Is Fear Of Competition To Blame For The Gender Leadership Gap?

Women naturally gravitate to smaller companies, which could be part of the reason so few are chiefs at major public companies.

Is Fear Of Competition To Blame For The Gender Leadership Gap?
[Photo: via Wikimedia Commons]

Size does matter to women. But not in that tongue-in-cheek context you usually see in a Cosmopolitan sex quiz.


New research from the University of Michigan indicates that for women, smaller is better when it comes to the size of the group when there is some kind of competition involved. If the applicant pool for a job is large, for instance, women are more likely to take themselves out of the competition. Men tend to go for the larger.

“The gender difference in preferences may in part explain pay gaps and the underrepresentation of women in particular fields or at the helm of large organizations,” Kathrin Hanek, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

Despite the compelling business case for women in the C-suite and on executive boards, gender disparity is at its greatest at some of the highest positions in the business world. According to the research firm Catalyst, women only make up 4% of CEOs in Standard and Poor’s 500 14.6% of executive officers, and 16.9% of board members.

Cracking the glass ceiling has been the subject of much scrutiny. A recent study from Harvard Business School found that women are more cautious about promotions because they are more likely than men to view the path to power as less desirable, as well as paved with potentially negative outcomes. Other studies that have examined competition as a factor in gender disparity focused on outcomes or rank. Research from Harvard has also indicated that women tend to avoid competition while men are more likely to over-compete. However, the University of Michigan study examines the role that the size of a competition plays in who takes part.

Related: Americans Don’t Realize How Big The Gender Leadership Gap Really Is


The researchers started by reviewing other studies on gender. Those suggested, among other things, that women have a higher need for intimacy and prefer smaller social groups. The researchers cite several older studies that indicate women cultivate smaller social networks and tend to belong to smaller voluntary business organizations with fewer members. They also cite findings that for women, communal behavior trumps competition, except when entering a competition as part of a team. Likewise, women are more willing to negotiate if they are doing it on behalf of others.

“Smaller social groups, even when individuals are in competition, tend to allow people to form more intimate social bonds and be more attuned to others’ needs,” said Hanek, “And these communal behaviors, in turn, tend to be more normative for women.”

As such, the researchers came up with three hypotheses to test:

  1. Hypothesis 1: Women, relative to men, will prefer to enter smaller, compared with larger, competitions.
  2. Hypothesis 2: Gender differences in group size preferences will be greater in competitive than noncompetitive contexts
  3. Hypothesis 3: Women, relative to men, will prefer to enter smaller competitions over larger ones partly because they expect to feel more comfortable in the former

A series of eight separate studies and a total of over 5,000 participants were used to find the results.
The first study used publicly available data from the 40-year General Social Survey. The researchers focused responses to a single question to operationalize entry size preferences: “Suppose you were working and could choose between different kinds of jobs. Which of the following would you personally choose?” The result: 69% of women (1,416 out of 2,066) and 64% of men (1,066 out of 1,653) preferred the smaller to the larger firm. That doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but it’s statistically significant. In other words, the results are caused by something other than random chance. In this case, it’s a gender preference.

The second focused on college applications using data from 288 schools of all sizes and types. “Though women prefer the less competitive (based on rank and acceptance rate) schools, the size of the competition appears to be a much stronger predictor of their entry decisions,” the study’s authors wrote.


The next two had participants who were asked to compete. One was for solving anagrams and a prize of $3 and the other was a contest of strength for a $5 prize. The latter pitted same gender contestants against each other. For both, participants were asked to select between a small (10 competitors) or large (100 competitors) challenge. In both, women leaned toward participating in the smaller of the two competitions, 1.6 times and 2.7 times more likely, respectively.

The other studies offered different challenges, but the same choices between the size of the competitor pool. Going a bit further though, when asked to provide the reason for their choice, the women surveyed cited comfort, which aligned with the smaller group.

The study authors acknowledge that there are limitations to these findings, particularly the fact that complex decisions like participating in a competition are influenced by multiple factors. “For example,” they write, “particular professional industries that are more aligned with gender norms for women could also be smaller, making it difficult to disentangle entry decisions based solely on size.”

Related: Why We Are Still So Far Behind On Gender Equality At Work

Yet these findings do dovetail with a recent global report from Weber Shandwick on CEOs that found not many women surveyed aspired to reach the corner office. Less than a quarter (23%) claimed to have their eye on the top spot, in contrast to 32% of their male peers. Sixty-eight percent of North American female executives dismissed the notion of rising to the helm entirely. That ambition rose to 29% globally when women executives worked for a female CEO.


“This research by no means blames women for gender inequality but rather uncovers a novel environmental factor that might contribute to inequality, beyond the well-documented effects of gender biases and discrimination,” Stephen Garcia, coauthor of the study and associate professor of organizational studies and psychology at University of Michigan, said in a statement. Overall Hanek notes, “These patterns of findings can contribute to a better understanding of gender inequality in the workforce.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.