We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

alphaspirit via Shutterstock

Opinion Are women less competitive than men?

On average, women are less confident about competing than their male counterparts. Why?

BROWSING ON JOBS on offer in Facebook’s Dublin office, I stopped on one that looked interesting. Then seeing “law degree desirable” within the list of requirements, I clicked back out. I don’t have a law degree.

Immediately I was reminded of something that I’d heard on the Moncrieff Show on Newstalk some time ago – author Ashley Merryman said that women who have most but not all requirements for a particular job tend not to apply, thinking that if they’re missing some, they are not eligible. But this shortfall this doesn’t stop men at all.

According to Merryman, women are better at calculating the odds – men are better at ignoring the odds.

Women only compete when they know they can win; no such constraints exist for men.

The confidence gap

In their Confidence Gap article in the Atlantic, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman quote the Hewlett-Packard findings that women applied for promotion when they had 100% of the requirements whereas men applied when they had 60%. Kay and Shipman also found that men and women view their own work and achievements differently:

In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.

These are generalisations of course, and there are many exceptions. But it seems that on average, women are less confident about competing, and less likely to compete than their male counterparts.

I see gender differences in attitudes to competitiveness in my own family. My kids running down the stairs, shouting “last one down is a rotten egg” and the would-be rotten egg usually cries. So I discourage the competing, in a bid to avoid the tears. My husband on the other hand actively encourages competition – though usually as a means to an end. “Let’s see who can get ready for bed quickest!” type challenges. Again, this often ends in tears. Should we persevere with encouraging competition in order to teach them not to cry if they lose, or should we avoid it altogether when they’re young?

What’s the right answer? 

I read a David Coleman article in the Irish Independent some months ago in which he said: “There is lots of research to suggest that competitive sport for under-12s is counter-productive, as children can end up too disappointed and disheartened if they constantly perceive themselves to be failing.”

I showed it to my husband, who five minutes later had found an article stating the opposite (not that he is competitive or anything).

I don’t know what the right answer is. My gut tells me to teach them that taking part is what is important, but perhaps I’m raising the next generation of women who won’t apply for promotion unless they’re sure of success?

It’s worrying to imagine that this difference in how we, as women, approach risk and competition is having a direct impact on how we succeed at work.

I’ve written here before that the glass ceiling may have less to do with women being curtailed in the workplace and more to do with mothers seeking flexibility and in turn being restricted when seeking promotion.

And of course another factor linked to this is our willingness (or lack thereof) to compete. If we as women are already not applying for the job because we don’t have every single requirement, of course we’re going to lose out to our male colleagues who give it a shot regardless.

Nurture or nature? 

Can women be more competitive or are we genetically pre-disposed to step back? An article in Psychology Today suggests that at least some of this is based on culture; nurture over nature.

The writer carried out an experiment with a matrilineal society in India (the Khasi tribe) and found that where women were in charge, they were far more competitive than the males from the same village, and were just as competitive as men in a similar experiment in the US. It’s a very simple study – it’s not claiming to be conclusive, but I wonder if we lived in a different type of society, would women be more willing to compete? Or are we just programmed differently? Perhaps like most answers, it’s a bit of both.

Maybe women care more about what other people think, and therefore don’t want to be seen to “fail” by not winning? Or maybe it’s to do with being organised and able to prioritise – we don’t waste time on what we can’t achieve? Or maybe after thousands of years of being relegated to second place, it’s taking us a while to believe in ourselves?

I don’t know the answer, and I still don’t know how much to encourage or discourage competitiveness in my kids. For now I will work on the confidence side instead – perhaps if I can build their confidence by helping them feel secure and loved, they will be in a good position to decide for themselves in the future how and when to compete. I may be making the wrong decision but I’ve calculated the odds and for now, I think this one’s a risk worth taking.

Andrea Mara has three small kids, one tall husband and one office job. She writes at about being a parent, being a mother working outside the home, being a woman in the workplace. She’s just trying to keep her balance. Follow her tweets@office_mum or on Facebook.

Emma Watson: Feminism has become an unpopular word – but it’s for men, too

Lack of women makes Leinster House a “really weird” place to work, says Senator

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.