Women are generally found to be less competitive than men, and research has shown that this explains gender differences in career choices and salaries. This paper shows that on top of this, women are more likely than men to give up competing if they lose. This also applies to high-performing women who are likely to win future competitions. The fact that women are more likely to give up competing after a setback can potentially explain why fewer women make it to the top in business and academia.
These findings were obtained using a laboratory experiment. Participants in the experiment performed a simple task, which consisted of solving as many addition problems as possible in the space of three minutes, and were paid according to their performance. They did this over six rounds. In each round, they had to choose between receiving an individual payment and competing with another participant, whereby the winner earned a higher payment and the loser received nothing. At the end of each round, those who competed learned whether they won or lost.
Initially, 56% of men and 42% of women competed. The most striking result: of those who competed in round 1, only 65% of the women (but 87% of the men) competed again in round2. This is because women are much more likely to stop competing if they lose in round 1. Over rounds two to six, men who competed in round 1 and lost chose competition 2.6 out of 5 times— whereas for women this was only 1.1 out of 5 times.
In an additional experiment, I also gave feedback to those individuals who chose not to compete in a given round. The result is that women are less likely than men to start and keep competing after receiving positive feedback. Giving feedback to non-competers could therefore further increase gender differences in willingness to compete.