Monday, April 21, 2014

Should women be encouraged to compete?

An article on “The Confidence Gap” between men and women has been making the rounds this week. In it, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argue that women too often doubt their own abilities as compared to men, leading to an imbalance in women’s representation in most fields. This may have to do with socialization, evolutionary biology, the structure of our social systems, or some combination.

In his seminar on whether “boys and girls respond differently to academic competition,” Prof. Robert Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania explored how this carries over into the realm of competitiveness. He and his co-authors used a real-life experiment in which a math and verbal prep technology suddenly introduced a peer competition in the form of a “leader board.” Prior to the leader board, students would simply answer a series of questions and be told, individually, how well they’d done. After the “leader board”, students were given points for correct answers and the names of the top-three point-earners were displayed for all the participants to see.
Before the points system, girls tended to perform better in both English and math. But after the introduction of the competitive system, girls performed worse than they previously had, and also worse than boys, particularly in math.

Whether it had to do with social stigma of being publicly seen as a “nerd” or just the aversion to and stress associated with competition is unclear. But Professor Jensen concludes that a competitive system simply wasn’t conducive to better learning outcomes for women in this education technology.

So should we reduce competition in how we raise and educate girls? As one seminar participant remarked, “we live in a society of competition in every sphere; to discourage that is to encourage girls to opt-out of success. Instead, perhaps we should raise our daughters and sons the same way so that they can both learn to compete effectively.” Indeed, as Elizabeth Plank writes, instead of telling women to change their personalities, maybe it's time we take a look at the entire system and adjust all of the structures that hold them back.

To this, WAPPP Executive Director Victoria Budson responds that, “Whenever the frame and context for any competition is set in today’s world, it will necessarily be biased---by gendered components, racial components. So we need to understand  what choices are made and how those choices impact outcomes. It’s not that one shouldn’t compete…but to create a new competitive frame.

“When you understand what the mechanisms are and what they produce, you can then guide how institutions create structures. Because whenever we set up structures, we’re really creating pathways toward outcomes that we can predict when we study them effectively. So rather than telling us how we should feel about this, all of these studies are just data that can help us create a world where the majority of our talent is effectively utilized.”

WAPPP Director Iris Bohnet adds that we should do both: “we should enable people to be competitive in the world that we live in, but we also have to change the world to make it easier for everyone, based on whatever preferences they have, to survive and compete in that world.”

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