Papers, finals, job search, the holidays – the pressure of it all! I was hoping to learn in this seminar that being a woman would somehow improve my performance. What I did learn was not quite so straightforward, but still fascinating. Some experimental studies in recent years had found that in a mixed-sex environment, the pressure of competition improved men’s performance, but not women’s, and that women often opted out of competitive environments. Olga Shruchkov, Assistant Professor of Economics at Wellesley College, noticed something about those experiments. The “tasks” which subjects performed under competitive pressure were invariably math-oriented, like addition problems and mazes, and there was no range of performance quality, only right or wrong answers.
Shruchkov designed an experiment that would fill these gaps – a Boggle-like verbal task, a comparable math task and a difference between competitive pressure and time pressure. This experimental design was not only creative, but also rigorous, with relevant controls, task-consistency mechanisms and a whole range of variables to measure. The experiments replicated previous findings that under time pressure on math tasks men attained higher scores and had a higher propensity to select into tournaments.
The innovative experimental design also yielded important new insights. On verbal tasks under time pressure, women performed as well as men and had a similar propensity to enter competitions. In a verbal competition under time pressure, women did slightly better than men. Things really took off once the time pressure was lowered – women outperformed men on the verbal tasks under competition. On the math task with low time pressure, women and men performed similarly both with and without competition. Interestingly, giving more time for the math task doubled the number of women who elected to compete. So it’s not the pressure of the competition or inherent math abilities that were hurting the performance of women in earlier experiments – it was time!
Why did time help women so much more than the men? Making the competition about total points, not speed, allowed for a measurement of the quality dimension. A look at the kinds of words women were finding when given the time reveals an emphasis on quality – they made longer words and made fewer mistakes. The men, on the other hand, went for quantity of words and in the process lost points for misspellings and typos. Perhaps more women participated in the math tournament when they had more time, because it allowed them to check their calculations more thoroughly.
Professor Shruchkov was careful with drawing policy implications out of experimental results, but she suggested that take-home exams in math and science might help more girls excel in those subjects early on, which could get more of them interested in pursuing those careers. Personally, I am tempted to use the results to ask for a final paper extension right now! I wonder what Shruchkov tells her students when they try to do that.