When applying for a job or to college, women seek positions with fewer applicants than men, according to a new University of Michigan study.
The researchers found that the size of a competition—such as the number of applicants to a particular job or the number of people vying for a monetary reward—shapes who enters the competition.
Women prefer smaller competitions, whereas men seek larger competitions, which are typically associated with higher monetary rewards.
"These patterns of findings can contribute to a better understanding of gender inequality in the workforce," said Kathrin Hanek, the study's lead author. "The gender difference in preferences may in part explain pay gaps and the underrepresentation of women in particular fields or at the helm of large organizations."
The difference between the genders can be partially attributed to women feeling more comfortable in smaller competitions. Hanek points out that some environments offer greater opportunities for women to behave communally rather than competitively.
"Smaller social groups, even when individuals are in competition, tend to allow people to form more intimate social bonds and be more attuned to others' needs," said Hanek, who recently received her doctorate from the U-M Department of Psychology. "And these communal behaviors, in turn, tend to be more normative for women."
Hanek and colleagues found consistent gender differences in the preference for smaller versus larger competitions across a variety of different competition contexts.
For instance, one study examined women's and men's real decisions to enter a small (10 competitors) or large (100 competitors) word-formation task competition. The results indicated that 53 percent of women but only 41 percent of men preferred the small competition.
"This research by no means blames women for gender inequality but rather uncovers a novel environmental factor that might contribute to inequality, beyond the well-documented effects of gender biases and discrimination," said Stephen Garcia, U-M associate professor of organizational studies and psychology.
Avishalom Tor, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, also contributed to the study, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.
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