Yves here. On the one hand, I must confess to having a general tendency to question received wisdom, since conventional thinking is often wrong or incomplete. And I am particularly leery of studies on gender-related behaviors, since any remotely-decent statistician will tell you that the differences within groups as large as “men” versus “women” will be greater than the differences between groups. Thus studies that find that “women/men are generally like X” tend to reinforce stereotypes that do a lot of disservice to particular men and women. And in particular, propagating the idea that a group is “less good” regularly becomes self-fulfiling, as expectancy theory has demonstrated. More specifically, if as this paper presumes (as it does, see its first bold heading) that “women perform worse when competing against men,” how can it be that, as has been regularly reported, women are better investors than men, and in particular, better hedge fund managers?
For instance, many of you gave me very sympathetic comments about my having been bullied by a woman on the street a couple of nights ago. I realized later in the evening, and even sent a message to Lambert to that effect, that while I let myself be successfully browbeaten by a woman, I would probably have stood up to a man, not by arguing but by body language, such as by making eye contact, shaking my head dismissively and walking on. Even though the apparent outcome would have been no different (the harasser would have kept after me for a bit), how I felt about the encounter would have been very different.
I say that because I’ve gotten men to back down multiple times in the past when there was a latent or even live physical threat (in one case, I could see the guy consider slugging me but he didn’t because I held eye contact). Now I carry a shooting stick all the time, which doubles as a bludgeon, so I have even less reason to be physically intimidated.
I suspect most women are afraid to confront men directly because they have internalized that they could be beaten up. I was larger by a lot than all the boys up until 6th grade, and even after was bigger than almost all of them well into my teens. Plus I often hung out with boys and generally got on well with them. I also managed to miss entirely the normal girl acculturation of being subordinate to/currying favor with men, which for women is another big inhibitor to competitive behavior. By contrast, I was bullied repeatedly and very successfully by girls. Despite this being a regular feature of my childhood, I never developed effective responses.
Louis CK has a good take on this phenomenon:
To put it more clinically, many women resort to forms of psychological intimidation/retaliation as an alternative to direct physical confrontation, given the high odds of having the crap beaten out of them if they try that.
There are specific reason to wonder about this study, despite it being based on a very large data set. First, it uses Japanese data, when Japanese women are acculturated even more than women in the West not to challenge men. Japanese women literally speak different Japanese than men do, with a more restricted vocabulary, in what amounts to a special version of “politeness” and they typically pitch their voices in an unnaturally high register to sound young/cute (one Japanese woman politician was famed for speaking in a low pitch, this was seen as open defiance of gender norms). Second, the authors (which is good of them), state the hypotheses they were testing, and as written, they were looking for evidence that women were less competitive when set against men.
I’ve asked mathematician Cathy O’Neil to have a look at the study. If she’s interested, I’ll report on her take.
By Alison Booth, Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, CEPR Research Fellow and Eiji Yamamura, Professor of Economics, Seinan Gaikun University. Originally published at VoxEU
Regardless of their stage of development, most economies exhibit significant gender gaps in wages and other labour market outcomes. A growing number of studies explore whether or not such gaps might be due to gender differences in attitudes to competition or to risk. However, economists have not yet reached consensus about whether observed differences in economic preferences are innate, or instead differ across the environments in which men and women find themselves. If they are not innate, then policy may play a role in reducing gender gaps in labour market outcomes.
Experimental studies have found the competitive choices made by men and women differ according to whether they are competing against men or women (e.g. Gneezy et al. 2003, Gneezy and Rustichini 2004, Niederle and Vesterlund 2011). Moreover, observed performance also varies with the gender of competitors, as in Gneezy et al. 2003. Further studies have explored the role of nature or nurture in explaining these differences, and found that these competitive preferences can be modified through nurturing (Gneezy et al. 2009, Booth and Nolen 2012a).
Why Do Women Perform Worse When Competing Against Men?
To investigate this, in a recent paper we analyse unique performance data from a real-world activity – speedboat racing in Japan – that is by its very nature competitive, and where the potential payoffs from winning are high (Booth and Yamamura 2016). The novel features of these data are that participants are randomly allocated to either single-sex or mixed-gender groups for the competition, and that the equipment (boat and engine) used by each participant on race-day is also randomly assigned. Moreover, women and men compete under exactly the same conditions. Detailed information about the institutional features of this sport can be found in our paper (Booth and Yamamura 2016).
Speedboat races in Japan
There are 24 speedboat racing stadiums throughout Japan and boat races are randomly held about four days per week in each stadium. Racers go to many different stadiums to compete. In each racing fixture, there are 12 races, and six racers compete in any given race. The circuit is a large artificial pond or sectioned-off body of water 600 metres in length. Competitors race around it three times, leading to a total race-distance of 1800 metres.
