Saturday, 28 November 2009

Under-achievement and the glass ceiling

Report on a presentation to the 2009 conference of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making

Saturday 21st November.

Under-achievement and the glass ceiling (Robin Hogarth and Natalia Karelaia - presented by Natalia Karelaia)

A question that is frequently asked about the world of work is "Why are there so few women at the top"? Answers that have been suggested focus on discrimination, child rearing preferences, and preferences relating to competition. One difficulty with studying the workplace is that there may be multiple factors that are hard to disentangle.

In this conference presentation, Natalia Karelaia reported research into men and women's behaviour in a television game show. The gameshow studied was the first season of a Columbian programme, El Jugador. The show involves regular games, Sunday games, and a Final. In each game six contestants take part in 5 rounds of general knowledge questions, where 75$ to 375$ can be won for each correct answer. Contestants are ranked according to their accumulated gains, although they themselves are not told how they are ranked; rather, they only receive feedback on their gains. After each round, players can exit the game if they wish. If nobody exits, then the lowest-ranking contestant is expelled and loses all accumulated prize money. Before making their decision about whether or not to withdraw contestants can interact publically to gain strategic advantage (e.g. by bluffing).

Hogarth and Karelaia studied 36 regular games and 6 Sunday games. These involved a total of 216 players, 47% of whom were women. During the course of these games 90 players were expelled and 125 left voluntarily. The mean payoff was 2618$ and the median was 625$ (hence a skewed distribution). The winner of the final received a payoff of 29,625$. Across the games, the women earned 50-60% less than the men, and as games progressed the proportion of women decreased. So a question of central interest is: Are the women expelled or do they exit themselves? In regular games, more women than men were expelled, with women achieving 51% accuracy compared to 56% for men. However, there were also more voluntary withdrawals for women, so did these women withdraw because of a lack of skill or for some other reason? Hogarth and Karelaia found that whatever the size of women's accumulated gains, they had a greater probability of exiting the game.

Furthermore, an analysis of premature exits - those departures from the game by people who were not ranked last -  showed that the probability of withdrawal was 5 % more for women. In terms of correct exits - i.e. the lowest-ranked people voluntarily withdrawing - there was no difference for women and men. However, it was also the case that the probability of women prematurely withdrawing increased as the number of women in the competition declined.

Other analyses showed that men more often engaged in strategic bantering (to persuade others to quit) and that female winners-to-be were as active in the interactions of the regular games as were the male contestants.

One implication of these results is that women in competitive environments may need more social support (ie interactions with others). In particular, because there is a cumulative effect of female withdrawals on the likelihood of further withdrawals, it may be that workplace environments need to maintain a substantial proportion of women at lower levels in order to ensure that women are properly represented at the top.

Needless to say, although this study manages to examine men and women's behaviour without many of the complicating factors that may be involved in workplace settings, this also means that care must be taken not to make overly-strong generalizations. This is also a naturalistic study rather than a true experiment, with the limitations that that brings. These and other issues can be found in this working paper version of the study. Qualification: At the time of writing I don't know whether this work has yet been submitted for peer review.

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