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

Source | FastCompany : By Lydia Dishman

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.

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.”

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