Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Are Women Less Competitive Than Men?

A recent New York Times article asks, “Why are there still so few women in science?” Focusing on American society, the article explores some of our cultural biases related to women in science. The TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” for example, features a crew of geeky men with physics PhDs with a few token women (the “hip” ones are all math duds), while in the movie “Mean Girls,” the female lead hides her mathematical talent to impress a boy and fit in.

But does it start even earlier? In Thursday’s WAPPP Seminar, “Gender,Competitiveness, and Career Choices,” Stanford University’s Muriel Niederle, presented some of her research on whether there are some non-cognitive reasons: do women simply shy away from competition? Do men compete too much?

In her experiments of simple math competitions, Professor Niederle found that even the lowest performing (i.e. “stupidest”) men were much more willing to join a competitive game with rewards than even the smartest women. In fact, 73% of all men chose to enter the competition while only 35% of all women did. (There was pretty much an even distribution in peoples’ actual results and intelligence, by the way).
Muriel Niederle, “Gender, Competitiveness, and Career Choices
What adds to this are a few factors: women tend to be more risk-averse generally; and despite their objective talent, women also tend to rate themselves as lower than they are. And though these tests were done on college students, apparently similar trends on willingness to compete are visible by age three!

Though proclivity to compete with other people per se ought not determine aptitude and success, the reality is that it does. In the classroom, this has path-dependent effects: how young women perceive themselves to be at math influences which course of study, and later career, they pursue. And years later, we see the effect of that in the paucity of women in math and science---but not in subjects like literature.

Some fields have had lower and harder glass ceilings than others. The reason for that may certainly be structural, in terms of decision-makers denying career mobility. But those structures start to oscillate based on the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Eileen Pollack, the author of that Times piece, writes that “the most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”

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