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Jewish World Review May 31, 2005 / 22 Iyar 5765

Betsy Hart

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A self-imposed
gender gap | Now here's a topic that could have really gotten Harvard President Larry Summers in trouble (he's the one who said it's a question worth pursuing as to whether women have the gray matter for science): A recent draft study shows that women may have a self-imposed "gender-gap" when it comes to competition.

It seems that women are just not as competitive as men. In a study conducted by Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund (of Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh, respectively), women just didn't choose to compete like the men did. In one experiment, women and men were each paid a small sum per piece to solve math problems. Both the men and women did fine. But for the next round of the experiments, they could choose to compete in tournaments where they would make a great deal more for correct answers, and nothing for wrong ones, or stay with the guaranteed piece rate. Overwhelmingly, the men chose the competition, and the women chose to stay with the sure thing.

In a previous experiment focusing on how women perform in competitive environments, particularly against men, lead researcher Niederle had determined not only that women didn't like competition, but that they didn't perform as well when subjected to it. As the researchers in that study put it, "women may be less effective than men in competitive environments, even if they are able to perform similarly in non-competitive environments."

That study appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (August 2003.) There the researchers found, "In a laboratory experiment we observe, as we increase the competitiveness of the environment, a significant increase in performance for men, but not for women." The researchers conducted a series of other experiments that also caused them to theorize that in addition to being less competitive against men, women were more risk averse.

Drum roll please ... Duh. Men are generally more competitive than women and are bigger risk takers. This requires a study? In today's politically correct gender environment the answer is apparently "yes."

Writer John Tierney recently — and as he often does, bravely — took on the most recent of these experiments in a column in the New York Times. He talked about the impact of these findings on what we know about women in the workplace, but then he seemed to suggest that workplaces would generally be better off if they weren't as competitive. That in fact women had a rather more wholesome view of life for not being so competitive.

Let's back up. First, I'd suggest we ask the question — what happens when there's something women really want? Have you ever seen 7th grade girls competing to be the Queen Bee? There are few places more competitive than an all-girls high school, and how about when women want the same man as in, "The Bachelor." Uh, yeah, we can be competitive.

I'm not making light of my sisters — I'm just saying we have it in us to be competitive when we want what's at stake, though we may never compete quite as intensely as guys do. And in fact, the earlier experiments conducted by Niederle show just that. Women can be quite competitive — against other women. But in general, we're still not as competitive as the guys. (Let's please remember than any one woman can buck this trend. I have known some pretty aggressive gals when it comes to standing up against the guys, in and out of the workplace.)

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Anyway, as more gender differences are studied, and more of them seem to be pretty ingrained if not innate, look for more and more commentators to suggest that the entire culture of the workplace should be changed to better accommodate women's temperaments and "cooperative style."

In any event, why one would think that being "cooperative" rather than "competitive" is always a good thing is beyond me. I mean it's in large part due to intense competition — and being able to compete freely — that we have, oh, western civilization.

But I do think the current superiority of the "cooperative" notion has something to do with the idea that that description tends to apply to women, and these days the world has sort of a "man bad woman good" view of things.

To the extent we women compete differently or compete for different things, or just want different things, does not make us better. It does mean men and women might be, in general, different — and that we need those differences for all of us to thrive.

I think it's unfortunate we should need scholarly studies to tell us that.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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