Competition is viewed as a good thing, especially here in the U.S. After all, it’s the root of capitalism and the point of any sport. But a new study examining the dynamic between men and women in a competitive work environment suggests some things that might make you squirm in your ergonomic office chair.
Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, studied teams — some with all men, some with all women, some mixed. The result? Teams of women often outperformed teams of men—but add competition, and that’s when the men pulled ahead.
Them be fightin’ words
“The more competitive the environment became between the teams, it became obvious that women under those conditions did not do well," Baer said. "So the more we told them, if the other team wins, you cannot really win here, it’s you against someone else, women would collaborate less. They were less inclined to work together."
Essentially, the teams of women started to shut down in the face of competition. Men, on the other hand, became less competitive with each other, coming together like a band of brothers once the competition heated up. Sounds like fodder for the gender wars, so let’s take a look at this study outside of, well, the study.
At Inkhouse, a public relations firm in Waltham, company co-founder Beth Monaghan sits in her office, behind fully transparent walls of floor to ceiling glass.
“Creativity and collaboration are the cornerstones of Inkhouse,” said Monaghan. "If we didn’t do both of those things, we wouldn’t have a business here. And we also happen to have a business that is roughly 80 percent female, so creating an environment where creativity flourishes is important.”
The luxury of failure
Monaghan says she has seen firsthand that competition is not an effective method to foster creativity.
"I think that for me, as women, when it comes to competition, we don’t really have the luxury of failure,” Monaghan said.
Or, perhaps, the luxury of taking risks: There are statistics that support this caution. After all, a woman still makes 77 cents to a man’s dollar and women CEOs are running just 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies. To further complicate things, a report a few years ago by McKinsey and Co. shows women are promoted based on experience while men are promoted on potential. Add these all up and …
“That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for women to try out new things, and when competition comes into play, I think it really stymies their creativity,” Monaghan said.
But one of Monaghan’s employees, Linda Walsh, bristled at the idea of competition killing creativity.
“I feel like when we’re stacked against a challenge, we thrive," Walsh said. "I know that I do. I feel like when we’re put to the test, we actually do our best."
Monaghan nods but is quick to interject, pointing out a small— but salient nuance.
“I think it’s because we’re in it together," she said. "There’s not an environment where we are, you know, ‘Beth, you’re not going to succeed if Laura succeeds.’ It’s like, ‘Beth, you’re going to do better if Laura succeeds,’ and so we all want Laura to succeed."
Sex studies sell
Of course, this all varies depending on interoffice dynamics and, more importantly, the type of industry. In fields such as real estate and finance, top-performing individuals set the pace others follow. The team is less important. And for economist Julie Nelson, there isn’t enough focus on the individual in gender-based studies.
“There really seems to be a whole industry of looking to find gender differences,” Nelson said.
Nelson is an economics professor who specializes in gender at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She says women in the workplace often have to juggle more than just the task at hand.
“If a woman is feeling that not only does she need to win this account but she also needs to fight that stereotype that she’s not going to be able win this account, then she’s worrying about two things instead of just one thing.” Nelson said.
She adds that studies like this can be dangerous because they fuel stereotypes.
“It probably lends to a case where you know, ‘OK, this is fine for managing teams in some areas. Maybe we should have more collaborative stuff. But when the going gets tough and there’s competition, well, you really need the men in charge,’” Nelson said.
Nelson’s caveat is to look at the fine print in any study that reduces complexity to a single bold conclusion. But Baer hopes studies like his will foster discussion not only on gender dynamics but how to manage the workplace — that pitting teams against one another won’t always deliver results.