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Prof. Jeffrey Flory, “Do Competitive Workplaces Deter Female Workers?”

As a Robert Day School Professor, Jeffrey Flory specializes in development economics and has received grants from the World Bank and the Lowe Institute of Political Economy.

This week, I had the honor of attending his Athenaeum talk on the effect of competitive workplaces on female employees.

It is common understanding that there are prominent gender differences in our labor market. In the US, women’s wages are approximately 20% lower than men’s; women only account for 2.5% of the 5 highest paid executives in large firms; and, compared to their male counterparts, are more likely to be unemployed. Various explanations have been offered as to why these disparities still exist: differences in human capital skills, the effect of traditional family roles, and stereotype threats against women.

Prof. Flory’s research expands on a novel approach to explain the gender gap in the workplace: competition. Laboratory experiments have found that work performance of men is substantially more responsive to competition incentives than that of women. This, in turn, may prevent female workers from performing their best when they know they are competing with other employees for promotions or raises. Further lab experiments show a gender difference in preferences for performing in competitive settings. On average, men have a taste for competition, while women tend to exhibit a distaste for it. This results in men embracing competition and women shying away from it.

It is essential that we become aware of the implications of these findings. For the social realm, these conclusions indicate that if women have an aversion to competition, they are less likely to seek promotions and raises, perhaps even removing themselves from the picture. Moreover, if women dislike performing under competitive circumstances, they are more likely to shy away from fields that are perceived as highly competitive. Findings also indicate that highly competent women select out of competitive workplaces while incompetent men select into them. The economic implications of these observations are of great importance. This poor allocation of employee capacity affects firms’ productivity and efficiency, indicating that perhaps firms are not attracting the best possible talent, thus failing to maximize economic performance and prosperity.

Prof. Flory aims to develop this field of study, taking research outside of the lab into natural economic environments. His real labor market experiment involved 9,000 job-seekers interested in a real employment position. By manipulating compensation treatments, he found that having a team-based work environment as well as lowering the amount of wage that is based on competition can help eliminate the gender gap.

This research can provide invaluable insight into a prominent issue in our society. I am looking forward to seeing how this field advances, and observing its positive impact on our changing workplace.

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