Women represent approximately 13% of all speedboat racers. The rules of the races are strictly monitored and any breaching of the rules results in disqualification. The potential payoffs are very high and are sourced from betting. Average annual earnings range from 5 million Japanese yen for racers in the bottom grade up to 33 million yen for racers in the top grade.1
Races are tightly monitored, and severe sanctions on disqualified racers mean they cannot participate, resulting in a fall in annual revenue. Consequently, racers have strong incentives to follow the rules in order to win the race. But they also face trade-offs because, in order to win, they may have to engage in risky lane-changing to improve their position.
Figure 1 Racing around corner at the stadium at Suminoe in Osaka
Using data from seven stadiums with complete information on all racers’ records over 18 months, we explore how female and male performance and strategies in the mixed-gender races differ from the single-gender races. Our data are in panel form, where we have information for each racer’s performance time and strategy across all the races in which they have competed. Thus we have a total of over 15,000 women-race observations and over 127,000 men-race observations – a far larger dataset than used by other studies to date. Note that because of the preponderance of men, the majority of participants in the mixed-sex races are male (this mimics the position of women in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)
Our Conjectures About Behaviour
- Hypothesis 1: Women racers are faster in the single-sex races than in the mixed-sex races, while men racers are faster in the mixed-sex races than in the single-sex.
What underlies this conjecture? A society’s prescriptions about the appropriate modes of behaviour for each gender might result in individuals experiencing a loss of identity should they deviate from the relevant code (e.g. Akerlof and Kranton 2000). If women are in general expected to behave less aggressively than men, they are more likely to follow this behavioral code when they are in a mixed-gender race than an all-female race. This is because the mixed-gender race – to which they are randomly assigned – triggers in them an awareness of their gender identity.
- Hypothesis 2: Women racers follow a less aggressive strategy than men, and this will be more pronounced in the mixed-sex races.
This conjecture follows from findings from an earlier study that shows gender differences in risk-aversion vary across single-sex and co-ed environments (Booth and Nolen 2012b). Racing involves skill not only in maneuvering the boat but also in jockeying for a desirable position, since the inner lanes confer an advantage. While lane-changing can bring benefits, it can also bring costs (strict rules, leading to tough penalties). If men are more confident and less risk-averse, they will be more likely to adopt an aggressive strategy. Within our dataset, ‘aggression’ is proxied by lane-changing.
Owing to the rules of speedboat races, racers who behave aggressively are more likely to break the rules and be disqualified. If Hypothesis 2 is found to hold, we have a further hypothesis:
- Hypothesis 3: Women racers are less likely to be penalised than men in the mixed-gender race.
The racing start is based on the premature start system in which lane-changing occurs. Prior to this, each race participant runs a short solo exhibition run, during which the participant obtains information about the boat they have been randomly allocated and reveals their prowess to the betting fraternity. Clearly strategy will play a big part in the actual race, but it will play a much smaller role in the solo exhibition run, where participants do not compete directly with the other racers. Thus, jockeying for position is not relevant.
We investigate how male-dominated circumstances affect women’s and men’s racing performance. We control for individual fixed-effects plus a host of other factors affecting performance. Our estimates reveal that women’s times are slower in mixed-sex races than in all-women races, whereas men’s times are faster in mixed-gender races than men-only races. We also find the same results when we use as the dependent variable ‘place in the race’. Thus, our evidence supports Hypothesis 1.
We also find that in mixed-sex races, male racers tend to be more aggressive – as proxied by lane-changing – in spite of the risk of being penalised for contravening the rules, whereas women follow less aggressive strategies. This supports Hypothesis 2. However, we find no difference in disqualification rates between genders, and thus no support for Hypothesis 3.
We suggest that gender differences in risk attitudes and confidence may result in different responses to the competitive environment and penalties for rule-breaking, and that gender identity is also likely to play a role.
The first finding above is of particular interest. It shows that female competitive performance – even among women who have chosen a competitive career and who are very good at it – is enhanced by being in a single-sex environment rather than in a mixed-sex environment in which they are a minority. The other findings listed above are also of great interest, since they follow from our investigation of the mechanisms through which our first finding operates. In particular, we suggest in the paper that male racers are aggressive but not imprudent by taking into account competitors’ condition as well as the risk of disqualification when jockeying for position.
The gender proportion in the mixed-sex speedboat races is skewed towards men. Women racers assigned by lot to a mixed-sex race will typically face five male competitors, and infrequently four. We argue that this gender imbalance is likely to trigger awareness of gender identity for both men and women, and that this might go some way to explaining our observed differences in behaviour across the mixed-sex and single-sex groups. For example, a man’s gender identity may lead him to view being defeated by women as more dishonourable than by men, and he will try to avoid it.
Our findings may well have implications for other activities in which men and women compete with one another and where the gender balance is skewed in favour of men. One example is in the STEM disciplines, where being in a minority may well affect the performance of the women. We hope that future research will investigate this further.
See original post for references