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When competing for social status, men perform better while women do worse

23 October 2023
When knowing that their own performance will be compared to others, men’s performance improves while women’s performance declines, according to experimental research by Klarita Gërxhani, Professor of Socio-Economics. The main reasons are that in such a competitive setting, men believe that they are better than women, while women reduce their performance due to their adherence to a prescribed stereotype of being kind and not harming others.

Klarita Gërxhani joined Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in January 2023, where she leads the new department of Ethics, Governance and Society. We talked to her about her research and the new department within the School of Business and Economics.

Gërxhani obtained her PhD in institutional economics at the Tinbergen Institute and the Economics Faculty of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) in 2002. Since then she has published in numerous top journals in economics, followed by top publications in management and sociological research. Publishing research in three fields makes Gërxhani anything but an average economist.

Recently, her research was accepted in the American Journal of Sociology, a leading journal in sociology. "That is my signal to the outside world that I am not only an economist, but also have a lot of knowledge in the field of sociology," Gërxhani said.

In this research, she combines insights from behavioral economics on how women and men compete with insights from sociology on social status. Gërxhani explains: "From research in economics, we know that men perform better when they have to compete with women for the same job or promotion. Whereas women tend to underperform when there is competition."

Her research contributes to this knowledge by showing that even when there is no job or other resources at stake, but there is simply a comparison between the performance of men and women, men outperform women. "That has to do with social status," Gërxhani explains. "In five different laboratory experiments, we had students solve a simple mathematics problem. Women and men were equally good at it. The results changed when we told one group of participants that they would be ranked based on their performance and that their rankings would be known by a peer: The men in this group solved about 40 per cent more maths problems than the women in the group."

The research also provides insights into the underlying mechanisms. Men’s conscious or subconscious belief that they are better than women causes men to excel in competitive settings. Women, on the other hand, underperform when compared, because they believe they ought to be kind and not harm others. "Women do not believe that they are worse than men, but they do take into account the societal norm that 'women should be nice and empathetic'. As a result, they underperform," explains Gërxhani.

Organisations that use performance reviews need to be aware of these behavioural effects, says Gërxhani. It is one of the reasons why she considered having a managerial position and ended up at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, School of Business and Economics. "Now I am a manager myself and have an influence on policy, for example regarding performance reviews, assessments and equality in the workplace."

Working together
As a role model for multidisciplinary research, Gërxhani also wants to encourage cooperation within the new department Ethics, Governance and Society. The department comprises researchers from very different backgrounds, such as behavioural economics, health economics, political science, mathematics and business administration.

As head of the department, she encourages cooperation between the different research groups and also provides funding for it, when possible. "Especially young researchers are very grateful for this opportunity and are open to interdisciplinary collaboration," Gërxhani notes. Some researchers have yet to get used to the collaboration, but she hopes this will soon change. "When people from different perspectives work together, it generates new ideas and better research," Gërxhani says.

Diversity and inclusion
Another area of focus for Gërxhani is diversity and inclusion. "From my research, I know a lot about gender inequality, what causes it and what can be done. But I can also speak from my own experience. As a woman from a migration background, I have often faced barriers. Women going through the same experience now come to me for advice."

Gërxhani chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce at the School of Business and Economics. The taskforce will use administrative data, surveys and focus groups to examine the extent to which the faculty is diverse and how different groups of people, regardless of their demographics, feel connected, respected and valued. The ultimate goal of the taskforce is to propose policy recommendations. "Frankly, I was already very busy, but from the moment I started doing research on gender inequality, I can't let it go anymore. There really is a lot to be achieved. I'm doing this so it will be easier for the next generation."

Interview in Het Financieele Dagblad
Gërxhani was recently interviewed by the newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad about her research on gender differences under competition and her own experiences in the workplace. The interview was mentioned on the frontpage and can be read on

Summer course Gender in Society
In 2024, Klarita Gërxhani and assistant professor Katharina Brütt are teaching the summer school 'Gender in Society'. The lessons takes place from 8 July - 12 July in Amsterdam. This summer school aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the connection between gender and society. It takes an interdisciplinary approach to explore various trends and theoretical perspectives, applied to significant societal challenges such as the wage gap between genders and the underrepresentation of women in various domains.

More information
Would you like to know more about research at VU School of Business and Economics? Contact science communicator Yrla van de Ven, or 06-26512492.