Hal Varian asks if differences in tastes for competition by gender can help to explain observed differences in occupational outcomes:
The Difference Between Men and Women, Revisited: It's About Competition, by Hal R. Varian, Economic Scene, NY Times: Gender differences are a topic of endless discussion for parents, teachers and social scientists. The only place where they cannot be talked about seems to be Harvard. Luckily, some academic researchers still find the topic important enough and interesting enough to study. A noteworthy case in point is a recent ... working paper by a Stanford economist, Muriel Niederle, and Lise Vesterlund, a University of Pittsburgh economist, titled, "Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?" (...nontechnical description of the paper...)
It is widely noted that women are not well represented in high-paying corporate jobs, or in mathematics, science and engineering jobs. As the authors observe, the "standard economic explanations for such occupational differences include preferences, ability and discrimination." To this list the authors add a new factor: attitudes toward competitive environments. If men prefer more competitive environments than women, then there will be more men represented in areas where competition is intense.
Of course, discussions of gender differences of any sort can only be statements about averages; it is clear that there are women who thrive in competitive environments and men who do not. ... Do men really prefer more competitive environments than women? ... By using an experiment, the authors were able to determine not only whether men and women differ in their willingness to compete, but more important, whether they differ in their willingness to compete conditioned on their actual performance. ...
Though both groups were overconfident about their performance, the men were much more so. ... The authors summarized their experimental results by saying, "From a payoff-maximizing perspective, high-performing women enter ... too rarely, and low-performing men enter ... too often." The low-performing men and the high-performing women are both hurt by this behavior but, in this experiment at least, the costs to the women ... exceeded the costs to the men ...
One should not read too much into one study. But if it is really true that women choose occupations that involve less competition, then one may well ask why. Sociobiologists may suggest that such differences come from genetic propensities; sociologists may argue for differences in social roles and expectations; developmental psychologists may emphasize child-rearing practices. Whatever the cause, Ms. Niederle and Ms. Vesterlund have certainly raised a host of interesting and important questions.
[John Tierney also discussed this paper last May.]