Participate or win? Women, men and competitiveness
1In general terms, the mere existence of a negative stereotype around a group makes individuals in that group feel themselves subject to a scrutiny that puts them under pressure, which causes them to perform worse, thus confirming the stereotype.
2Factors such as gender stereotypes, the type of tasks in which they compete, who their adversaries are or prior information about their performance in a task, have an influence in the form of a disadvantage for women when competing which, in turn, may have repercussions on their situation in the jobs market.
3In competitive environments, studied under laboratory conditions, important gender differences are only observed in the performing of a task when three situations occur: 1) a strong stereotype exists about women being worse at the said task; 2) the stereotype is reinforced by reminding participants of aspects that make them think about the gender issue; and 3) women who are more negatively affected by competition are those who believe that the stereotype is true.
The Community of Madrid’s Spring Mathematics Contest is a real-life case where the gender bias in competitive processes can be clearly studied. It is a mathematics competition by rounds in which secondary students participate.
Dividing the participants into four age groups, it is observed that there are barely any girls left in the final round to the point that, for the older age group (16-17 years), there is has been no winning female student in this competition.
Furthermore, for all participants in the contest, their mathematics grade at school is made available; in these grades, there are barely any differences between boys and girls. Thus, the experiment leads to the observation that is not a matter of knowledge that is at play, but one of competitiveness. This is why, as competitive pressure grows, the gender differences in the results increase.