Women in teams: the way to combat the gender pay gap?

I missed this article, ‘Women compete better in teams’, which appeared in Sunday’s Observer, but luckily one of my senior staff passed it on to me. It gave details of research published in the Economics Journal about an experiment conducted by researchers about team exercises, and the results were fascinating, with implications for understanding and creating opportunities for women to compete equally with men in gaining top appointments.

In the experiment, participants – men and women – had to answer maths problems as quickly as possible, and had to decide – in teams – whether they wanted to be paid according to the number of problems their two-person team answered correctly or whether they wanted to enter a competition against three other teams. Individual participants decided whether they wanted to compete against three other individuals.

The male and female participants performed equally well, answering the same proportion of questions correctly; what was extremely interesting, however, was that a significant difference emerged in how the genders chose to participate. No fewer than 81% of men chose to compete as individuals compared with 28% of women; when, however, participants competed in teams, the gender competition gap dropped by 31 percentage points to 22%, with 67% of men choosing to enter the competition compared with 45% of women.

These statistics are of relevance because achievement – in the workplace, as elsewhere – is closely related to a desire to compete. Put bluntly, you have to be ‘in it to win it’. One of the main areas of concern for Boards seeking to appoint women is that the pipeline of women coming through from middle management positions dries up, and this has been linked to a lack of desire on the part of women to compete. If this desire to compete grows when women are placed in teams, then it is entirely feasible that with changes to the environment in which women work, learn and prepare for their futures, many more women may be prepared to put themselves forward for the top jobs.

The success of any initiative based on this research – and there is still much creative thinking to be done in this respect in order to work out how this might translate into practice in interviews -will of course still depend on the environment at the top evolving to make it attractive for women – but this research opens a door. It is good to see that there is active work going on to make it possible for us to break down the remnants of gender inequality which still bedevil our workplaces.

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