Female academics need to embrace competition

Removing biases in the system may not be enough to achieve a truly equal gender balance, says Sun Young Lee 

February 27, 2020
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It is well known that women are under-represented in senior academic positions in most if not all countries. In UK business and management fields, for instance, only 20 per cent of senior academics are women, and this proportion is far from an outlier.

A number of academic institutions have responded by trying to reduce bias in the way they hire and promote. For example, many UK universities have made it obligatory for their staffing committees to be at least 30 per cent female, and many arrange diversity and unconscious bias training sessions for staff involved in recruitment or promotion decisions. Moreover, the Athena SWAN gender equality initiative encourages them to hire more women to senior academic positions.

This is all very welcome, but recent research in which I have participated suggests that it may not be enough – because bias is not the whole story.

Our paper, “Lay beliefs about competition: scale development and gender differences”, published in Motivation and Emotion, suggests that women can help themselves to grab more chances and move upwards via efforts to change their beliefs about the value of competition.

Past research has shown that women are less competitive than men because of the different evolutionary and social pressures they experience, such as the patriarchal social order and the domestic roles that women have traditionally played.

Extending the current understanding, my co-authors and I examined whether men’s and women’s beliefs about competition – derived from the different ways they experience it from early childhood – can explain gender differences in competitive attitudes and behaviours. For example, competition may lead to positive outcomes, such as boosting performance, developing character and promoting innovative problem solving. On the other hand, it can lead to negative outcomes, such as unethical behaviour, reduced self-confidence and damaged work relations.

In a set of studies involving 2,331 participants (49 per cent women), we found that while there is no gender difference in beliefs about the negative outcomes of competition, women do attribute fewer positive outcomes to competition. On a seven-point Likert scale, where 7 means strongly agree, men scored 5.7 while women scored 5.2; these two scores being statistically different. Moreover, women who hold less positive beliefs about competition described themselves as less competitive and, importantly, were less willing to compete; 21 per cent of women chose to do so, compared with 36 per cent of men.

These findings suggest that even when there is little bias in the staffing system or decision-making, qualified female academics may opt out of important career opportunities, in part because they do not believe that such competitive processes can bring positive outcomes. Some UK universities, for instance, have seen that junior female academics are slower than their male counterparts to apply for promotion.

If a woman with a strong academic track record neglects to compete for more senior positions because she does not want to “feel greedy”, or believes that promotion is not necessary for good performance, such missed chances not only affect her own earning potential: they also hurt the growth of the institution and society by restricting the talent pool at senior levels.

So what can be done? Since many beliefs are known to be more malleable than people often assume, we suggest that if more opportunities were created for women to experience healthy competition from early in life, such as competitive sports, chess or debating, women might develop a more balanced view of competition.

Of course, there is little that universities can directly do to ensure that this happens. But research and popular practice have also shown that training adults is effective in removing bias and stereotypes, as well as in reinforcing positive behaviours. Hence, while maintaining efforts to fairly structure their staffing systems and train their decision-makers, academic institutions may also consider organising workshops to educate their employees – particularly women – on the wide set of positive impacts that healthy competition and career progression bring about for organisations and society.

Through my work for Athena SWAN, I have learned that a few UK universities have managed to improve women’s representation in senior positions this way. For example, they deliver women-only “promotion workshops” or even one-to-one mentoring. Such sessions do not have to be long but do need to be regular to embed the message that efficient female career progression benefits everyone by improving productivity, filling skill gaps and boosting employer reputations.

Some people are critical of gender equality initiatives that seek to “fix women” rather than fix the system. But this is not what we are suggesting. Efforts to fix the system should certainly continue. But genuine equality will be achieved more quickly if these are complemented by initiatives to help women obtain a more positive perspective on their potential to succeed in that system.

Sun Young Lee is an associate professor in the UCL School of Management.

