The impact of competitiveness on gender equality in the workplace
There are many different ways to talk about workplace competitiveness: the easiest one is to describe competitiveness as solely an individual trait that a man or woman either possesses or does not possess. This overlooks a very rich tradition of introducing competitiveness (and, consequently, rewards and promotion) by superiors in an organization, with the aim of encouraging work zeal and thus job performance. Furthermore, this assessment overlooks an important fact of gender bias that prevents non-stereotypically behaved men and women from competing fairly.
There are several reasons for such a situation. Firstly, taking into account structural barriers women face in pursuing higher job positions in their professional careers: gender stereotypes that develop already during primary socialization leads women to select stereotypically female professions. Further on, after graduation, women who want or hope to move forward face the glass ceiling. Including into this also the pay gap and unpaid domestic labour that women face, it is obvious that female entry into work competition is difficult, to say the least.
Moreover, behavioural economists have recently provided further explanations of gender disparities – both in the stage of education and later when looking at the results that both genders are achieving at work. In controlled experimental environments, scientists found that choices of both genders are influenced by differences in preferences, beliefs, and identification with a socially attributed gender role (based on internalized gender stereotypes). Out of the observed behavioural traits, competitiveness proved to be one of the most important predictors of career progress and later on, income. Experiments have shown that women are avoiding competing in advance, and even more interestingly, that women, after having failed in some form of workplace competition, never again decide to try again. The test shows us the impact of pre-cultivated gender stereotypes and gender norms for women; competitiveness and hierarchy of the employees according to competences are shown to women as unnatural or even unacceptable processes in which they will always loose.
The scientists also offered to women and men several different rewards for their success at performing a task. Men and women in the experiment had to decide on the type of the reward they would want to receive: the first option was based solely on individual’s performance, the second option was to receive a higher reward if a person outperformers the rest of the contestants. Women in the majority selected the first, simpler option that requires neither confrontation nor competition with other employees in an organisation. Women, who tried to compete with others in the first round and lost, decided in 60% that they will no longer continue competing and would not re-enter the competition. Interestingly, to put it bluntly, just over 20% of men who lost at the beginning decided to make a similar decision . Given that competition today is a daily practice of work processes and that it takes place in most work environments – from promotion opportunities to funding opportunities (research, additional training, scholarships, etc.) in the context of understanding competitiveness in organizations, it is imperative that we also speak about the impact that competitions has on gender mainstreaming in an enterprise.
Given that failure is a component of every individual’s career, it takes good leadership to manage professional failures of the employees at the workplace.
In the long haul, competitiveness emphasizes, in particular, the merits of success or blame for the failure of each individual, but neglects the strength and positive qualities of the group. Especially highly qualified women will certainly lose in this field, as they try to avoid this type of career-building, and the potential failures affect them more negatively than their male counterparts. Again, this can be explained by the low proportion of women in high-level positions – let’s just mention that in 2019 Fortune magazine proclaimed the highest proportion of women among the 500 most successful CEOs and U.S. directors to date – and this proportion is still less than 7%.
Companies that are aware of the importance of creating a stimulating work environment that anticipates the presence of gender stereotypes and the presence of structural barriers, can certainly avoid the passivity and disinterest of female employees by implementing GEMA Certificate measures. Namely, they enable the processes that will influence your company’s understanding of gender stereotypes and unconscious biases at the workplace. The measures will influence objective employment processes through the implementation of new actions to enhance employee satisfaction at work. Namely, in the process of implementing the Certificate, existing gender stereotypes are constantly addressed and sought to be eliminated so as to create a stimulating work environment in which both genders can succeed.
 The full survey and its findings are available at Do Women Give Up Competing More Easily? Evidence from the Lab and the Dutch Math Olympiad, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Vol. 11, No 3, July 2019.