IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 3
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GRAPHIC:  ResearchInvestigations
Mars, Venus, and the race to the top

Could all-girls schools teach corporations a lesson in hiring practices? “It depends on the job being filled,” says Uri Gneezy, but probably. Such schools have long argued that they offer pupils an advantage merely by eliminating males from the competition—and perhaps even high-pressure competition itself—but little empirical research has been done to support those claims. Two recent studies by Gneezy, assistant professor of behavioral science in the Graduate School of Business, and Aldo Rustichini of the University of Minnesota reveal a deeply ingrained difference in the way men and women react to competition in the short term.

In the first study, forthcoming from the Quarterly Journal of Economics, several hundred students at an elite Israeli technical university were divided into groups of six and asked to solve simple computer-based maze problems. In some groups each subject was paid 2 shekels (50 cents) for each solution. In others only the person solving the most problems was rewarded, at a rate of 12 shekels ($3) for each solution.

Regardless of the groups’ sexual makeup, men and women, on average, did equally well when paid for individual performance. But when only the top problem solver was rewarded, average male performance rose sharply—by about 50 percent—while female performance stayed the same. When competing for the money in single-sex groups, women performed about as well as men.

The gender difference in competitive environments seems to manifest itself even at an early age. Gneezy’s second study, also conducted in Israel and currently being submitted to journals, involved short races run by 140 9- and 10-year-old boys and girls in a physical-education class. When children ran the course alone, there was no significant difference between the average speeds of boys and girls. But when pairs of children with similar initial speeds ran the race again, things changed. Boys’ speeds increased considerably when running against either a boy or a girl, but more so when paired with a girl. Girls showed no increase when running against a boy and even ran a bit slower when paired with a girl.

Like solving mazes and running races, Gneezy says, most job searches are short-term processes with high levels of competition. “For some jobs, the selection process might be more competitive than the job itself,” says Gneezy. “So in the end what you get is the most competitive person, not necessarily the person most qualified to do the job.” In fields such as sales, the ability to compete is probably desired among job candidates. But in fields such as marketing, creativity may be more highly prized.

The persons responsible for hiring, he continues, should consider the most important aspects of each job. “If competitiveness is not one of them, give job applicants tasks which are more creative, more related to the job, or base the selection more on the personal impression you get in the interview.”

Likewise, managers adding incentives in their firms should realize that increased competition might create a bias that puts women at a disadvantage. “The first step toward change,” he says, “is knowing this.”

— Sharla A. Stewart



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