You are in a maze of twisty little corporations, all alike…

A new paper offers some insight on the glass ceiling, and the confusion that was the Apprentice. From Alex’s analysis:

The authors compare male and female performance at solving mazes across different incentive systems. In a simple piece-rate system men perform slightly but not markedly better than women, on average the men solved 11.23 mazes in 15 minutes compared to 9.73 for the women, a difference of 1.5. But in a tournament, in which only the highest-paid performer wins, the men significantly improve their performance and the women hardly improve at all. As a result, the gender-gap in performance rises (men complete 15 mazes, the women only 10.8 for a difference of 4.2, stat. significant at p=0.034).

Now here is where it gets really interesting. One might think that this shows that women are less competitive than men. To test this the authors run single-sex tournaments. Surprisingly, in the single-sex tournaments the women’s performance improves considerably relative to both their performance in the piece rate system and to their performance in the mixed tournament. Women do like to compete just not against men! Men’s performance stays about the same as in the mixed tournament. As a result, when comparing the peformance of the all-male groups versus the all-female group, the gender gap shrinks considerably.

What does this mean? In a corporate environment, promotion to executive positions is almost always a competition. This study indicates that (all things being equal) women under-perform in a mixed-gender environment, when it comes to high-stakes competition.

Now, game and tournament theory provide us insights as to why this may be the case. Tournament theory states that when competing for a prize, the players with less confidence or incentive perform less well than an equally-skilled player with more confidence or incentive. Hence, the diminished performance in women could be a result of any number of morale-based sociological factors. (Overconfidence in men, underconfidence in women, etc.)

It also gives an easy explanation for what happened during The Apprentice. When the teams were gender-segregated, the women (which, to my eyes, was the stronger team) kicked the hell out of the men for a good long while. After the teams were shuffled, the women (who were now in direct competition with their male teammates to avoid getting fired) began to underperform.

This study opens the doors to new approaches on dealing with the wage gap. If the performance gap is due to the reasons suggested by tournament theory, then efforts to create more confidence in underrepresented groups (not just women, but ethnic groups, etc.) could have a very real effect on gender and race distribution in executive positions.

(The full paper: Performance in Competitive Environments: Gender Differences)

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