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Men and Women Don't Cooperate (in the Same Way)

Why do women tend toward careers that serve society, but not their own bottom line? Recent research suggests that it's because they're more cooperative than men.

teamwork 

(Photo Credit: Victor1558/Flickr)

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a study entitled "Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation Than Men?" Study authors Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire Villeval designed an experiment in which male and female participants would be asked to perform gender-neutral tasks with an anonymous team member.

After the task was completed, participants were asked if they wanted to be paid individually or as a team. Women tended to choose to be paid as a team, while men tended to choose to be paid individually. This had real costs for them in the context of the experiment, since being paid individually netted higher returns.

The key is "perceptions of relative competence," as Derek Thompson puts it in the Atlantic.

"Basically, if you think your colleagues are idiots, you don't want to cast your lot with them," Thompson writes. "But if you think your colleagues are smart, you'll see the advantages in working as a team."

Women felt less confident in their own abilities, and more confident in their teammate's abilities. They were also more likely to be concerned about how their choice affected their partner's income, demonstrating a higher sense of "inequity aversion." In other words, women were more concerned than men that things wouldn't be fair.

On the upside, the researchers did not find that women were fundamentally averse to working in competitive environments, provided they're structured in a certain way.

"In sharp contrast to the literature on gender and competition, this paper finds that women's task performance is not adversely affected by entering an environment where rewards are team-based, and that women do not avoid entering team environments," the authors write. "Indeed, in most of our experimental treatments, women are more likely than men to enter team-based environments, though men's and women's attraction to those environments is shown to depend in important ways on subjects' perceptions of others' abilities, the efficiency advantages of team production, and subjects' social preferences."

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