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When Encouraging Women to Compete Everyone Wins

One of the approaches tried over the years to help women access the higher rungs of the political, business, and academic career ladders have been “affirmative action programs,” where women are given an advantage when competing for promotion. Such measures have been controversial, however, with critics alleging that they hamper the chances of filling higher-up positions with the best available candidates. 

Research performed by Loukas Balafoutas and Matthias Sutter, economists of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and published today in Science (subscription required) challenges the foundation of such criticism.

The researchers ran experiments in which they tested the
willingness of 360 male and female undergraduates to compete in a
calculus game. The participants were gathered in teams of three men and
three women. Each team took part in several rounds of competition where
the rules replicated real-life affirmative action programs such as the
application of quotas or giving women a head start. 

economic studies provide evidence that women tend to opt out of
participating in competition even when they are equally or even better
qualified than their male colleagues,”  Sutter stated in
a press release. They found in their experiment that “Without
intervention the number of women willing to compete was only half the
number of men.” Women’s willingness to compete changed, however, when
they were given an advantage before starting the game, whether it was by
assuring that one of the two winners would be female or by giving women
extra points
. They also proposed a
do-over should the two winners both be male, but this had no effect on
women’s decision to compete. None of the rules changes they tried
affected men’s interest in competing.
“All in all, overall performance did not suffer,” Sutter said. “We
found that the female winners were qualified enough so that without the
additional points they would have performed better or at least as well
as their male colleagues.” In other words, the incentive to compete was
effective, but once they were in the game they proved to be as good as
the men, on average.
Next, the researchers looked at the impact
of affirmative action programs on the ability of teams to function.
After competing, the teams were asked to perform a coordination game
that called for the effective exchange of information, for example. “It
would have been simple to discriminate through inefficient actions
against someone who won because of a certain intervention,” Sutter said.
But they saw no evidence of this. The teams where women were given an
advantage worked together just as well than other teams where there was no advantage. “This … was a surprise,” Sutter
“Balafoutas and Sutter … show how affirmative
action policies can increase the willingness of women to compete without
affecting the chances of highly skilled men to succeed and while
preserving postcompetition cooperation between individuals,” commented
Marie Claire Villeval, of the University of Lyon in France, in an
accompanying Perspective piece
(subscription required). “Affirmative action may thus ensure fairness
if its main effect is to motivate talented but shy women to enter more
frequently into competitive schemes.”