Why We Should Abandon ‘Gender Differences in Competition’ to Explain Women’s and Men’s Unequal Position in Work

Have you ever taken a look at some new research and felt — or perhaps known — that the researchers just didn’t get the underlying issue? Or maybe that seems to be the rule in studying some issues – hardly anyone seems to get the point? That’s roughly the situation Sharon Mavin and Marina Yusupova describe as they explain the process that led to their new paper in the journal Management Learning, “Competition and Gender: Time’s Up on Essentialist Knowledge Production.” Mavin, professor of leadership and organisation studies (and its former director) at Newcastle University Business School, and Yusupova, a research associate at the business school, address their work, its origin and inspiration, in a short Q&A that appears just after the paper’s abstract.

This article is an intervention in current trends of thinking about competition and gender in essentialist and stereotypical ways. Such thinking has produced numerous comparative studies measuring competitiveness of women and men; ‘proving’ men as competitive and women as non-competitive. Based on experiments and written questionnaires, these studies reduce gender to perceived biological sex and treat competition as a ‘self-evident’, static and easily measurable phenomenon. To contribute new understandings and learning, we surface five fallacies of this comparative research, explaining why the approach is misleading, inequitable and socially harmful. Drawing upon gender as a social construction and women leaders’ narratives, we offer a blueprint for democratising knowledge production. We write differently, choosing not to provide a ‘balanced’ view of the field and construct competition as a processual, complex and contextually specific phenomenon with underlying gender dynamics, rather than a discrete, observable and fixed in time event. The article provides learning: for leaders and managers to resist automatic categorisation on the basis of perceived biological sex; for management educators to challenge the ways that leadership and management are traditionally taught; and, for executive coaches to support changes in practice, by embracing complexity of the contemporary contexts in which leaders operate.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Our motivation for research into gender and competition comes from our fundamental belief that inequalities between women and men are cultural and not natural. When we started research the topic, our plan was to briefly review what is already known about women and men’s competition but to focus on analysis of interviews with women leaders talking about their experiences of competition. However, the more we read, the more we were aggravated. We found over a hundred comparative studies in economics, finance, decision-making science, psychology, and business and management, which measure competitiveness of women and men volunteers in designed experiments and draw biologically reductionist arguments. We were compelled to focus on how these studies ignore the complexities of competition, overlook socially constructed nature of gender and reproduce popular stereotypes of ‘competitive men’ and ‘non-competitive, coy women.’ We see it as a crucial task since the prevalent claim that ‘women may be less effective than men in competitive environments’ travels from research experiments into popular media, where it is used to explain or even justify gender pay gap and underrepresentation of women in leadership.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Sharon Mavin and Marina Yusupova
Sharon Mavin, left, and Marina Yusupova

We take a serious intellectual risk and rethink an established research field. We explain why knowledge produced through comparisons of how women and men compete at random tasks is misleading, inequitable and socially harmful. The persistent argument about women being ‘less’ competitive is far removed from our societal and organizational experiences where competition and competitiveness happen in different ways. We advocate for us all to abandon ‘gender differences in competition’ as the explanation for women’s and men’s unequal position in the labor market.

Comparative research measuring competitiveness among women and men volunteers is enticing, intuitive but should come with a hazardous warning of its limitations. In comparative studies, women as-a-group and men-as-a-group appear as parallel objects for study without acknowledging how almost every society in the world has a long history of social inequalities organized along class, race and gender lines. The studies do not recognize various kinds of competition and approach competition narrowly as zero-sum game, where one person wins and the other loses. As a result, their claims of scientific objectivity are only possible when the complexities of competition and gender are ignored. Drawing upon an alternative social-constructionist paradigm and experiences of competition among actual women leaders, we surface how competition is a processual social phenomenon; relational, dynamic, multiple, complex, political and contextual, with underlying gender dynamics.

What is the most important/ influential piece of scholarship you’ve read in the last year?

If you want to see more exploding of the sexist myths entrenched within contemporary science, do read Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds (2017) by Cordelia Fine. This book is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to understand why differences between women and men cannot be boiled down to biology, evolution and hormones.

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