Study Finds that Women Seek Smaller Competitions due to Prescriptive Gender Norms

July 05, 2016


A 2016 study is suggesting that men and women’s own adherence to gender norms is a potential cause of inequality in the workplace. Findings from the study suggest that when seeking a job or a university program women tend to apply to positions or programs with less competition in the form of other applicants. This may contribute to why women comprise only 4.8% of CEOs, 14.6% of executive officers, and 16.9% of board members among Fortune 500 companies. The study by Kathrin J Hanek, Stephen M. Garcia and Avishalom Tor therefore concludes that women may be excluding themselves from larger competitions and organizations.

The researchers held a series of eight studies in which they examined whether gender differences in competition entry preferences were affected by the size of the competition.  They found that overall women, relative to men, choose to enter smaller competitions with less people to compete against. When competition wasn’t a factor, group size preference did not play a role in whether women did or did not apply to a job. The study suggests that women avoid larger competitions because of prescriptive gender norms and stereotypes which assume that women are not, or should not be, competitive.

The take away from this study should not be that women are the cause of their own underrepresentation. In fact, “in societies in which these stereotypes and norms do not exist or are reversed (e.g. matriarchal socieites), women have been shown to be more likely to enter competitions than men.” (Gneezy, Leonary & List, 2009). Instead, this study should highlight how gender equality is a systemic issue. The study found that women more than men expected to feel more comfortable in smaller-competitions. That is because acting in ways that are inconsistent with gender stereotypes, such as women acting competitively, are perceived as unacceptable by others and can cause backlash. For example, agentic women are rated as more aggressive and less socially skilled than an identically presented man. Therefore, it is not that men and women are genetically communal or agentic; women prescribe to gender norms so that they do not need to face the discomfort that comes with going against prescribed gender norms. Read more about stereotype threat.

Gender norms aren’t just hurting women though, they hurt everyone. During the United State of Women Summit, President Obama addressed the need to stop stereotyping men and women. President Obama said, "If we really want workplace policies that work for everybody... we’re going to have to change the way we see ourselves... we’re still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave. We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure, and our boys to be assertive; that criticizes our daughters for speaking out, and our sons for shedding a tear." Read Obama's full United State of Women speech. 

By combatting gender norms everyone benefits. Both men and women can be their true selves. They won’t have to engage in a form of blue versus pink self-censorship. Removing gender norms would be a huge step towards increasing gender diversity in leadership positions or within highly competitive markets. Even companies would benefit from the removal of gender norms; there are many proven  economic benefits for companies that increase their diversity (see our Business Case for Gender Diversity). 

For companies looking to hire more women a great first step is to reassess your hiring and promotional practices; look into how competitions within your organization and communication material are framed. Additionally, you can look into what type of language you are using in your communication material. Dr. Shannon’s article “Want to Encourage Gender Diversity? Choose your words WISEly” provides some great tips on how to use language to diversify your job applicants. For more details on stereotype awareness and gendered language see the WWEST white paper for hiring committees