“There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is in win,” the basketball star Michael Jordan famously observed. But now it appears that such an emphasis on the role of the individual is a very male approach when it comes to competing. Indeed, a study suggests that women are much more willing than men to compete as part of a team.
Nearly two-thirds of the “gender competition gap” – the gap between the likelihood of men or women to enter a competition – disappears when people are offered the chance to compete in two-person teams rather than as individuals.Academics Andrew Healy and Jennifer Pate claim that their findings, published in the Economic Journal, have important implications for the design of competitive environments, such as elections and corporate career ladders.
The pair believe their research reveals that competing in teams “levels the playing field” by encouraging a higher number of qualified women to take part and discouraging unqualified men. They argue that this insight should help organisations to select the best-qualified leaders.
The economists conducted an experiment in which the participants had to answer maths problems as quickly as possible. Participants in teams decided whether they wanted to be paid according to the number of problems their two-person team answered correctly or whether they wanted to enter a competition against three other teams. Individual participants decided whether they wanted to compete against three other individuals.
The results highlighted huge differences between the genders:
■ Even though men and women performed equally well on the task, 81% of men chose to compete as individuals compared with 28% of women.
■ When participants competed in teams, the gender competition gap shrank by 31 percentage points to 22%, with 67% of men choosing to enter the competition compared with 45% of women.
Previous research has shown that a man is much more likely to choose to compete compared with a woman, even when the two are equally good at a given task. The professors claim their study suggests that this gender competition gap can be narrowed by simple changes to the environment in which competitions are held.
The economists suggest the gender competition gap may help to explain the continuing lack of women in positions of power. There are only five women CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. The likes of Angela Ahrendts at Burberry, Cynthia Carroll at Anglo American and Dame Marjorie Scardino at Pearson are extremely rare.
However, a new way of measuring their performance – one that focuses on their ability as part of a team rather than in a testosterone-loaded, gladiatorial-style competition – could change this, the economists suggest. “It appears to be the case that women often opt out of entering these competitive environments,” Pate said. “Importantly, while qualified women opt out, unqualified men opt in. As a result, the gender competition gap may result in organisations failing to select the most qualified leaders.”
Healy added: “The results of this study have implications for the nature of competitions. Competitions held on the basis of team performance rather than individual performance may attract more women – and fewer men.”
The findings also have signficance for the world of politics. Women are much more likely to be active in politics in countries with party lists than in those where a single person is elected.
For example, in Germany and New Zealand, where representatives are elected by each method, the economists claim women are about three times more likely to be elected from the team-based competitions than the individual ones.