Media Briefings

Teamwork: How To Close The Gender Competition Gap

  • Published Date: September 2011

Women are much more willing to compete as part of a team than as individuals. Nearly two thirds of the gap between men and women in the likelihood of them choosing to enter a competition – the so-called ‘gender competition gap’ – disappears when people compete in two-person teams.

These are the central findings of research by Professors Andrew Healy and Jennifer Pate, published in the September 2011 issue of the Economic Journal. Their study has important implications for the design of competitive environments, such as elections and corporate career ladders.

In Healy and Pate’s experiment, the participants had to answer a series of addition problems as quickly as possible. Participants in the team treatment decided whether they wanted to be paid according to the number of problems their two-person team answered correctly or whether they wanted to enter a competition against three other teams. Participants in the individual treatment decided whether they wanted to compete against three other individuals.

The results are striking:

  • Even though men and women performed equally well on the task, 81% of men chose to compete as individuals compared with just 28% of women.
  • In contrast, when participants competed in teams the gap shrank by 31 percentage points to 22%, with 67% of men choosing to compete and 45% of women entering the competition.
  • The reduction in the gender competition gap seems to have come about because women simply tend to feel more comfortable competing in teams, while men feel more comfortable competing as individuals.

Previous research has shown that a man is much more likely to choose to compete compared with a woman, even when the two are equally good at a given task. This new study indicates that the gender competition gap can be narrowed by simple changes to the environment in which competitions are held.

The gender competition gap helps to explain part of the continuing lack of women in positions of power – women continue to hold fewer than 5% of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.

It appears to be the case that women often opt out of entering these competitive environments. Importantly, while qualified women opt out, unqualified men opt in. As a result, the gender competition gap may lead organisations to fail to select the most qualified leaders.

The results of this study have implications for the nature of competitions. Competitions held on the basis of team performance rather than individual performance may attract more women – and fewer men.

There is already evidence of markedly higher participation by women in electoral politics in places with party lists than in places where a single person is elected to represent a district. For example, in Germany and New Zealand, where some representatives are elected by each method, women are about three times more likely to be elected from the team-based competitions than the individual ones.

Similar emphasis on teams in other fields may lead more qualified women to choose to compete.


Notes for editors: ‘Can Teams Help to Close the Gender Competition Gap?’ by Andrew Healy and Jennifer Pate is published in the September 2011 issue of the Economic Journal.

Andrew Healy and Jennifer Pate are at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Andrew Healy via email:; or Jennifer Pate via email: