Women’s leadership may be impeded by contraceptive pill

by Iain Hopkins,Stephanie Zillman15 Aug 2012

It’s a startling hypothesis and one sure to make waves in the women’s leadership camp: could the contraceptive pill really be to blame for a stalling in women’s leadership opportunities?

According to a new research paper out of the University of Amsterdam, women who take the contraceptive pill may be as much as 50% less competitive during the 21 days of the month they consume the drug – and the sex hormone progesterone is likely to blame.

In his paper, The impact of female sex hormones on competitiveness, researcher Thomas Buser said experiments which tested female competitiveness through a series of problem-solving tasks consistently found women to be less competitive when their progesterone were high. “Women taking hormonal contraceptives are significantly more competitive during the pill break than outside of the pill-break. So far the hypothesis is being considered as a possible explanation as to why the number of women in top corporate positions still remains so low. “Keeping in mind that women are generally found to be significantly less competitive than men, we conclude that the behaviour of women shifts towards the behaviour of men when hormone concentrations are low, which confirms the hypothesis of sex hormones being a cause of gender differences in competitiveness,” Buser wrote in the paper.

Key findings of the study:

  • Participants in a laboratory experiment were firstly charged with solving a simple arithmetic task before doing the same task under a competitive tournament scheme. Subjects could then choose which compensation scheme to apply in a third round.
  • It was found that sex hormones had a strong effect on whether women chose to enter a competitive environment. The observed patterns were consistent with a negative impact of both progesterone and oestrogen on competitiveness and the results indicated a partial biological explanation for gender differences in competitiveness.

Buser highlighted that the marked differences in the labour market decisions of men and women, namely that men more commonly seek competition while women tend to avoid it – a fact that is corroborated by several controlled experiments in the lab, he said. Yet, eliminating the contraceptive pill is not a cure to this apparent decrease in competitiveness. Women were found to be significantly less competitive both when taking contraceptives containing oestrogen and progesterone as well as during the parts of the menstrual cycle when secretion of these hormones is naturally strong.

The upshot of the study? It’s not done and dusted – further experiments are required, and could look at the supposed link between testosterone and competitiveness. “Given our results, it is plausible that an effect of testosterone on competitiveness could be another pathway by which testosterone levels are correlated with career decisions,” Buser said.


  • by Jo 20/08/2012 4:37:42 PM

    The lack of female leadership has always been an issue...just look at previous laws when women were not allowed to inherit or rule a nation. Strangely enough, the pill has been around for only a short amount of time...
    So what was the historical cause then?
    Women are sorely lacking in leadership roles because or male oppression, sexism, discrimination, the social 'norms' dictating that women should have children and stay at home...the list goes on...

Most Read