Successful group of business colleagues working on a laptopBy Melissa J. Anderson

A new study has revealed what many of us already knew – on average, women really like working as part of a team. Not only that, but men would rather compete alone than pair up with someone else.

But the Loyola Marymount University study, “Can Teams Help to Close the Gender Competition Gap?” [PDF] revealed more than the gender stereotypes we hear again and again, that women are collaborative and men are overconfident. It revealed yet another subtle way that corporate cultures stack the deck against gender diversity. When corporate cultures are built on individual competition, women are discouraged from participating. But companies can reverse this trend and possibly improve their performance by engendering a more team-based approach to the competitive environment.

The study showed that women were more willing to engage in competition when paired with a teammate – and conversely, the percentage of men willing to participate in competition decreased when working with a partner. And according to the researchers, economists Andrew Healy and Jennifer Pate, that’s a good thing.

While research has shown women often unwilling to take career risks, and men all too willing to engage in risky behavior on the job, narrowing the gender competition gap could help companies perform better. And according to Healy and Pate, introducing the element of teamwork narrowed that gap by two-thirds.

A More Even Playing Field

First of all, it’s important to note that this research is not an argument against competition. More precisely, it’s an argument against individualistic competition. The researchers are not saying that companies should be less competitive – simply that they should work to tweak the way competition is organized internally.

The researchers studied whether people were willing to engage in competition when they were participating on their own and in teams.

According to the study, 81% of men working individually chose to participate in a simple mathematics competition, while only 28% of women did. But when participants were paired up, 67% of men chose to compete and 45% of women did. (Healy and Pate note that men and women were equally likely to win the math competition across the test samples.)

Not only did collaboration encourage more women to participate, but it discouraged a significant amount of men from joining in.

According to the researchers, this may be just what companies need – because men are often too willing to take risks or compete when they are not qualified, and women are more cautious, drawing more women in and discouraging some men from participating may help companies produce better results. Risky behavior would be decreased and tempered with a more “even keel” approach to competition.

They write, “Competing in teams thus appears to reduce the gender competition gap because women have a taste for entering a competitive environment as part of a team.”

Encouraging a Teamwork Culture

According to Healy and Pate, companies can use this research to make their cultural environments more attractive to women. They write:

“The experimental results in this paper have important implications for how competitive mechanisms can be designed to ensure that women are adequately represented in positions of power. Our findings suggest that one way to achieve increased female participation in competitive fields could be to design those environments to focus on teams rather than individuals.”

One way to do this, according to The Guardian’s Jamie Doward and Grace Harper, would be to design a new performance measurement system that gauges the ability to collaborate with others. They write:

“However, a new way of measuring their performance – one that focuses on their ability as part of a team rather than in a testosterone-loaded, gladiatorial-style competition – could change this, the economists suggest. ‘It appears to be the case that women often opt out of entering these competitive environments,’ Pate said. ‘Importantly, while qualified women opt out, unqualified men opt in. As a result, the gender competition gap may result in organisations failing to select the most qualified leaders.’”

Healy added, ‘The results of this study have implications for the nature of competitions. Competitions held on the basis of team performance rather than individual performance may attract more women – and fewer men.’”

Additionally, wrote the researchers, because the study only measured teams of two (and they noted, both men and women were slightly adverse to competing with a female partner) the implications of the study could be different when it comes to competition between larger teams.

How would more players and new gender ratios impact participation and success? What are your experiences with gender and competition in the workplace?