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Research on attitudes to competitiveness


HR needs to understand gender issues. This understanding should be based on awareness of the nuances of the situation in your own organization and on reputable academic research. Research shows that there are many gender differences and a recent paper reveals a gender difference that is important to organizations: attitudes towards competitiveness. It’s a good test case for thinking how we want to approach gender issues given the evidence.

As soon as one discusses research on gender differences of one enters into a potentially emotional domain. There are a few points one should communicate up-front to allay concerns:

  • Different doesn’t mean better or worse—it just means different. Japanese are more likely to enjoy sushi than Russians. This doesn’t mean one nationality is better, just that there are differences which could be useful in picking a menu.

  • Different doesn’t mean everyone in a category is the same—it just means that there is a statistically relevant different. Some Japanese won’t like sushi as much as some Russians. This is important to keep top of mind because if we are dealing with individuals, rather than groups, we need to look at the individual attributes, not infer them from the group they are in.

  • Gender differences are, more often than not, a result of a combination of nature and nurture. The nurture element means we can change how individuals or even whole societies act. The nature element means we may be more successful if we work with innate differences, not against them.

Gender differences in attitudes to competitiveness

This paper, Lay beliefs about competition: Scale development and gender differences by Selin Kesebir et al in Motivation and Emotion (2019) showed that:

  • Men attribute more positive outcomes to competition than women, but generally, the differences are small. If we are interested in the extremes of the competency, or if the difference accumulates over time, then a small difference can create a visible difference in performance.

What this means is that we are likely to find a higher ratio of men in roles requiring a competency of high competitiveness and a higher ratio of women in roles requiring high cooperation—other factors being equal.

How organizations should respond to gender differences

Organizations should take a gender-neutral policy to hiring, comparing individuals on their own merits. Even if a job requires a highly positive attitude towards competitiveness there is a good chance that amongst the candidates the best one will be a woman; and similarly, is the job requires downplaying competitiveness the best candidate could well be a man.

However, we should expect that there will be a gender imbalance if we look at all the employees in a role that requires particularly high or low positive attitudes towards competitiveness. An unbalanced gender ratio will reflect the small but real differences in a competency relevant to that job. This imbalance is exactly what we see in HR departments where men are far less likely to be hired than women. This could be the result of bias; more likely it reflects a true gender difference (which is likely a combination of nature and nurture) and if we try to force a 50/50 ratio in HR then we will in effect be swimming against the tide.


Gender differences exist and while these are small, they will lead to imbalanced ratios in jobs where that competency is of high importance. Organizations should focus on hiring practices that accurately assess individuals on their competencies. This will result in a fair outcome for individuals and ensure the company gets the best performer regardless of gender or ethnicity.


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