Study Casts Doubt on Theory That Women Aren’t as Competitive as Men

As researchers investigate reasons for America’s persistent gender wage gap, one possible explanation that has emerged in roughly the last decade is that women may be less competitive than men, and are therefore passed over for higher-ranking roles with larger salaries.

But a new study suggests that it’s likely not that simple. Researchers found that women enter competitions at the same rate as men – when they have the option to share their winnings with the losers.

The study, conducted by Mary L. Rigdon, associate director of the UArizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, and Alessandra Cassar, professor of economics at the University of San Francisco, is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rigdon’s research involves studying how market structure, information and incentives impact behavior. Her work over the last 20 years has explored questions about trust, reciprocity, competition, altruism, cheating and more, with a particular focus on gender differences, especially the gender wage gap.

“If we’re finally going to close the gender pay gap, then we have to understand the sources of it – and also solutions and remedies for it,” said Rigdon, who is also a faculty affiliate in the Department of Political Economy and Moral Science in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

In 2021, women will earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, Rigdon said, meaning women work nearly three months extra to receive the same amount of pay. This statistic does not account for certain characteristics, such as an employee’s age, experience or level of education.

But even when considering those characteristics, women are still paid about 98 cents for every dollar earned by men, Rigdon said. In other words, a woman is paid 2% less than a man with the same qualifications.

Economists have considered a few possible explanations for this, Rigdon said. One theory, known as the “human capital explanation,” suggests that there are gender differences in certain skills, leading women to careers that pay less. Another theory – perhaps the most widely considered – is patent discrimination.

Rigdon and Cassar zeroed in on the relatively new theory that women are less competitive and less willing to take risks than men.

But if women were more reluctant to compete, then they would occupy fewer high-ranking positions at the tops of major companies, and that’s not the trend that’s taken shape over the last several years, Rigdon said. Women make up about 8% of the CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. While that number is low overall, it’s a record high.

“We thought it must be the case that women are as competitive as men, but they just exhibit it differently, so we wanted to try to get at that story and demonstrate that that is the case,” Rigdon said. “Because that’s then a very different story about the gender wage gap.”

Rigdon and Cassar randomly assigned 238 participants – split nearly evenly by gender – to two different groups for the study. Participants in each of those two groups were then randomly assigned to four-person subgroups.

For all participants, the first round of the study was the same: Each was asked to look at tables of 12 three-digit numbers with two decimal places and find the two numbers that add to 10. Participants were asked to solve as many tables as possible – up to 20 – in two minutes. Each participant was paid $2 for every table they solved in the first round.

In round two, participants were asked to do the same task, but the two groups were incentivized differently. In the first group, the two participants in each four-person team who solved the most tables earned $4 per table solved, while their other two team members were given nothing. In the other group, the top two performers of each four-person team also earned $4 per table, but they had the right to decide how much of the prize money to share with one of the lower performing participants.

In the third round, all participants were allowed to choose which payment scheme they preferred from the two previous rounds. For half the study participants, this meant a choice between a guaranteed $2 per correct table, or potentially $4 per correct table if they became one of the top-two performers in their four-person subgroup. For the other half of the participants, the choice was $2 per correct table, or $4 per correct table for the top-two performers with the option to share the winnings with one of the losing participants.

The number of women who chose the competitive option nearly doubled when given the option to share their winnings; about 60% chose to compete under that option, while only about 35% chose to compete in the winner-take-all version of the tournament.

About 51% of men in the study chose the winner-take-all option, and 52.5% chose the format that allowed for sharing with the losers.

Rigdon said she and Cassar have a few theories about why women are more inclined to compete when they can share the winnings. One suggests female participants are simply interested in controlling the way the winnings are divvied up among the other participants.

Another theory that has emerged among evolutionary psychologists, Rigdon said, suggests that female participants may be inclined to smooth over bad feelings with losers of the competition.

“We really have to ask what it is about this social incentive that drives women to compete. We think it’s recognizing the different costs and benefits that come from your different biological and cultural constraints,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I think we still have this question.”

Rigdon and Cassar are now developing an experiment that gets to the heart of that question, Rigdon said.

The researchers are careful to not propose policies for corporate America based on a line of research that still has many questions. But, Rigdon said, the latest finding suggests that corporations might do well to engage in more socially responsible activity.

“Maybe you’ll attract a different set of applicants to your CEO positions or your board of director positions,” she said. “Women might be more attracted to positions where there is this social component that isn’t there in more traditional, incentive-based firms where it’s all about CEO bonuses.”

The research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Paid Maternity Leave: A Policy Imperative

Living in a country so focused on the reproductive behaviors of women, from contraception to abortion, it seems preposterous that despite the myriad policy imperatives that want to control women’s fertility, there is no federal policy that supports our decision to give birth by granting us paid maternity leave.

Maternity Leave in America: Where are we at?This policy gap is even more significant given that the USA is the only industrialized nation not to mandate paid maternity leave and is one of only a handful of countries globally that does not. The countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average 18 weeks of paid maternity leave. Maternity leave is a social, economic and health policy that has broad and significant impacts for individuals, families, organizations and nations.

(For reasons of brevity and simplicity I am deliberately focusing on maternity leave but it is important to note that many national and organizational ‘maternity’ leave polices are subsumed within parental policies that apply to both mothers and fathers).