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Reader's comments (8)

On the other hand if we stopped men being so unthinkingly competitive we would also solve the problem. The unasked question is which solution is better for universities, their staff and students. The answer for everyone to behave like a man, is neither consistent with the ideals of Athen SWAN, not does it demonstrate a high level of academic analysis.
An article about competition as a force for good and equality advancements written by a highly competitive and status-aware woman, it seems, who has totally and thoroughly internalised the neoliberal and individualistic cool aid. Her remedy is more of the same, also for women, of the medicine which has created the mess in the first place (i.e. toxic academic working environments and practices due to hyper-competitive behaviours/incentives). Vacuous and shallow propaganda, like most of the "research" coming out of "leading" business schools.
The narrative undertaken by the author infantilizes women - don't stay in the kitchen if you can't take the heat.
I'm puzzled to know why the focus is always on senior academic and leadership positions, doesn't anybody else matter ? If you look at Professional Services staff data, where women are overrepresented in the bulk of the grades, what does this data say about recruitment policy and progression prospects for men ? Women only training initiatives might address an imbalance on the academic side of the business but worsen it everywhere else, particularly as demographic changes will change the problem ultimately anyway. If I'm a grade 4,5,6 or 7 Professional Services staff member, I may also have career aspirations, but not necessarily at an Institutional Leadership level and surely my access to training and promotion should not be determined by gender. There is also pay ineqaulity within gender which gets ignored whilst the focus is elsewhere. Similarly, why is there never an outcry about the conditions faced by cleaning and catering staff in the lowest grades (who are predominantly women) when improvements here could have life changing consequences ? Label based equality will always bring with it agendas and people fighting their own corners rather than for the good of the whole. Equal opportunity for everybody and some proper analytical research into the causes of the current disparity is desperately needed, not just sensationalist headlines or ill considered solutions.
I'm also aware that often women feel like they are 'tick boxes' on the staffing board (and because there's less of them, get asked more), so this also needs more thought.
I'm glad to see other readers have commented on the bias of assuming that the 'male' standard of more competition to enhance personal achievement is somehow inherently superior to a more collaborative approach and should be the goal of all in academia. Rather than assuming that everyone should be trying to emulate the competitive approach, perhaps we should be encouraging more men (and women and people in general) to strive for collaborative working to improve the academic work environment. Plus, as the author noted, societal pressures and domestic roles often limit how much women can compete in the workplace. Many women still face the double shift of doing their paid work and taking on the majority of their family's caring responsibilities. Until and unless equity is achieved in these social and domestic spaces and more attention is paid to 'fixing' the men's side of the equation, then I think continuing to take a 'fix women' approach and push women to take on more professional responsibilities and competition can only go so far. There was a nice opinion piece published in the New York Times a few months ago about some of these very issues: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/10/opinion/sunday/feminism-lean-in.html?fbclid=IwAR1z-SGeSnfvmLFl8ldEcjkhOLfQeVK9TKAbcc3J2rO56w6lv2o7RTNMJ_g. So, I'd say that rather than continuing to instruct women on what they can do to succeed in an academic system that was originally designed for men only, let's focus more on restructuring the system to one that is truly designed for everyone's success.
Great article. Sad that the comments are predictably ignorant and reactionary. Academia usually responds to new ideas by doubling down on orthodoxy these days. @coolMuon ('On the other hand if we stopped men being so unthinkingly competitive we would also solve the problem') That's ludicrous. There are thousands of graduate students and only a handful of academic jobs. This naturally leads to competition. Likewise with the small amount of professorships. If men win 'too many' of them, let's reprogram men to be less competitive. What about the benefits to society which 'male competitiveness' brings, including advances in science and other fields? If Roger Federer beats Andy Murray at tennis, do we need to respond by stopping Federer from 'being so unthinkingly competitive'? And how exactly do you stop someone from being competitive? Sounds rather totalitarian. @kay2 ('I'm glad to see other readers have commented on the bias of assuming that the 'male' standard of more competition to enhance personal achievement is somehow inherently superior to a more collaborative approach'). It's possible to be competitive and collaborative, so that's a false dichotomy. The idea that women are intrinsically more collaborative has been often debunked, e.g. Joyce F. Benenson, 'Rank influences human sex differences in dyadic cooperation' (2014). @An Academic Somewhere ('toxic academic working environments and practices due to hyper-competitive behaviours/incentives') For an academic with a permanent job, university life is not difficult. It is the only place in the world you are going to earn £40k+ with relatively little pressure and competition. Try investment banking. Or try one of those difficult jobs worked by men (and sometimes women) around the world for very little financial reward: e.g. becoming a taxi driver and waking up at 4AM each day to drive privileged academics to the airport for another pointless conference.
Seconding Chris Nemo here. Saying that one gender should essentially go away in order for the other to shine is not the solution. People in general- not only women- need to improve their behaviours in order for the overall situation to improve, instead of waiting for someone else to lower the threshold. It is actually pretty offensive to suggest otherwise.

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