Cooperation vs individual work: A battle of the sexes?

by Cameron Edmond26 Aug 2013

Women in the workplace are more inclined to work co-operatively than men, a new study from Massachusetts’ National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has found.

“If indeed women’s talents are sometimes wasted because they avoid competitive environments, it seems important to know which types of work environments do attract women,” NBER’s paper, Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation Than Men?,  stated.

To measure this, researchers asked participants to complete gender-neutral tasks (decoding numbers). Each was paired with another participant, whose identity wasn’t revealed. The participants were asked if they wished to receive individual payment based on their own work, or payment based on their work and their partner’s.

It was found that, even though choosing individually resulted in a chance for higher pay (not relying on the unknown team member’s productivity), more women chose the team-based work, whereas more men gravitated towards working independently.

“Statistically, this gap is entirely explained by a gender gap in overconfidence, as men are more pessimistic than women about the ability of their potential teammate,” the report stated.

With men more confident in their own abilities, they are more likely to attempt to enter higher positions in the workforce, with many women seemingly held back by their fear and trepidation regarding their own skills.

However, the solution may not lie in addressing women’s attitude towards competitive work. Instead, the paper suggests that organisations may wish to look at developing a more team-based instead of “tournament-based” corporate culture where possible, replacing praise and reward for individual exploits with incentives based on team performance.

What do you think of the study? Are women really less competitive than men, and is it HR’s responsibility to address it?


Further reading

Female CEO’s Vogue spread sparks controversy

Men held back by hidden bias


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