Willingness to Compete in a Gender Equal Society
14 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2013
Date Written: December 17, 2012
A number of experimental studies have found that females are more competitively inclined than males, and it has been argued that this difference potentially can explain a wide range of real world economic phenomena, including observed gender differences in labor markets (Balafoutas and Sutter, 2012; Flory et al., 2010; Gneezy et al., 2003; Gneezy and Rustichini, 2004; Niederle and Vesterlund, 2007, 2011; Sutter and R¨utzler, 2010). Recent evidence suggests that the gender difference in willingness to compete largely reflects cultural norms, which has been seen as providing justification for gender equalizing public policies aiming at eliminating this asymmetry between males and females (Gneezy et al., 2009).
The Scandinavian countries have for a long time pursued such policies, and are today considered among the most gender equal societies in the world; in fact, Norway ranks highest on the UN gender equality index comprising measures of educational attainment, labor market participation and health.1 Still, in a large lab experiment conducted with adolescents in Norway, we find a substantial gender difference in the willingness to compete, in line with what has been observed in Sweden (C´ardenas et al., 2012). We argue that these observations from Scandinavia provide a challenge to the gender policy debate, namely how to view preference differences in free and gender equal societies. Economists have traditionally assigned great importance to respecting individual preferences, as exemplified by the recent literature on libertarian paternalism (Sunstein and Thaler, 2008), but have been more willing to consider policies that nudge people in a particular direction if this is to overcome a particular behavioral bias, for example when individuals hold incorrect beliefs about their own abilities.
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