Braggarts Become Leaders
Skip to content
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.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

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

The Biochemistry of Financial Risk: Testosterone’s influence on financial decisions

Performing Best When It Matters Most: Critical ability is a key to success

Featured Faculty

Donald C. Clark/HSBC Chair in Consumer Finance; Professor of Finance

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.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. How Much Do Boycotts Affect a Company’s Bottom Line?
    There’s often an opposing camp pushing for a “buycott” to support the company. New research shows which group has more sway.
    grocery store aisle where two groups of people protest. One group is boycotting, while the other is buycotting
  2. 5 Takeaways on the State of ESG Investing
    ESG investing is hot. But what does it actually deliver for society and for shareholders?
    watering can pouring over windmills
  3. Could Bringing Your "Whole Self" to Work Curb Unethical Behavior?
    Organizations would be wise to help employees avoid compartmentalizing their personal and professional identities.
    A star employee brings her whole self to work.
  4. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  5. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  6. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  7. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  10. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  11. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  12. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  13. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  14. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  15. In a World of Widespread Video Sharing, What’s Real and What’s Not?
    A discussion with a video-authentication expert on what it takes to unearth “deepfakes.”
    A detective pulls back his computer screen to reveal code behind the video image.
  16. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
More in Politics & Elections