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The Future of Work

Does Workplace Competition Kill Women's Creativity?

New research indicates that competitive workplace environments help men outperform women.

[Women Defending: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

According to new study released this week by Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, competitive workplaces help men thrive, but diminish women’s chance of success.

While recent research suggests that women play better in small team environments, boosting group creativity and cooperation, this new study introduces a major caveat: When teams are forced to go head-to-head with one another, women’s creative output goes down. In fact, the more intense the competition, the weaker women perform.

"In general, women do much better than men when they are working in a team," Markus Baer, the lead researcher for the study, tells me. "As soon as you introduce competition, forcing teams to compete with one another for resources or a prize, women perform worse. When you crank up the heat, women somehow stop doing the behaviors that help them succeed when they are working in a team."

Baer says that there are some exceptions to this rule. Women tend to compete better when they are working on behalf of another party, such as during a negotiation. Some women are also outliers, self-selecting into highly competitive, male-dominated fields, because they know they have the skills to succeed. "On average, though, competition does not help women, but it certainly helps men—that part is clear. If it helps men outperform women, competition introduces a disadvantage to the workplace," he explains.

If you’re a manager planning a friendly challenge between teams you supervise, you might want to rethink your strategy: a competition could give male employees a leg up over their female counterparts.

Baer suggests that a good compromise could be to carry out more complex competition models that bring in aspects of collaboration. At Google X, for instance, he observed a scenario where the total amount of money the victorious team could win would go down if neither team had found a solution to the problem in a given time. This forced opposing teams to share ideas in the hope that one team could find the answer before the prize money began to evaporate.

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