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Less competitive? Ha!

April 25th, 2004 · No Comments

Yesterday I printed and read the paper Performance in Competitive Environments: Gender Differences, published in the August 2003 MIT Quarterly Journal of Economics referenced in Women less competitive? at misbehaving.net.

In the study, male and female students at an engineering institution in Israel were asked to compete against each other by solving mazes and found “women may be less effective than men in competitive environments, even if they are able to perform similarly in noncompetitive environments.”

When I read this study, I thought “Hey, let me do those mazes!” I remembered how I liked math competitions. I was one of the only girls (the only girl?!) on the high school math team. In sixth grade I went to an all-city competition in math, bringing home a treasured red ribbon that is preserved in a box somewhere in our garage.

Perhaps I did well in math because it was a feedback loop. I did well and I kept doing well. It wasn’t until college when I encountered more abstract math – and numbers disappeared – that I struggled. My mathematics major husband has told me that this was real math and all else merely prelude. Oh well.

Physics however was another story.

I went into 10th grade feeling intimidated by my workload. Our class was 2/3rds male and we girls all struggled, I think. It was hard and humbling for me when it wasn’t easy to get a good grade. I didn’t like my physics experience, and that probably played back into my lack of confidence in class. In college I took the “physics for dummies” series and did well. But I didn’t feel confident enough to try a higher level course.

I like to compete if I think I can do it well. When I’m confident, I feel I’ll take on anyone. Is that boasting? Or simply a sense of fun and enjoying the game? Perhaps it is because I have had successful experiences in life. I did well as a student. I did well as an athlete. In high school – during the years I felt confident! – I think that I could even outrun a few of the guys in my class.

Confidence plays a large role, I think. Contrary to the conclusions of this study, I believe women can compete against men and succeed. Confidence along with motivation are the big barriers to women’s success.

In general, confidence in one’s abilities and optimism have been shown to be strongly related to academic performance

Motivation matters. Look at mothers. I think any mother would compete against any man or woman on behalf of her child. Everywhere from the Bible (Rebecca dressing Jacob in goat hair to deceive her husband into blessing him rather than Esau) to news stories (the mom Texas Cheerleader Murder Plot of Wanda Holloway) there are mothers willing to do whatever it takes for their kids to succeed. Go to a school board meeting, a piano recital or a prenatal class to find motivated moms.

For me I began to feel my own competitive spirit returning when I gave birth to Abigail: at playgroups I instinctively found myself comparing my child to others and wanting my girl to be the best. I wanted her to gain the most weight, babble her ABCs the soonest, walk well and have all kinds of talents, dreams and potential. And I’d do anything for Abigail! Whether I wanted to have these feelings or not, I had to accept that I had them inside me. Motherhood I believe motivates most women, maybe more than anything else they’ve known in life. Motherhood also highlights how confident these moms feel about their own abilities and their children’s.

While evaluating this study, I wondered why people would be motivated to participate. They solicited students by hanging posters on campus with a phone number to call. I saw those kinds of signs when I was in college but I never called. The signs promised financial incentives, and the students were paid based on how many mazes they completed etc.

However I don’t find this strategy to be very motivating for myself. If I were a college student why would I go do mazes for $3 a piece when there are plenty of other activities I’d rather pursue? Who will sign up to participate in such a study? Will the students who are confident and competitive spend spare time trying to earn a few dollars this way? Or do they have other things to do? I imagine that the intensely competitive and confident students, male and female, have plenty of activities in their lives and might not have time, even for money, to participate in optional research, sitting and doing mazes. I wonder whether the technique of using self-selective students invalidates the study.

I believe women can be very competitive. I’ve felt it myself. As a student. As an athlete. As a mother. Perhaps I’ve even felt the most competitive as a mom.

Tags: motherhood