Gender, Competitiveness and Career Choices

Gender differences in education and labor market outcomes, though greatly reduced, have remained ubiquitous. To understand gender differences in these outcomes, psychological attributes are commonly discussed as potential explanations. While the last decade saw a flurry of laboratory research documenting gender differences in psychological attributes, there has been no satisfactory direct evidence linking them to education and labor market outcomes. To address this gap, this paper examines how education is associated with a measure of competitiveness, which is an attribute for which large gender differences in the laboratory have been widely documented (see Croson and Gneezy, 2009 and Niederle and Vesterlund, 2011). Through in-class experiments we collected data on the competitiveness of high school students which we merged with information about their subsequent education choices. With this data we demonstrate that competitiveness significantly correlates
with educational choices and explains an economically and statistically significant part of the gender gap in those choices. Gender differences in educational choices, particularly regarding intensity in math and science subjects, remain significant. While in the U.S. girls take on average as many advanced math and science classes as boys and perform on average at similar levels (Goldin et al., 2006), this is not the case in many other OECD countries.2 Even in the U.S., girls are underrepresented among extremely high achieving math students (Ellison and Swanson, 2010), and women are significantly less likely than men to graduate from college with a major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The reason to be concerned about gender differences in math and sciences compared to, say, literature, is that the choices of math and science classes are most predictive of college attendance and completion (Goldin et al., 2006). Furthermore, performance in mathematics has consistently been found to serve as a predictor for future earnings. For example, Paglin and Rufolo (1990) report that a large fraction of the gender gap in average starting salaries for college graduates is between, rather than within, college majors (for additional evidence and discussion see Grogger and Eide, 1995; Brown and Corcoran, 1997; Weinberger, 1999; Weinberger, 2001; Murnane et al., 2000; Altonji and Blank, 1999). Next to discrimination (Goldin and Rouse, 2000) and differences in preferences that could be driven by stereotypes, a standard explanation for gender differences in math is differences in ability.5 However, Ellison and Swanson (2010) provide compelling evidence that the gender imbalance in the U.S. among high achieving math students is not driven solely by differences in mathematical ability. They show that in mathematics, high achieving boys come from a variety of backgrounds as would be expected from an allocation of talent that shows some randomness, while high-achieving girls are almost exclusively drawn from a small set of super-elite schools. Furthermore, research investigating career choices of women and men suggests that among equally gifted students, males are much more likely to choose a math heavy college major (see LeFevre et al., 1992; Weinberger, 2005).

Another potential source for the observed gender differences in education and labor market outcomes are gender differences in psychological attributes as documented by experiments. This line of reasoning has only recently been advanced in line with the recognition of the importance of non-cognitive skills for educational and labor market outcomes (Cunha and Heckman, 2007; Segal,
2012; Borghans et al., 2008). One large and robust gender difference in experiments is that women are found to be less competitive than men (see Gneezy et al., 2003 and, for an overview on gender
differences, Croson and Gneezy, 2009). In the first paper on gender differences in the willingness to compete, Niederle and Vesterlund (2007) assess choices of college students who perform equally well in a simple arithmetic task. They find that while 73 percent of men choose a competitive tournament payment scheme instead of a non-competitive piece-rate compensation, only 35 percent of women do so. Subsequent research has confirmed this gender difference in the willingness to compete (see
Niederle and Vesterlund, 2011).

It seems plausible that competitiveness is important for educational choices and labor market outcomes. People who shy away from competitive environments may self-select into different, potentially lower paid, careers (Kleinjans, 2009). The fact that women shy away from competition more than men may also account for the fact that few qualified women reach the top (see Bertrand and Hallock, 2001) and for the acceleration of the gender wage gap in the upper tail (see Albrecht et al., 2003; Arulampalam et al., 2007). Furthermore, competitiveness could be an especially importanttrait for certain fields such as sciences and mathematics which are viewed as competitive. One reason may be that it is easier to rank answers in math tests than in verbal tests.6 Furthermore, if more boys select math heavy courses and majors, this increases the number of potential male competitors. Experiments have shown that for women both the performance in (Gneezy et al., 2003) as well as the selection into competitive environments (Niederle et al., 2012; Balafoutas and Sutter, 2012) is sensitive to the gender composition of the group.7 There is also evidence of low tolerance for competition among women who drop out of math intensive college majors and engineering.8 However, most of this evidence is fairly casual and may suffer from the problem of reverse causality. Women who hold low-profile jobs may not encounter many competitive situations and potentially become less inclined towards competitions, or may simply start to describe themselves as less competitive given the job they hold. Similarly, women who drop out of science and engineering may search for explanations such as the negative aspect of the competitive environment.

From “Gender, Competitiveness and Career Choices” by Thomas Buser, Muriel Niederle and Hessel Oosterbeek, July 3 2013

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