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Can women be encouraged to be more competitive at work? A new study investigates.

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Can women be encouraged to be more competitive at work? A new study investigates.

Many factors contribute to the persistence of pay disparities between women and men in the workplace, from unequal responsibility for caring for children to occupational segregation and the glass ceiling. There is also a growing body of evidence that women, as a group, are hesitant to compete against men, which affects promotion prospects and salary negotiations.

A new study by Dr Lory Barile and Professor Michalis Drouvelis explores this phenomenon using a laboratory experiment which tests the effect of an intervention known as “priming.” Priming theorises that exposing a person to a stimulus, such as a poem, article or word puzzle, can affect how that person responds to a later prompt, without them being conscious of the influence.

In the experiment, participants were asked to complete as many sums as possible in three minutes, correctly totalling four randomly-generated two-digit numbers each time. They were paired with another participant but it was not a collaborative task.

  • In the first round, each correct sum was rewarded with a payment of £0.50.
  • The second round introduced an element of competition – the participant in the pair with the most correct answers got £1.00 per answer while their opposite number got nothing.
  • For the third round, participants could choose whether to accept the flat rate or to compete against their partner.

Between rounds two and three, some of the participants were assigned a priming task. One task involved unscrambling neutral sentences, while the other asked participants to unscramble sentences with themes of winning, competing and scoring.

Analysis of the results showed that in both of the groups which experienced priming, more women chose to compete in the third round, thus closing the gender gap.

  • In the group which was not primed, 36 per of women chose to compete in round three compared to 59 per cent of men.
  • In the group which did the neutral priming task, 48 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men chose to compete in round three.
  • In the group which did the competitive priming task, 47 per cent of women and 64 per cent of men chose to compete in round three.

One interesting aspect of the findings was that the neutral sentences actually closed the gap more than the sentences themed around competitiveness. The researchers concluded that this was because the sentences triggered negative associations, possibly triggering anger, which is known to increase competitive behaviour.

Dr Barile said “Our paper shows that the reactions and feelings which the priming task triggers matter, and that a neutral priming is more effective in reducing the gender competition gap.

“In order to effect change, more research is needed in this area, but this easy-to-implement intervention may have significant potential in reducing the gender gap in female representation in male stereotyped high-competitive, high-reward positions.”

Professor Drouvelis added: "Gender differences in labour market outcomes constitute one of the fundamental policymaking concerns in economics. Our work uses psychological techniques that can offer valuable insights how gender disparities in competitiveness - a measure used to predict career choices and prospects - can be mitigated."