Couple playing doubles at tennis. (iStock)

The field of experimental economics has exploded in the past decade, and with it has developed the study of gender differences. Women have different attitudes than men toward competition, toward risk, toward altruism, researchers say. The distinctions are sometimes quite stark, and perhaps tangibly important. When we think about the gender gap in pay, it’s easy to blame discrimination, but here an argument has emerged about another kind of sexism—the damning effects of gendered norms.

Muriel Niederle, a professor at Stanford, has studied these issues at length. In 2007, she and Lise Vesterlund published an experiment in which they rewarded people for adding up two-digit numbers over and over again. This is a task that men and women can perform equally well. Yet the researchers found that women were much less confident in their abilities, and this caused them to shy away from situations in which they would have to compete with others.

Gender and competitive games

In the non-competitive version of the experiment, participants would get 50 cents for every right answer. In the competitive setup, they entered a winner-takes-all tournament where the highest-scoring player got $2 for every right answer, and the other players got nothing.

When the men and women were forced to compete, women won as often as men. But when Niederle and Vesterlund gave people a choice between the two setups, 75 percent of men chose to enter the competitive tournament, compared to only 35 percent of the women.

“In terms of money maximizing choices, high-performing women enter the tournament too little and low performing men too much,” Niederle wrote in a recent discussion of these kinds of papers.

“The result is that few women enter the competition and few women win the competition,” she continued.

An issue of confidence

In another one of her experiments, Niederle and co-author Alexandra Yestrumskas paid people to solve as many mazes as they could in 10 minutes. Participants could elect to work on easy mazes or hellish mazes. Easy mazes paid 50 cents each; hard mazes paid 25 cents each for the first four solved, and $3.50 each thereafter.

This scheme forces people to assess their own skills. If you’re bad at solving mazes, you’ll make more money on the easy track. If you’re good at solving mazes, you should risk the hard track, which pays a lot more, but only if you can bang these things out.

At first, none of the participants knew how difficult the hard mazes were going to be, but they did get to try out the easy mazes. This way, the researchers found out who was good at doing mazes, and who was bad at them. The participants then got to choose to continue with the easy mazes, or to try doing the harder mazes.

All the men who killed it on the easy mazes tried the harder mazes. But only 65 percent of high-performing women decided to try the harder maze. Even among the low-performers, 88 percent of men chose the hard mazes, compared to 42 percent of women.

Is it that men just like a challenge and women don’t? Not so. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers informed the participants whether they were high-performing or low-performing after observing them on the easy mazes. With that knowledge, high-performing women were now twice as likely to choose the the hard track. Again, this is a story about confidence in yourself. Men have it. Women seem to lack it. But a little encouragement can go a long way.

Women and cooperation

Niederle is fond of another experiment that demonstrates how women can be more cooperative than men. Strangers were put in groups of three and were given two minutes to play a game of chicken. They were shown a button that, if pressed, rewards the group. The catch is the person who hits the button gets a smaller reward than the others. The button-presser gets $1.25, and the bystanders get $2. If nobody does anything, everyone gets a consolation prize of $1 each.

About 84 percent of the time, someone hit the button, usually within the last three seconds. They repeated this game 10 times, each with different random strangers. In single-gender groups, women and men behaved the same. But in mixed-gender groups, women were over 50 percent more likely than men to take one for the team. The researchers, Lise Vesterlund, Linda Babcock, and Laurie Weingart, describe the game as a “war of attrition,” and one that women tend to lose.

Well, now what?

Why do women behave this way? Culture, perhaps, can be more influential here than biology. An experiment from 2012 found that school-age girls in Colombia are even more competitive than boys, while the opposite was true in Sweden. In Niederle’s experiments, lack of self-confidence played a big role in explaining why women chose the easier maze game, and why they chose not to participate in the tournament game.

So one way to combat these differences would be to give women more encouragement. Niederle calls this the “Lean In” approach, after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book which told women that they should more aggressively pursue opportunities at work.

“Maybe we should change the women,” Niederle said. “Make them more competitive. Tell the girls: You just feel you aren’t good, but you are good.”

Changing the idea of competition

Another approach: changing the way that the world treats competition. In corporate world, some amount of American Psycho-ing is probably necessary. But sometimes there is competition that serves no end.

In 2014, Niederle and her colleagues Thomas Buser and Hessel Oosterbeek published a paper looking at the Netherlands, where kids have to choose a specialized track in high school. They can focus on math, biology, economics or literature. Boys and girls perform about the same at math, but boys are much more likely than girls to choose the math track, which is considered the most prestigious, and the one that opens up the most doors.

The researchers tested the schoolchildren with an experiment to measure how competitive they were. The ones that were more competitive were also more likely to choose a more prestigious track like math or biology.

In the Netherlands, Niederle said, people have argued that forcing children to choose an academic track shortchanges girls, many of whom would excel at math but shy away from it. “If early on, you have girls opt out of math, there are going to be a lot of careers not available to them,” she said.

There’s a perception that competition is good, that it brings out the best in someone—but it can just as well drive children away, and prevent them from realizing her full potential.