Media Briefings

COMPETITION AT WORK: New evidence on how male and female teachers respond to performance-related pay schemes

  • Published Date: June 2013

Women are no less competitive than men in the workplace, according to experimental research with teachers in Israel by Professor Victor Lavy. His study, published in the June 2013 issue of the Economic Journal, analyses the outcomes of a real-life ‘tournament’, in which teachers of maths, English and languages could get large cash bonuses based on the test performance of their classes relative to others in the same school.

The results show that the performance of teachers in this competitive environment was no different for men and women; nor did women’s performance vary with the gender mix of the teaching staff. What’s more, women teachers improved their performance in the competitive environment relative to the non-competitive one. But women were also more pessimistic about the effectiveness of performance pay for teachers and more realistic than men about their likelihood of winning bonuses.

This evidence suggests the value of experimenting with incentives and competition in educational systems to improve performance. But it is important to note that the findings only reflect short-term adjustments by teachers: it is possible that in the longer term, a performance pay scheme may have an effect on the composition of teaching staff. Women may be more likely to leave the teaching profession under such schemes.

Professor Lavy notes recent evidence from laboratory and field experiments, showing that males and females have different attitudes to competition and respond differently to it. These studies, which mainly involve chidren or university students, suggest that a sizeable part of the gender earnings gap could be explained by women being less effective than men in competitive environments even if they perform similarly in non-competitive environments.

Such findings are very important in the context of schools because of the recent expansion of performance-related pay schemes for teachers in the UK, the United States and elsewhere and because women comprise a larger fraction of the teacher labour market compared with other occupations with similar skills.

If women are indeed less productive in a competitive environment, this may cast doubt over whether pay for performance and merit pay can improve school quality and students’ academic achievements, as many of these schemes involve some form of competition between teachers.

Professor Lavy’s study examines the hypothesis of gender differences in competitiveness in a real workplace with adult participants. In particular, he examines how individual performance is affected by a competitive environment in which monetary bonuses are paid based on a performance in a tournament.

The tournaments, one for each subject, were part of an experiment with individual teachers’ incentives implemented in the 2001 academic year in 49 high schools in Israel. The research looks at gender differences in performance in this environment and whether they vary by the gender mix of the participants (‘the competitive group’).

Teachers were awarded bonuses based on their tournament ranking. Ranking was based on a value added measure calculated by the difference between the actual mean performance of the teacher’s class and a value predicted on the basis of a statistical model that accounted for the characteristics of the students, the classes and the schools. Teachers were explicitly informed that they were competing against teachers of the same subject in their own school.

The results suggest that men and women’s performance under competition did not differ, so Professor Lavy goes on to examine some mechanisms that might explain that outcome. For example, there were no differences by either gender or the gender mix of the competitive group in teachers’ awareness of the programme or in their effort and teaching methods.

But there were gender differences in expectations about success in the competition and in perceptions about the effectiveness of the incentive scheme. These relatively large differences did not vary by the gender mix of the competition environment.

The results of this study are different in some respects from the evidence of lab experiments. Several possible explanations can account for this difference. For example, in the real world, most tasks are not completed instantaneously and workers have time to plan, receive feedback, observe rivals and adjust strategy and actions.

In addition, competition in the new study is based on the regular activity of the participants for which they are educated and trained. Women teachers may therefore have more self-confidence and be less intimidated in competing against male rivals.

Another possible source of difference is that the lab experiments are clearly set up as a ‘zero-sum game’, while the tournament experiment allowed the proportion of winners to vary across groups. Even though teachers were fully aware that they were competing against their colleagues, if they helped each other anyway (for example, by helping other teachers’ students or helping other teachers become more effective at their instructions etc.), then the tournament is a very different from lab experiments.

Finally, it might be argued that since women dominate the teaching profession so heavily, this is one of the few workplace environments in which we may expect to not find differences in competition by gender. But this argument cannot explain the vigorous response of women teachers to the incentive scheme without any difference from men’s response.

A question might be raised about the applicability of these findings to other occupations since teachers, especially men, might be different from others in the labour force. For example, it might be claimed that as men employed in the teaching profession are highly selective, they may be less likely to engage in competition and be less threatening to women than men in other contexts.

It might also be argued that it is easier for teachers to collude and behave strategically as the group of participants is relatively small and therefore caution is called for in extrapolating lessons from this study for other occupations. But the teaching profession is an important and large segment of the labour force, especially for women, and so the evidence is important even if men employed in the teaching profession are not perfectly representative of men in other types of employment.


Notes for editors: ‘Gender Differences in Market Competitiveness in a Real Workplace: Evidence from Performance-based Pay Tournaments among Teachers’ by Victor Lavy is published in the June 2013 issue of the Economic Journal.

Victor Lavy is at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Warwick.

For further information: contact Victor Lavy via email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Twitter: @econromesh).