Skip to main content

Women, Character and Competition

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Carmit Segal says gender differences in levels of competitiveness may help explain the scarcity of women in leadership position, and contribute to the gender gap in earnings.

Individuals who are inclined to consistently work hard and can defer gratification have better grades in school, are more likely to have higher educational attainment, and higher wages – controlling for their cognitive abilities. This is just one example of how skills other than cognitive ones help to explain success in school and in the workplace, as documented in a growing research literature.

A direct policy implication of these findings is that fostering such non-cognitive skills may help increase social mobility. Given the recent findings from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project that men are more socially mobile than women (i.e., they earn more than both their parents, while women only earn more than their mothers), a natural question to ask is whether such non-cognitive skills can help explain the gaps in economic success between men and women.

Gender differences in self-discipline and misbehavior seem to be doing an excellent job in explaining differences in human capital accumulation – but in the other direction. Adolescent girls are better behaved and more self-disciplined than adolescent boys. They also place a higher value on the future.1 These gaps can account for the fact that girls have higher GPA than boys2 and higher college enrollment,3 again controlling for cognitive skills. If girls and women have the edge in terms of non-cognitive skills, does that mean, then, that non-cognitive skills are irrelevant in explaining their worse outcomes in terms of later earnings and income? Not necessarily.

A different kind of non-cognitive skill may play a decisive role in explaining both the gender gap in earnings and the scarcity of women in leadership positions. To gain leadership positions, whether in the economic or the political spheres, individuals need to engage in a competition with others. So gender differences in levels of competitiveness may help explain the scarcity of women in leadership position, and, as far as these jobs are very lucrative, this may also contribute to increasing the gender gap in earnings.

Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund have used lab experiments to investigate whether there are gender differences in competitiveness.4 They find that when given the choice, women were less likely than men to choose a tournament compensation scheme over a “piece rate” compensation scheme. Beliefs about relative performance and risk help explain the different choices, but about 40% of the initial gender gap in tournament entry can be attributed to women’s aversion to perform in a competition. Even among high-ability individuals, there remains a substantial gender gap.

Can levels of competitiveness be changed? The evidence gathered so far suggests that the tendency to be competitive is affected not only by nature but also by nurture. Gneezy, Leonard and List showed, for example, that in matrilineal societies there is no gender gap in tournament entry.5 Niederle, Segal, and Vesterlund showed that policies that favor women as winners in a competition will cause women to enter tournaments at higher rates.6 Interestingly, the increase in entry by high-ability women is high enough such that it mostly offsets the decrease in entry by men. Thus, this policy has very little to no cost and does not create a situation in which high ability male candidates are passed over for lower quality female ones. More recently, Petrie and Segal have shown that if the prizes that the tournament winners get are high enough, women behave as competitively as men.7 This body of research suggests that policies can change the conditions such that women would be willing to enter competitions, and possibly change their competitive tendencies.

Should we promote policies encouraging women to enter competitions (like affirmative action), or even policies designed to make women more competitive? The answer is not clear. While having skills like drive and prudence help individuals increase their educational attainment and earnings, the same is not necessarily true for competitiveness. Competitive individuals are not necessarily doing better than their less competitive counterparts. On the contrary, they may enter competitions in which their (objective) chances of winning are not very high and they would have done better had they chosen an alternative compensation scheme. Tournament entry increases expected earnings only for individuals who possess the skills necessary to win the tournament. Creating tournaments in which women are favored causes both high- and low-ability women to change their entry patterns and compete at higher rates. While high-ability women stand to increase their earnings when entering these tournaments, the earnings of low-ability women will almost certainly decrease.

On the other hand, an increase in the share of women in leadership positions may be beneficial to all women. Studies have shown that women in leadership position tend to help other women. Women in political office divert public resources to issues that women voters care about.8 Women in corporate leadership help promote other women to corporate positions.9 Having more female police officers increases reports of crimes against women, decreases escalation of domestic violence and prevents intimate partner homicides.10 Whether these benefits offset the losses for individual women who were attracted to the competition but did not win is an issue for public debate and further research.


1. Castillo, Marco, Paul Ferraro, Jeff Jordan, and Ragan Petrie. “The Today and Tomorrow of Kids: Time Preferences and Educational Outcomes of Children.” Journal of Public Economics 95 (2011):1377-85.

2/ Duckworth, Angela L., and Martin E. P. Seligman. “Self-Discipline Gives Girls the Edge: Gender in Self Discipline, Grades, and Achievement Test Scores.” Journal of Educational Psychology 98 (2006): 198-208.

3. Jacob, Brian A. “Where the Boys Aren’t: Non-Cognitive Skills, Returns to School and the Gender Gap in Higher Education.” Economics of Education Review 21 (2002): 589-598.

4. Niederle, Muriel, and Lise Vesterlund. “Do Women Shy away from Competition? Do Men Compete too Much?” Quarterly Journal of Economics 122 (2007): 1067-1101.

5. Gneezy, Uri, Kenneth L. Leonard and John A. List. “Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society.” Econometrica 77 (2009): 1637-64.

6. Niederle, Muriel, Carmit Segal, and Lise Vesterlund. “How Costly is Diversity? Affirmative Action in Light of Gender Differences in Competitiveness.” Management Science 59 (2013): 1-16.

7. Petrie, Ragan and Carmit Segal. “Gender Differences in Competitiveness: The Role of Prizes.” Working paper, University of Zurich, 2014.

8. Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra, and Esther Duflo. “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India.” Econometrica 72 (2004): 1409-43.

9. Matsa, David A., and Amalia R. Miller. “Chipping Away at the Glass Ceiling: Gender Spillovers in Corporate Leadership.” American Economic Review 101 (2011): 635-639.

10. Miller, Amalia R and Carmit Segal. “Do Female Officers Improve Law Enforcement Quality? Effects on Crime Reporting and Domestic Violence Escalation.” Working paper, University of Zurich, 2014.

Get daily updates from Brookings