• Women are more team-oriented than men in the workplace, according to research, also revealing that women are inclined to be more competitive when they can share potential winnings.
  • Highly competitive jobs such as a lawyer or manager generally pay more, and therefore tend to be underrepresented by women, contributing to the pay gap.
  • More research into the social side of the workplace needs to be conducted to get a better idea as to how businesses can support and encourage women to be more competitive.

The big idea

Women are more likely to take risks and engage in competitive activities if they’re allowed to share their potential winnings with peers, according to new research I co-authored. Since one explanation of the gender pay gap is that women tend to be less competitive than men in workplace settings, this finding could lead to ways to narrow it.

In a study published on Nov. 1, 2021, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Alessandra Cassar and I report an experiment in which we invited 238 undergraduate students – split almost evenly between men and women – into our labs to solve a simple numbers puzzle. We wanted to see how different types of financial incentives prompt men and women to compete differently. We randomly assigned them to groups of four and had them do versions of the puzzle over three rounds.

Researchers have conducted this experiment many times, with the result that women show less interest in competing than men. But we added a twist.

a chart showing the countries with the smallest gender pay gap
These are the countries with the smallest gender pay gap.
Image: World Economic Forum

Half the students followed the usual methodology. They were first told they’d receive US$2 for every numbers problem solved. In the second round, we offered $4 per solution to the top two performers in each foursome, leaving the others with nothing. In the final round, participants were able to choose whether to receive $2 for every problem solved or engage in the more competitive game and potentially earn more money.

Mirroring the results of past studies, our research found that while 52% of the men chose the competitive option in the third round, only 34% of women did.

Our twist on this experiment, which we conducted with the other half, was very similar to how the standard version was conducted except in one way. In the second round, students who won were told they could choose to share some portion of their winnings with one of the two low performers in their group. We then looked at how this option to share affected their choices in round three.

We found that this eliminated the male-female competitiveness gap. Men chose to compete at about the same rate as before, but 60% of women opted for the riskier option when offered a chance to share their winnings.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Why it matters

The latest wage data shows women earn 83 cents of every dollar a man is paid, a stat that has barely budged in decades. And while controlling for job type and individual characteristics closes much of the gap, we think this adjustment misses the point.

The persistent gap in average earnings suggests women consistently go into careers that pay lower salaries than those that men go into or are systemically underpromoted. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this imbalance.

To more meaningfully close or at least narrow the gap between how much men and women earn, it’s important to understand its causes. Some economists have suggested it’s at least partly due to different levels of competitiveness among men and women.

After all, high-risk competitive roles like managers and lawyers tend to come with lofty salaries. Since many of the studies cited above show women seem to be less competitive than men, this could help explain why women are underrepresented in those careers and on average earn less.

Our research suggests the explanation may be more nuanced. It’s not that women don’t like competition, but that they are sensitive to social aspects of it that men aren’t. When incentives reflect those social aspects, women are just as competitive as men.

What’s next

We’re not sure how our findings translate into the workplace or how companies can adjust the way they pay workers to encourage women to be more competitive. We are uncovering more of the what, and need to better understand the why.