply unjust, it creates horrible inefficiency. Women, on the whole, are more educated and score higher on measures of intelligence (qualms with IQ tests notwithstanding) than men. Yet, the foreboding façade of male-dominated professions is causing well-qualified candidates to apply elsewhere. In order to dismantle this counter-productive construct, we must disentangle the norm from the necessary — the perceptual from the real.


[1] Hogan, H. Wayne. “IQ self-estimates of males and females.” The Journal of Social Psychology 106.1 (1978): 137-138.

[2] Reilly, Jacqueline, and Gerry Mulhern. “Gender differences in self-estimated IQ: The need for care in interpreting group data.” Personality and individual Differences 18.2 (1995): 189-192.

[3] Furnham, Adrian, and Richard Rawles. “Correlations between self-estimated and psychometrically measured IQ.” The Journal of Social Psychology 139.4 (1999): 405-410.

[4] Rammstedt, Beatrice, and Thomas H. Rammsayer. “Sex differences in self-estimates of different aspects of intelligence.” Personality and Individual Differences 29.5 (2000): 869-880.

[5] Niederle, Muriel, and Lise Vesterlund. “Gender and competition.” Annu. Rev. Econ. 3.1 (2011): 601-630.

[6] Niederle, Muriel, and Lise Vesterlund. “Do women shy away from competition? Do men compete too much?.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122.3 (2007): 1067-1101.

[7] Gneezy, Uri, Muriel Niederle, and Aldo Rustichini. “Performance in competitive environments: Gender differences.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 118.3 (2003): 1049-1074.

[8] Croson, Rachel, and Uri Gneezy. “Gender differences in preferences.” Journal of Economic literature 47.2 (2009): 448-474.

[9] Bertrand, Marianne, and Kevin F. Hallock. “The gender gap in top corporate jobs.” ILR Review 55.1 (2001): 3-21.

[10] Barbulescu, Roxana, and Matthew Bidwell. “Do women choose different jobs from men? Mechanisms of application segregation in the market for managerial workers.” Organization Science 24.3 (2013): 737-756.

[11] Cejka, Mary Ann, and Alice H. Eagly. “Gender-stereotypic images of occupations correspond to the sex segregation of employment.” Personality and social psychology bulletin 25.4 (1999): 413-423.

About the Author

Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis


Andrew is a writer and behavioral scientist focused on belief construction and how people evaluate new information. He is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and a doctoral researcher at its Centre for Experimental Social Science (CESS). He was previously at Carnegie Mellon University where he worked at the BEDR Policy Lab and Center for Behavioral and Decision Research (CBDR), and was a research and teaching assistant to George Loewenstein.

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