Women do compete

March 23, 2006
There has been a hullabaloo about the lack of women in the ranks of science and engineering.

Leland Teschler, Editor

One theory is that women more than men dislike the competition involved in such professions.

Two economists set up an experiment to check out this idea. The authors of a report (both women) from the National Bureau of Economic Research had volunteers pick the way they were compensated to do short tasks: either in a winner-take-all contest or through a per-piece scheme that was noncompetitive. To make a long story short, 75% of the men in this study picked tournament-style compensation, but only 35% of the women did so. As an aside, the authors also noted that the women proved to be as good as the men at completing the tasks.

The economists figured they had devised a good test — men and women performed the tasks equally well, and neither gender discrimination nor time conflicts with raising children affected the outcome. They concluded the results showed large differences in the propensity of the two genders to compete.

Well, baloney. This is one case where I have to disagree with the economists despite what their study says. You don't have to conduct formal research to see that women can be just as competitive as men when the chips are down. For proof, turn on your TV.

Over the past five years, tens of thousands of women have turned out annually to try out for the American Idol competition. Idol, for readers who haven't caught this particular phenomenon, has a big payoff: a recording contract and a chance to become America's latest pop singer sensation.

No one could argue that Idol isn't a tournamentstyle event. There is one big winner at the end. Contestants get eliminated in rounds of ever-tougher competition. The TV show may even be a better litmus test for competitiveness than the NBER study because of the opportunity cost to enter Idol: Contestants must invest a full day of their time at an initial audition. Those of moremodest means may forego a day's pay to do so. And yet women turn out in droves, sometimes standing in long lines for hours to compete. (Interestingly, NBER researchers noted a factor among their study subjects that is also evident on Idol: Many contestants are overconfident about their abilities.)

Idol participants are, in one way, trying to make career choices. What this TV reality show clearly demonstrates is that large numbers of women have no problem competing for entrance into a profession that deeply interests them.

That's why I think an aversion to competing doesn't explain why many women pass on technical careers. You have to look elsewhere for an explanation. My own theory is that women note, correctly, that engineering frequently involves long periods of work that can be quite solitary. They take one look at the lack of social contact and decide the field is not for them.

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