Why Women Really Can't Have It All

Why Women Really Can't Have It All

Why you should care

Want to realize your company’s full creative potential? Cutthroat competition might not be the best way. 

Pressure yields diamonds — depending on your team.

Groups of men enjoy a boost in creativity when pitted against other teams, according to researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. But such cutthroat situations hurt creativity in teams consisting mostly of women. The findings should warn managers against heating up the competition to light the creative spark, the researchers wrote in a study published in the May-June issue of Organizational Science.

Earlier research had shown that in noncompetitive environments — where groups work alongside each other — teams made up entirely of women worked more collaboratively than all-male teams. But researchers know little about how gender makeup influences competition’s effects on creativity.

Men under those circumstances … become more interdependent and more collaborative, and women just do the opposite.

 

To find out, the researchers recruited 360 WUSTL undergrads and randomly divided them into 90 four-member teams tasked with generating creative ideas for improving the transition from high school to college for incoming freshmen.

The researchers then randomly assigned each team to experience low, medium or high levels of competition. Those assigned to the low competition condition were told that they needed to rank among the top 50 percent of the most creative teams to stand a chance at winning $4. At the other end of the spectrum, teams experiencing high competition were told they needed to be the most creative group to win $400. A separate group rated the creativity of each team’s ideas.

Men stand on roof in super hero costumes

Groups of men enjoy a boost in creativity when pitted against other teams.

Teams consisting mostly of women tended to be more creative than male-dominated teams — when the stakes were low. “As soon as you add the element of competition, though, the picture changes,” said Markus Baer, associate professor of organizational behavior at WUSTL’s Olin Business School and the study’s lead author. “Men under those circumstances [jell] together. They become more interdependent and more collaborative, and women just do the opposite.” Although teams with a higher proportion of men churned out more creative ideas when the competition fired up, creativity declined in teams with mostly women. All-female teams suffered the steepest drop-off.

Baer suspects that women disengage from the creative process because they “sense that others may not expect them to do well either.”

To test whether these findings held up in the real world, the researchers also studied 50 teams at a global oil and gas company. They asked each team’s supervisor and a few key members to rate the team’s collaboration, creativity and competitiveness against other teams. Sure enough, teams rated as highly competitive also ranked high in creativity — if they included a higher proportion of men. The opposite held true for teams of mostly women.

That doesn’t mean women can’t help but crumble in the face of competition — just that gender stereotypes continue to shape workplace behavior, Baer said. He suspects that women disengage from the creative process because they “might see themselves as less competitive and probably sense that others may not expect them to do well either.” But since society expects men to thrive in competitive situations, men “get more excited about the task at hand and fully engage it as well as each other.”

The take-home lesson? Since competition could dampen female employees’ creativity, managers should use different methods for generating ideas, especially as women’s numbers grow in the workforce. Companies could balance the competition with collaboration, asking teams to share breakthroughs with each other or rotating members through competing teams, for example.

Unlike simply turning the competition on blast, tapping into the fount of brilliant ideas might require its own dose of creativity.

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