Men and women react differently to competitive pressure, with males outperforming females as competitive pressure increases.

This is the conclusion of a study by Nagore Iriberri and Pedro Rey Biel, published in the May 2019 issue of The Economic Journal, which focused on a two-stage mathematics contest in Madrid and found that males outperformed females in both stages of the contest, with the difference widening in the second stage as competitive pressure increased – an observation with important implications for the professional world.

Many organisations have a vertical hierarchical structure, with a large base of workers and a top layer of very few, highly-rewarded positions. These hierarchical structures include features of a multi-stage elimination contest in which only the fittest survive to reach the final stages of the competition, where a few highly rewarded positions lie at the top.

Men hold a larger portion of the highest-ranked occupations in what is frequently referred to as the ‘glass ceiling effect’: looking at the five highest-paid executives in each of a large number of US firms for 1992-1997, Bertrand and Hallock (2001) find that women represent only 2.5% of the sample (1,134 women out of 46,708 executives).

In the last decade, behavioural differences between men and women have been put forward as a complementary explanation for the glass ceiling effect. Available field data to test for gender differences in performance in multi-stage competitions is scarce, but a two-stage mathematics contest in the region of Madrid – where students compete to pass from stage 1 to stage 2, and then to be among the winners – offered an interesting opportunity to study the gender gap in performance as competitive pressure increases.

The two-stage contest in mathematics consists of a maths test of 25 multiple-choice questions to be completed in 90 minutes, where omitted questions score differently from wrongly answered questions. The first stage occurs at the school level, where there are fewer participants. The second stage occurs at the regional level, where the pool of participants is larger and consists of the best performers from stage 1, who are less familiar with one another. These features make competitive pressure higher in the second stage than in the first.

Female students have slightly better maths grades at school – 8.42 and 8.33 out of 10 for female and male students, respectively – although this difference is not significant. However, male participants perform better in both stages of the contest, and the gender difference in performance increases, for all age groups, from stage 1 to stage 2. By following the same individual participant across different stages, the researchers found that the gender gap in performance increased from stage 1 to stage 2, from 4.9 to 7.2 exam points. This difference is explained by female participants leaving more omitted questions than boys and a greater relative increase in the number of omitted questions from stage 1 to stage 2.

It could well be that inherent gender differences exist in the ability to perform under the competitive pressure, but the authors acknowledge several alternative explanations for the phenomenon. One possible explanation is that male and female participants attach different values to winning in different stages, and accordingly, may prepare differently for each of the stages. It could also be that parents and teachers have different expectations with respect to boys and girls and thus exercise different degrees of pressure on them.

Whatever the reason, the study provides an interesting picture of the gender competitiveness gap in microcosm.

'Competitive pressure widens the gender gap in performance: Evidence from a two-stage competition in mathematics' by N Iriberri and P Rey Biel


Baldiga, K (2014) “Gender differerences in willingness to guess”, Management Science, 60(2): 434–448.

Bertrand, M and K Hallock (2001) “The gender gap in top corporate jobs”, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 55: 3–21.

Ellison, G and A Swanson (2010) “The gender gap in secondary school mathematics at high achievement levels: Evidence from the American Mathematics Competitions”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24(2): 109–28.

Gneezy, U, M Niederle and A Rustichini (2003) “Performance in competitive environments: Gender differences”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118 (3):1049–1074.

Nagore Iriberri

Ikerbasque Research Professor at University of the Basque Country

Pedro Rey Biel

Associate Professor at ESADE