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Cancelling out early age gender differences in competition: an analysis of policy interventions


We study the willingness to compete of 588 children and teenagers aged ten to seventeen. We replicate the gender difference in tournament entry choices usually found in the literature for adults. We then show that policy interventions like quotas and preferential treatment help to close down the gender gap without leading to losses in efficiency, during or after a tournament. Given that differences in competitive behavior are prevalent from an early age, the application of interventions to promote females in competitions may be desirable already at early ages to promote equal chances for women on labor markets later on.

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  1. It must be noted, however, that a number of studies suggest that this gender difference may not be systematic and that it depends on various factors such as the sample considered. For instance, Charness and Villeval (2009) do not find evidence of a consistent gender gap in a non-student population including seniors, while Gneezy et al. (2009) show that competitive attitudes can vary greatly among different cultures.

  2. Gneezy and Rustichini (2004) and Dreber et al. (2011) study competitive behavior not in terms of self-selection but of performance in response to competitive pressure. While the former study finds a significant gender gap with boys increasing their performance more than girls in Israel, the latter fails to replicate this finding in a Swedish sample. As far as the willingness to compete is concerned, there also exist some mixed results. A number of studies show that the willingness to compete is influenced by the educational attainment of the parents (Almås et al. (2013) as well as the task (Cardenas et al. 2012; Dreber et al. 2014). Culture also plays a major role, with competitive behavior differing substantially among countries (Cardenas et al. 2012; Andersen et al. 2013). In developing countries, neither Khachatryan (2012) nor Zhang (2013) have found a systematic gender gap in the willingness to compete. Overall, in highly developed countries a gender gap in the willingness to compete typically exists among children, while in developing countries this is not the case or the gap emerges only later in life (Andersen et al. 2013).

  3. See Fang and Moro (2010) for a historical overview and formal treatment of affirmative action policies.

  4. A notable exception is Calsamiglia et al. (2013) who study the effects of preferential treatment among 10-13 year-old school children in Spain. They show that preferential treatment enhances incentives to compete and perform in a tournament environment. However, preferential treatment is not conditioned on gender or some other innate characteristic in their study, but on the amount of experience with Sudoku puzzles that children are exposed to in different schools.

  5. Mollerstrom (2012), for instance, finds that a quota system based on arbitrary group assignment reduces cooperation as measured by contributions into a public good.

  6. Using the other group members’ past performance has several advantages. First, tournament entry decisions do not depend on a subject’s expectation about the other members’ entry decisions, but only on the subject’s beliefs about own ability. Second, Stage 2 performances are competitive performances, and thus a subject competes against others when they were also exposed to a competitive payment scheme. Third, entering competition does not impose externalities on others. In principle, this means that Stage 3 is an individual decision making problem. Note that this scheme also implies that it is possible that all group members entering the competition in Stage 3 may win or all lose since they are competing against the others’ performance in Stage 2.

  7. These endowments for winners and losers apply to students in the 11th grade. The endowment was 60 % thereof for 8th graders (thus €1.8 for winners and €0.6 for losers) and 40 % thereof for 5th graders (thus €1.2 for winners and €0.4 for losers). These proportions were chosen since the average weekly pocket money of 8th graders (5th graders) is roughly 60 % (40 %) of 11th graders’ pocket money.

  8. We refer to pupils who had a rank of 1 or 2 in the tournament, regardless of whether they actually won, in order to ensure comparability with the variable guesswin2 and to keep the results unaffected by the random tie-breaking rule. Note that since ties were possible, it is possible to have more than 33.3 % of subjects ranked first and second.

  9. For robustness, we have replicated the Table 4 regressions using a linear probability model. All of our results remain qualitatively the same, with the minor exception of the female dummy in column 2 (8th grade), which turns marginally insignificant.

  10. In order to control for learning effects, we have run additional regressions including a variable which measures the increase in performance from stage 1 to stage 2. The results remain practically the same.

  11. Details are available from the authors upon request.

  12. As suggested by a referee we have also computed Table 5 with the Stage 2-performance of the winners in Stage 3. The results remain robust. We do not detect any significant differences between the three treatments in single age groups (p > 0.29, Kruskal–Wallis tests).

  13. The classification follows Balafoutas and Sutter (2012): The low- and high ability pupils correspond roughly to the first and fourth quartile in our sample respectively, while intermediate ability pupils correspond roughly to the two middle quartiles.


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We thank Gary Charness, Uri Gneezy, Bill Harbaugh, Steffen Huck, Kai Konrad, Charles Noussair, Pedro Rey-Biel, Rupert Sausgruber, two anonymous referees, and seminar participants at the Economic Science Association Meeting in Kuala Lumpur and the Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance in Munich for helpful comments and suggestions. Financial support through the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science program “Sparkling Science” (Grant SPA/02-99—Project: Gender and competition) and through the Austrian Science Fund (Project P22772-G11) is gratefully acknowledged. We thank Thomas Plankensteiner from the Tyrolean State Board of Education and headmasters Gerlinde Christandl, Georg Fritz, Max Gnigler and Hermann Lergetporer for making this study possible.

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Correspondence to Loukas Balafoutas.

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Sutter, M., Glätzle-Rützler, D., Balafoutas, L. et al. Cancelling out early age gender differences in competition: an analysis of policy interventions. Exp Econ 19, 412–432 (2016).

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  • Tournaments
  • Gender gap
  • Affirmative action
  • Experiment
  • Children

JEL Classification

  • C91
  • D03
  • D04