Addressing gender inequality via choice architecture

Addressing gender inequality via choice architecture

Joyce He, Sonia Kang, Nicola Lacetera 08 February 2020

Many work environments require their workers to use for promotions, an activity that results in fewer women opting to compete. This column presents evidence to claim that changing promotion schemes to a default where many people are considered but gets the substitute for ‘opt out’ may help close the gender gap in applications to compete for promotions.


Only three women have obtained the Nobel Prize in Physics. The newest of these, Donna Strickland, held the rank of Associate Professor when she was awarded the prize. Positive reactions to her win was included with puzzlement over how this eminent scientist hadn’t yet been appointed a complete Professor. Giving an answer to a reporter’s question about the problem, Strickland explained simply: “I never applied” (BBC World Service 2018).

The gender gap in the propensity to use and compete for promotions goes well beyond an individual anecdote. Indeed, explanations for the gender promotion gap abound. Some scholars concentrate on employer-side bias and discrimination against women (Heilman et al. 2004, Milkman et al. 2015, Riach and Rich 2006). Others attribute the gap to gender differences in behaviours that facilitate career advancements, such as for example negotiating an increased salary (Bowles et al. 2007). Another body of research shows that women usually do not advance to powerful positions because, as inside our motivating example, they just usually do not apply, or ‘compete’, for competitive selection processes (e.g. rewards and promotions). Past research has discovered that women are not as likely than men to take part in competition, in the lack of any performance differences (for an assessment, see Niederle and Vesterlund 2011). Women are less inclined to take part in competitive selection processes that want self-nomination, particularly when putting themselves forward risks provoking backlash or social rejection (Amanatullah and Morris 2010, Bosquet et al. 2018, Moss-Racusin and Rudman 2010).

The gender gap in competition has important consequences for gender equality in the labour market and in organisations, because competitions are pervasive in both pipeline to employment and within organisations. Competition is necessary for from university admissions, scholarship and award applications to extracurricular activities, job applications, and promotions.

Applying a choice architecture lens to competitive selection processes

In a recently available paper (He et al, 2019), we have a closer consider the architecture of competitive selection processes to examine if the framing of the decision to take part in competitive selection processes affects the gender gap in participation in competition. Typically, competitive selection process (e.g. promotions) require participants to self-nominate. Basically, individuals must actively apply, or ‘opt in’, as the default option is never to participate.

Drawing on the literature on choice architecture, we explore whether using an ‘opt-out’ frame (i.e. making competition the default) leads to greater participation in competition for women (Down et al. 2009, Johnso et al. 2002). Opt-out framing exploits the tendency to stick to a default condition to encourage enrolment right into a desired option by making that choice the default. Opt-out framing has successfully increased enrolments in retirement savings and organ donation programmes (Choi et al. 2002, Johnson and Goldstein 2003).

To check this research question, we recruited 482 undergraduate students to take part in our study. We told participants that they might complete multiple rounds of a maths task requiring them to include up double-digit numbers, and they had five minutes each round to complete as much questions correctly because they could (that is a well-established experimental task; e.g. Niederle and Vesterlund 2007). They completed three rounds of the task, and the compensation changed for every round. In the first round, participants received $0.50 per correct answer; this is the non-competitive piece-rate compensation. In the next round, a participant’s number of correct answers was in comparison to three other participants in the area (competitive tournament compensation). If their score was the best, they won $2 per correct answer; if not, they won nothing. Finally, in the 3rd round, participants had the choice to select either compensation scheme. We introduced random assignment to treatments at this time.

Specifically, participants were randomly assigned to an opt-in or opt-out frame of the decision to compete. In the opt-in condition, participants were told that they might be paid $0.50 per correct answer (the non-competitive piece rate), however they had the choice to opt into the competitive tournament. Put simply, the default was never to compete, with the choice to opt directly into compete. In the opt-out condition, participants were automatically signed up for the competitive tournament, but told that that they had the choice to opt out to the non-competitive piece-rate compensation. In this treatment, the default was to compete, with the choice to opt out of competition.