Family and Medical Leave

In the USA, the primary policy related to maternity leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which puts various kinds of family-related leaves into one unpaid 3 month pot which includes leave for caring for a parent and leave for caring for an child. However, New Jersey, Rhode Island and California provide state-funded paid family and medical leave that includes pregnancy and childbirth. These policies are paid for by employee-paid payroll taxes and distributed through disability programs – with ‘disability’ being an unfortunate, if economically useful, way of categorizing pregnancy and birth.

If they do not work for one of the top law firms of the Vault 100 or a Fortune 500 corporation that competes for top talent and grant paid maternity leave to attract and retain employees, women are generally out of luck. If you are a woman with a ‘regular’ job, what do you do when you get pregnant or have just given birth? You have to take upaid leave at a time when your expenses have increased. Thus many women return to work within weeks of birth. Though some women try to continue to breastfeed, not many workplaces allow for convenient pumping and so women find themselves having to wean their infants because of workplace conditions in addition to their ‘early’ return to the paid workforce.

Many feminist activists do not want to ‘provoke’ a paid maternity leave policy because they think it makes women stand out as needing different (special) treatment than men. The fact is we are different from men and therefore need different policies related to our health and well-being. We incubate human beings for 9 months. We also have breasts that can be the sole nutritional source for infants for more than 6 months. This highly differentiates women’s parenting roles from that of males, regardless of how egalitarian a construct we may consider parenting to be.

Gender and Class Differences

In order for women to get the policies we want, we should acknowledge the difference, own the power in that difference, and demand what we need to take care of the next generation. The absence of child benefits, dearth of subsidized high-quality childcare, costly access to healthcare, low-performing public schools and high tuition costs for tertiary education are evidence of a government that talks about supporting families while neglecting the policies that would do so.

Not many women can afford to take unpaid leave and the women who work for companies were paid leave is a perk are more likely to be able to afford to take an extended leave without being paid while doing so. By making work incompatible with motherhood, women are forced to make hard choices between taking care of their children and being in the workforce, and men are forced to make this choice. Leaving the workforce because of motherhood not only reduces present income, it also limits lifetime income on which pensions are calculated while maintaining and expanding the income gap throughout the lifespan.

Our social welfare policies push poor women to work and yet social norms push middle class and wealthy women to stay home. Taking care of one’s own child should not be an economic luxury. Our economic and social policies recognize childcare as a ‘job’ only if someone other than a parent is taking care of a child. If a woman is taking care of her own child, her contribution to the economy and society is not ‘officially’ acknowledged by society at large.

For women who qualify for subsidized childcare, it is counterproductive and expensive to pay so much more money for a non-parent to care for a child while being unwilling to support a woman to take care of her own child. With regard to paid maternity leave and subsidized childcare, it is clearly not just about money, but it is about values.

The Wage Gap

Maternity leave is a key factor in the gender gap in wages and employment and in the ‘family gap’ in income that exists between women with children and women without children. Forty to fifty percent  of the gender gap income can be explained by the family gap differential due to marital and parental status among women.

The absence of paid maternity leave in the USA has been perceived by feminists and public health professionals as anti-woman, anti-child and anti-family because it does not provide income for woman post-childbirth nor does it support the 6-month breast-feeding recommendations of the American Pediatric Association.

Health Outcomes

There is no coincidence in having no paid maternity leave and the poor health outcomes we have for infants/children in this country. This is not to say that this is the only policy to blame as health policies are also significant contributors to poor health outcomes in mothers, infants and children. Policy ‘obsession’ with humans in utero do not continue once children are born.

There is little regard for comprehensive sexual health education for children and adolescence and too much attention paid to contraceptive choice and abortion. Once the child is born, our social welfare and health policies leave all but the poorest of mothers to fend on their own. The poorest women qualify for Medicaid and WIC (Women, Infants and Children). This is reflected in lack of affordable, high-quality childcare, poor performing public schools, juvenile justice facilities that are full to overflowing, low high school graduation rates and college costs that leave young adults mired in debt.

The Price of Motherhood

The price of motherhood should not be so financially challenging. Is possible women in developing nations will simply choose to opt out of the motherhood game altogether? Though the fact that American women continue to give birth at such high rates despite a social welfare net that has very large holes is a social policy paradox that is not easily understood. The demographic and economic challenges of low birthrates are not so easily fixed by social policy. Doing research on this topic for an economics class on gender and family, it was really hard to find a rationale for the resistance to paid maternity leave in the USA so I’m not sure why we are stuck in some sort of policy dark age along with universal access to health care.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In 2010, Ernst and Young was listed among the top 10 family friendly companies by Working Mother Research Institute, provides new mothers with 12 weeks paid leave and 10 weeks unpaid leave. Bank ofAmerica, which was also on the top 10, gives a paid leave to either gender of 12 weeks and allows them to take a total of 26 weeks. These organizations are profit-making institutions that would not be handing out benefits if they did not make economic sense. Getting good benefits lead to staff loyalty that reduces the costs of staff turnover. Furthermore, the costs of educating and training women get recouped over time when women are retained in the workforce.

For women who are joining the workforce, paid maternity leave should be a consideration when deciding on potential employers because the economic, social, health, personal and family benefits that result from such policies contribute much to our overall well-being and that of our families and society at large.

As is the norm in the USA, paid maternity leave is a social and health policy that is attached to employment and an employer. This leaves women at the whim of the workforce. Paid maternity leave should be a federal concern and not dependent on the whims of workplace or state policies.

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