Maryland Smith Research / February 16, 2022

Gender, Competitiveness and How We Advocate for Others

Gender, Competitiveness and How We Advocate for Others

In the workplace, success sometimes comes down to how competitive you are. And sometimes it comes down to how competitive the people are who are advocating on your behalf.

Research has long demonstrated that there is a workplace competitiveness gap between men and women – with men tending to be far more competitive than their female colleagues. In new research in Strategic Management Journal, Maryland Smith’s Cristian Dezső and two co-authors explore what happens to that gender-based competitiveness gap when it comes to advocating for one’s protégés.

Would a male manager demonstrate the same level of competitive drive when advocating on behalf of a protégé? Would a female manager? And would the level of competitive drive change based on the gender of the protégé?

Because men are generally known to be more competitive in the workplace, the researchers wondered whether that competitiveness gap would extend when vying on behalf of their protégés. And, because research shows that women tend to be “more prosocial than men” in group settings, the researchers wondered whether that might imply that women sponsors would become more competitive when working on behalf of others.

The researchers also wondered whether homophily and discrimination factors would play a role. Those factors would suggest that male managers might be more competitive when advocating for male protégés, “reinforcing, and even causing, gender disparities in organizations and society at large.”

Dezső co-authored the research with Smith PhD candidate Nathan Barrymore and with Smith PhD Ben King.

In a series of experiments in a simulated organizational setting with online workers, they found that when rewards accrue to protégés, female managers would become more competitive, regardless of whether they’re advocating for a man or a woman.

“In essence, these results suggest that female managers are effective sponsors: they are willing to go to bat for their protégés at levels similar to those of their male colleagues. And that is not because male managers become less competitive when the rewards accrue to their protégés, it is because female managers are more competitive.”

However, even though male managers’ competitiveness remains essentially unchanged when rewards would accrue to protégés, they were much more competitive when the protégés were male. That disparity, Dezső said, was notable – and closer examination revealed something else as well. The disparity would essentially disappear when male managers knew their protégés risk preferences.

“While there are small differences in average risk preference across gender in our sample, male managers behave as if they believe, incorrectly, that these differences are large,” the researchers write.

“The practical implication of this result is that short of providing information about female direct reports’ actual risk preferences, male managers may perpetuate gender disparities through their decision of who to compete for. Our findings, thus, point toward a novel strategy to improve the effectiveness of sponsorship programs in organizations and hopefully stimulate more research.”

The researchers’ findings add to a long line of research that finds evidence of gender differences in competitiveness. The body of research finds that men are, on average, more competitive than women, and finds that more competitive individuals select into more prestigious academic tracks, higher-paying professions and positions, and have more interest in pursuing elected office. These factors result in a suboptimal allocation of talent, research has found, affecting the performance of both firms and society. On the individual level, meanwhile, the gender gap in competitiveness, over the span of a career, can have profound socio-economic consequences.

Read more: The research, “Gender and Competitiveness When Earning for Others: Experimental Evidence and Implications for Sponsorship,” is published in Strategic Management Journal.

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