We discovered that women and men performed equally on the maths task. However, in the opt-in condition, only 47% of women thought we would opt into the competitive tournament, in comparison to 72% of men. Put simply, we replicate findings from previous literature and show that in the lack of performance differences, women are significantly less more likely to compete.

Figure 1 Selection of compensation in Stage 3 of Study 1

Notes: ‘Opt in’ indicates that participants were in the problem with a piece-rate default compensation. ‘Opt out’ indicates the problem that assigned participants to competing by default in a winner-take-all tournament within each band of four, but allowed them to opt-out and instead be compensated on a piece-rate basis. The vertical lines represent 95% confidence interval for the mean percentages.

When we turn to the opt-out condition, the email address details are again striking: 76% of men thought we would compete; but this time around, 75% of women also thought we would compete. Quite simply, the gender gap we seen in the opt-in condition (in keeping with past research), was eliminated in the opt-out condition. When competition was the default, women were just as likely as men to compete.

Although these email address details are encouraging, a few concerns remained. By nudging women to compete more, are we truly encouraging women to behave with techniques that benefit them, or will we see unintended negative consequences for performance or broader wellbeing? Fortunately, our results claim that the response to this question may be the former. Women who were nudged to compete didn’t perform worse and didn’t experience more anxiety. Instead, we discovered that women were actually much more likely to produce a payoff-maximising choice in the opt-out condition compared to the opt-in condition.

Figure 2 Correct responses and anxiety levels by condition, choice and gender

Notes: An increased value indicates an increased anxiety score. The vertical lines indicate 95% confidence interval for the mean percentages.

Beyond these initial results, we obtained nearly identical findings in a replication that also explored why women will choose competition under an opt-out frame. The results of the study claim that participants in the opt-out frame expected more participants (especially those of their own gender) to find the competitive tournament compensation in comparison to participants in the opt-in frame condition. Thus, opt-out framing might encourage women to compete more by changing a ‘descriptive’ social norm. Further, in another experiment, we examined whether using an opt-out versus opt-in choice architecture for competition would affect the chance that evaluators would choose to market a female, and found no such difference.

Implications and conclusion

Previous knowledge of the gender gap in competition suggested that women take part in competition less often than men because they have a different ‘taste’ for these behaviours, implying that women are not as likely than men to activate in these behaviours across most, if not absolutely all, contexts. Our results show that women’s lower propensity to compete isn’t absolute, and that under certain contexts, women are simply as likely as men to compete. Specifically, our results claim that women may compete less not because they’re simply less competitive, but because they’re responding differently to situational influences (e.g. defaults).

These implications have relevance for organisations looking to close the gender gap in a better job. To date, popular interventions to lessen the gender gap in hiring and promotion have primarily centered on diversity training (often by means of unconscious bias training), or coaching women to become more active and visible at the job – to “lean in” as Sheryl Sandberg puts it (2013). Both these approaches have met with mixed success regardless of the huge amount of money invested. Unconscious bias training has mixed effects on attitudes (Kalev et al. 2006, Leslie 2018, Macrae et al. 1994, Sanchez and Medkik 2004), and little to no influence on behaviour (Chang et al. 2019). Meanwhile, coaching women to negotiate better and act more assertively puts them vulnerable to facing backlash for adopting these more stereotypically ‘masculine’ behaviours (Moss-Racusin and Rudman 2010, Rudman 1998, Rudman and Glick 2001), and in addition runs the chance of attributing responsibility for both causing and fixing the problem to women themselves (Fitzsimons et al. 2018, Kim et al. 2018).

Our research suggests a fresh approach: instead of wanting to change people’s minds and biases or trying to ‘fix the women’, we focus instead on structural changes designed to de-bias organisations. Biases and systematic barriers tend to be built into the machine itself. For example, an opt-in promotion frame advantages those people who are more comfortable and more likely to self-promote, compete, and self-nominate. Our results claim that framing this decision as an opt-out choice will make the process fairer for everybody.

Although we are in need of more research to directly apply opt-out framing for competitive selection processes in organisations (i.e. promotions), our results question the long-held assumption that women are simply just less competitive than men, and challenge organisations to think about their own policies and processes to see if bias could be hidden within their choice architectures.


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