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Forget Flying Solo: Why Women Compete Better in Teams

— by Jessica Stillman

The reality and underlying causes of the gender pay gap may be much debated, but another striking difference between women and men at work is just as widely perceived but much less discussed – the competitiveness gap.

Ask many business people in a private moment why we don’t see enough women in boardrooms or executive suites and one of the most common replies you’ll probably get is that they just don’t want it as much. Women ask for raises less often, hesitate more often before putting themselves up for a challenge and are generally perceived as having less drive to compete and win in the world of business.

But is this commonly held belief about women at work correct? Is there a way to make your talented female employees just as willing to compete as the men? New research suggests there might be (download a pdf of the research here). The UK’s Guardian newspaper reports:

Academics Andrew Healy and Jennifer Pate claim that their findings, published in the Economic Journal, have important implications for the design of competitive environments, such as elections and corporate career ladders.

The pair believe their research reveals that competing in teams “levels the playing field” by encouraging a higher number of qualified women to take part and discouraging unqualified men. They argue that this insight should help organizations to select the best-qualified leaders.

Opting out of going solo

To uncover this, the researchers gave study participants the option of entering a math competition either individually or in teams.  82 percent of men chose to go it alone while just 28 percent of women did.

When women were offered the choice of whether to compete, many more chose to do so when told they would play in teams “The gender competition gap shrank by 31 percentage points to 22 percent, with 67percent of men choosing to enter the competition compared with 45 percent of women,” reports the Guardian.

Closing the gap

So what has this got to do with trainer and managers? The “competition gap” can keep you for accessing the full potential of talented women in your organization. “Qualified women opt out, unqualified men opt in. As a result, the gender competition gap may result in organizations failing to select the most qualified leaders,” according to Pate. But if you design more opportunities for co-workers to compete in teams, this gap can be closed.

“[Employers] trying to inspire a qualified woman to be more aggressive in terms of competing [should] do it in a team framework,” concludes Pate. “If you want to motivate women to perform their best, you should involve them in team projects.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user tableatny, CC 2.0.

London-based blogger Jessica Stillman covers generational issues and trends in the workforce for

More about employee training and retention on the Mindflash blog.


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