Braggarts Become Leaders
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Politics & Elections Sep 4, 2012

Brag­garts Become Leaders

Women at a dis­ad­van­tage when com­pet­ing for lead­er­ship positions

Based on the research of

Ernesto Reuben

Pedro Rey-Biel

Paola Sapienza

Luigi Zingales

Why do men tend to fare bet­ter in com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ments than women do? It is a ques­tion researchers have long pondered. 

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More than a decade ago, two econ­o­mists—Clau­dia Goldin of Har­vard and Cecil­ia Rouse of Prince­ton — found sex-based dis­crim­i­na­tion in the hir­ing of orches­tra musi­cians. Begin­ning in the 1970s, many orches­tras in the Unit­ed States, hop­ing to rem­e­dy a dearth of women in their ranks, began con­duct­ing blind audi­tions. Musi­cians per­formed behind a screen so the selec­tion com­mit­tee could not see them. Goldin and Rouse com­pared sev­er­al orches­tras before and after the change — and found that women were select­ed 30 per­cent more often when audi­tions were blind.

For Pao­la Sapien­za, a pro­fes­sor of finance at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, the find­ing was fas­ci­nat­ing — yet it did not explain the rea­son for the bias to begin with. Was the gen­der bias a result of belief-based dis­crim­i­na­tion,” in which the judges assumed that women are less com­pe­tent; of taste-based dis­crim­i­na­tion,” in which the judges sim­ply pre­ferred men for rea­sons oth­er than com­pe­tence, such as a belief that the audi­ence prefers male musi­cians; or of sta­tis­ti­cal dis­crim­i­na­tion,” in which gen­der con­fers some oth­er valu­able infor­ma­tion (e.g., men are prefer­able because they pre­sum­ably do not take as much time off)? 

The data in the paper were able to estab­lish a bias,” says Sapien­za, but they could not dis­tin­guish between the three of them.”

Dis­tin­guish­ing Between Types of Dis­crim­i­na­tion
So Sapien­za, along with Ernesto Reuben, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty; Pedro Rey-Biel, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­tat Autòno­ma de Barcelona; and Lui­gi Zin­gales, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, set out to look more close­ly at gen­der bias in com­pet­i­tive settings. 

They want­ed to know why orga­ni­za­tions might fail to select high-per­form­ing women for jobs at which the women would excel. They devised an exper­i­ment that elim­i­nat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of dis­crim­i­na­tion based on taste or sta­tis­tics, to test whether belief-based dis­crim­i­na­tion could account for gen­der bias on its own.

They want­ed to know why orga­ni­za­tions might fail to select high-per­form­ing women for jobs at which the women would excel.

They divid­ed MBA stu­dents into teams and had each team select a leader to rep­re­sent them in a com­pe­ti­tion, which involved doing a series of cal­cu­la­tions. The sub­jects in the study had all pre­vi­ous­ly per­formed the same task, two years ear­li­er, so they could use their past per­for­mance as a means of pre­dict­ing their chances of win­ning this time around. Before the selec­tion took place, the stu­dents were asked to recall how well they had done in the same task two years ago. They were also asked to pre­dict how well they would do on the same task again.

Mem­bers of the team whose leader won the com­pe­ti­tion all received a cash prize, so every­one on the team had a clear incen­tive to choose the best leader; the leader received no more mon­ey than any­one else. Teams had five min­utes in which each par­tic­i­pant could make the case for how well they thought they would do in the com­pe­ti­tion, and then to choose a leader based on that infor­ma­tion. Bar­ring any explic­it dis­crim­i­na­tion against women — which would be unlike­ly in an exper­i­ment with uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents — groups should aim to select their most tal­ent­ed indi­vid­ual irre­spec­tive of gen­der,” Sapien­za and her col­leagues wrote.

But that is not what hap­pened. Instead, women were select­ed as group lead­ers 33.3 per­cent less fre­quent­ly than they should have been based sole­ly on how well they did in the ear­li­er com­pe­ti­tion. Women are select­ed much less often as lead­ers than is sug­gest­ed by their indi­vid­ual past per­for­mance,” the researchers wrote.

There is big evi­dence, even among women MBAs, that ten years out women tend to earn 60 per­cent less than men,” Sapien­za explains, even when they start in the same field with very sim­i­lar salaries. The ques­tion is, Why do women lag behind over time? To what extent is it the result of eval­u­a­tion that’s done out­side, and how much does it inter­act with the self-pro­mo­tion of men and women?”

Boast­ful Behav­ior
To under­stand what was dri­ving their results, Sapien­za and her col­leagues test­ed three pos­si­ble the­o­ries as to why women may be less fre­quent­ly select­ed as lead­ers. The first was a dif­fer­ence in the way men and women judge their own abil­i­ties. The sec­ond was a dif­fer­ence in how men and women describe their own abil­i­ties. And the third was a dif­fer­ence in how men and women deal with what the researchers call agency prob­lems,” or how they respond to con­flicts of inter­est between their own inter­est and the group’s.”

The answer turned out to be the­o­ry num­ber two. By far the most impor­tant rea­son why women were being under­rep­re­sent­ed as team lead­ers was how they por­trayed their abil­i­ties rel­a­tive to men’s. Both men and women in the study were inclined to over­state how well they had done in the ear­li­er com­pe­ti­tion and how well they would do in the future, but men were far more will­ing to do so.

What trou­bled Sapien­za and her col­leagues, though, was not that women tend­ed to over­state their abil­i­ties less than men. It was that the peo­ple eval­u­at­ing can­di­dates for lead­er­ship did not dis­count men’s ten­den­cy to boast more. The fact that men tend to over­state, that’s not a sur­prise,” Sapien­za says. But if every­one knows that, why don’t they just say, If men say 5, it must be 3.’ There is some dis­count­ing, but it’s very minimal.”

These bias­es are a cause for some con­cern — in the real world, com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions that can iden­ti­fy and choose their best mem­bers have an advan­tage over those that can­not. On a per­son­al lev­el, to over­come this, women are typ­i­cal­ly coached to boast more, Sapien­za says. But that does not help com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions, which would then face a field of can­di­dates who great­ly inflate their report­ed abil­i­ties. The solu­tion, Sapien­za sug­gests, is to hand­i­cap the biggest brag­garts, lev­el­ing the play­ing field for everyone.

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight

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Featured Faculty

Paola Sapienza

Donald C. Clark/HSBC Chair in Consumer Finance, Professor of Finance, and Zell Center Faculty Fellow

About the Writer

Hillary Rosner is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

About the Research

Sapienza, Paola, Ernesto Reuben, Pedro Rey-Biel, and Luigi Zingales. 2012. “The Emergence of Male Leadership in Competitive Environments.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 83(1): 111-117.

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