Why Women Collaborate, Men Work Alone, And Everybody’s Angry

At the intersection of selfishness and team structure is an interesting lesson about gender.

Why Women Collaborate, Men Work Alone, And Everybody’s Angry
[Image: Flickr user Media Evolution]

It’s a study of rare quality that can aggravate chauvinists and feminists equally.


But the work of Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire Villeval for the National Bureau of Economic Research may be able to do just that.

In their new paper, “Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation Than Men?,” the economists found that, yes, women are–and it has to do with relative competence, the degree to which you think your ability matches up against that of your colleagues. In short, men tend to overestimate their abilities and downplay those of their coworkers, while women shortchange their skills and defer to their peers.

It’s fascinating that this correlates with compensation as well. According to the study, women are more aware of “inequity aversion,” a discomfort with the feeling that not everyone is getting a fair deal, like if some of your colleagues are making way more money than others–while men are less sensitive to the asymmetry.

But this compensatory bias can be altered with a little savvy structuring. Writing at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson shows us how the researchers created the conditions for compensation balance to be restored (or instituted):

Kuhn and Villeval cleverly ran an experiment allowing men and women to select teamwork versus solo work, and then reran the experiment, increasing the returns from excellent teamwork by about 10%. Once they did this, the cooperation gap between men and women disappeared.

So if compensation is clearly oriented toward the team, then men will jump at the chance to work more closely with their colleagues. This shows how something as simple as organizational structures–which are easy to leave unexamined–shape the behavior of the people in them. Which is why, perhaps, we should take an update from Yammer, the enterprise social network, and start iterating the way we construct our companies.

Hat tip:

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.