Gender differences in "competitiveness" are hypothesized to play a role in a wide array of economic outcomes, including the low representation of women among fortune 500 chief executive officers (Bertrand and Hallock 2001; Niederle and Vesterlund 2007). Although psychologists have a long history of documenting the reluctance of girls or women to enter competitions, economists have begun to study this phenomenon only recently. Psychologists have previously emphasized the tendency of women to underestimate their future performance on a number of different tasks (Deaux 1979; Pallier 2003). (1) Careful experimental studies by economists reveal that, in a laboratory setting, a number of different reasons underlie women's lower inclination to compete. These reasons include not only women's tendency to underestimate their own ability, but also greater aversion to risk, and uncertainty about their ability (Eckel 2008; Eckel and Grossman 2008; Gupta, Poulsen, and Villeval 2011; Niederle and Yestrumskas 2008). Niederle and Vesterlund (2007) control for these and other factors in a carefully designed experiment that provides strong evidence of a distinct preference to avoid the act of competition against men. (2) The purpose of this paper is to provide evidence of competition aversion in a natural setting somewhere between the simplicity of a laboratory experiment and the full complexity and ambiguity of a labor market. The behavior of runners in a race suggests that female competition aversion can be detected even in single-sex situations.
The "State Street Mile" race offers both male and female participants a choice between two different levels of competition. Those who believe they have superior ability, relative to participants of the same gender, are encouraged to enter a highly competitive, high-profile elite race with cash prizes. Other participants--those who believe they are slower runners and those who simply prefer a lower level of competition--pay the same entry fee and run the same course in age-group races with no cash prize. Systematic gender differences are observed in the relationship between true ability (as measured by actual time to run the mile, observed ex post) and the decision to enter the more competitive elite race. While fast young men are almost certain to enter the highly competitive race, a sizable minority of the fast young women do not choose to do so.
Niederle and Vesterlund (2007) argue that reluctance to compete against men is particularly costly to high-ability women because this group has the most to gain from entering the competition. This was true for the mixed-gender tournament they studied. However, we find that on this single-sex task the very fastest women are quite likely to enter the elite race. It is the middle range--above the qualifying standard but below the group most likely to win--where the largest gender differences in behavior are observed. Thus, although our results are consistent with experimental work suggesting that women tend to have competition-averse preferences, they also demonstrate that in some instances there might not be very much economic significance. In this context, the fastest women respond to financial incentives, and the economic consequences of the preference for competition aversion are therefore quite small.
In addition to the gender difference, this analysis identifies a reluctance of older qualified runners to enter the more competitive race, despite the fact that over the age of 40, winners are chosen based on age-graded times. This finding differs from recent experimental work by Charness and Villeval (2009), which shows that younger and older field subjects (employees below 30 years old and employees of the same firm above 50 years old) were equally willing to select a competitive payment option. In the State Street Mile, the propensity to compete in the highly competitive elite race among older men is similar to that observed for younger women, while older women are the least likely and young men are the most likely to enter a highly competitive elite race. …